Stage Right: A New Book Documents The History Of Experimental Theatre In Mumbai
Akash Ganga at Breach Candy is an ordinary high-rise. Residents of the neighbourhood might know it because it houses a post office and was once the address of a popular beauty parlour called Tokyo, whose owner was noticeable in the area because she rode a flashy motorbike to work. The plot on which Akash Ganga stands however, has a remarkable past. The building is on the spot previously occupied by the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute. Today, that name means little to anyone except for the people who were part of the city’s cultural scene in the 1950s and ’60s. That was when the Institute was a sort of laboratory for theatrewallahs, artists and musicians. It was one of three places, along with Walchand Terrace and Chhabildas School, that were crucibles of theatre in Mumbai at various points in time until the early 1990s. Walchand Terrace and Chhabildas School still exist, but no theatre performances take place there.
There was barely any documentation about these venues until The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai was published in December 2015. Edited by writer Shanta Gokhale and spearheaded by theatre director Sunil Shanbag, the book is a collection of memories of artists and theatrewallahs who had worked in these places. The Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute is the oldest of the three. The institute was set up some time in 1946 after the death of lawyer and freedom fighter Bhulabhai Desai (after whom Breach Candy is officially named) by his daughter-in-law Madhuri Desai. A one-storey bungalow surrounded by a lawn, the institute had studios where artists such as M. F. Husain, Vasudeo Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Nalini Malani and Akbar Padamsee, among others, practiced. Theatre directors Ebrahim Alkazi, Satyadev Dubey and Vijaya Mehta rehearsed there. Sitar player Ravi Shankar ran a music school called Kinnara on the premises. The place was managed by Desai’s aide Soli Batliwala, a polarising figure whose high-handed ways put off many artists.
From all accounts, the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute was an enormously fruitful hive of cultural activity. Alkazi trained the early generation of post-Independence English language theatrewallahs such as Alqyque Padamsee, Sylvester Da Cunha and Deryck Jefferies at the centre. Most of his students interviewed for the book recall him being an excellent teacher. Padamsee remembers Alkazi as a stern tutor who disapproved of actors laughing at rehearsal. He says, “Many of us got into trouble, including me because I love fun…I thought theatre was to enjoy in rehearsal, if you’re playing a serious part you play it seriously, you come off, you may have a drink, crack a joke with friends and have a good time. It’s not religion! But Alkazi felt it was religion…and in church you don’t laugh.”
By the end of the 1960s, the institute had shut and the plot on which it stood was sold to a builder. Theatrewallahs were without a place to rehearse. This is when the late industrialist Vinod Doshi offered Satyadev Dubey the ground floor of Walchand Terrace, a building in Tardeo owned by the Lalchand Hirachand Group, of which Doshi was a partner. Over the next five years, the place – a large hall and two smaller rooms – became Dubey’s fief. He also lived there. Dubey is recalled in the book as a charismatic, dominating figure whose great talent was interpreting texts in novel ways. Amol Palekar remembers that actors were often scared of him. Yet he was popular and for those five years Walchand Terrace was an adda drawing writers and actors like Girish Karnad, Sunil Pradhan, Amol Palekar, Ratna Pathak Shah, Mohan Rakesh and Badal Sircar. Evenings were for drunken parties. Smokers were instructed to stub their cigarettes on the floor, which would be cleaned by actors the next morning as some sort of rite of passage.
The space at Walchand Terrace had to be relinquished by around 1972. Theatrewallahs were once again out of a rehearsal place until they found Chhabildas Lallubhai Boys High School in Dadar. The school became the seat of the Marathi theatre group Awishkar from the mid-1970s until 1992, when the school management decided to use the hall for other purposes. The group then moved to a municipal school in Mahim from where it still operates. Awishkar, which was and continues to be run by its indefatigable manager Arun Kakade, allowed other groups to perform there and practically everyone working in non-mainstream Marathi and Hindi theatre in Mumbai rehearsed and staged plays at the school. This period was perhaps creatively the zenith of experimental theatre in the city as some of the country’s greatest playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar wrote their best works at the time. Some of these like G. P. Deshpande’s Uddhwasta Dharamshala, Tendulkar’s Baby and Elkunchwar’s Garbo were performed at Chhabildas.
However the school’s hall wasn’t the most convenient performance space. Since it was in a residential area, neighbourhood TV sets were audible from the stage. Actors could even smell neighbours’ cooking. The stairs that led to the hall were rickety and the iron chairs were uncomfortable. There was little equipment and the lack of budgets meant that only bare-bones theatre could be staged there. Naseeruddin Shah, used to the pageantry of the sort of theatre Alkazi taught at the National School of Drama in Delhi, was appalled when he saw Chhabildas for the first time. “I said, ‘Hell, is this theatre?,’” he says. But the place grew on him. “The most important thing was that it cost almost nothing to perform there. You got all the help you needed. You had a bunch of crazy people around who were willing to chip in any time you asked them to.”
Disclaimer: This writer contributed research to the book.
The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Speaking Tiger, Rs599.