Growing up in a tiny Maharashtrian village (which, even today, has no proper approach road) to becoming the director of India’s most prestigious theatre institution, the National School of Drama (NSD) – Waman Kendre, 57, has certainly trekked a long distance.
Playing the role of a girl (his first ever role, he says, in a 30-minute school play where he just had four lines), to contributing in a major way to Dalit theatre, he’s ticked almost all the right boxes that make for an inspiring life story.
“I was born in Daradwadi, a small village in Maharshtra’s Beed district. It’s still a virgin village in the sense that there’s no real approach road. It probably has about 30 houses, and the odd television set and mobiles,” says Kendre. After studying till class 3, he moved to another small town in Beed, which was closer to a proper school (relatively, of course, it was still 20 km away).
Centrestage: Waman Kendre says Bharat Rang Mahotsav 2015 (1 February-18 February) in Delhi will help in showcasing the diversity of Indian theatre.
But an intimacy with his roots was all-pervasive during these childhood years for Kendre. Most families in his village depended on agriculture as a means of livelihood and Kendre’s father too was into farming.
However, his agrarian background helped Kendre get an introduction to a wide array of folk art forms: "Various folk artists would keep coming by to perform at our aangans. In the evenings there would be tamasha performances that we weren’t allowed to see as kids. It was perceived to be too obscene. But we’d slip out, watch the tamasha and return before the adults in the house could find out!"
It also helped that Kendre’s father was a Bhaarud (Maharashtrian folk art) performer himself, and his uncle was devoted to the art of bhajan singing.
That's all folk...
The exposure to an eclectic mix of performance arts would go on to help Kendre find his feet as a young actor at Delhi’s National School of Drama. “We were asked to sing whatever songs we knew... most students sang old Bollywood numbers because that’s the only major exposure city people usually had.”
When Kendre’s turn came, he said he knew about 500 folk songs. In front of a baffled audience, and then director BV Karanth, Kendre started off with a Ganesh Vandana, following it up with bhajans. But, recognition from peers came to Kendre much before NSD. He went to college in Navgan Mahavidyalay, in Beed district where he studied Arts.
There Kendre, along with his friends, put up folk performances and became quite popular: “We used to perform a traditional musical tribute to the goddess Jagdamba. It was so popular that people showered money on the stage. That helped us fund our way through college!”
It was also in college when Kendre decided to take up theatre seriously – immediately after completing his graduation in 1978, he enrolled in a diploma course in dramatics at Dr. Ambedkar Marathwada University in Aurangabad.
And yes, he was part of Namantar Andolan – the campaign to rename Marathwada University in recognition of BR Ambedkar. He soon became the face of the Dalit Theatre movement in Aurangabad, playing the lead role in a number of Dalit productions of the time, like the 1978 production Thamba Ramarajya Yetay.
He remembers how the first play he did after graduating from NSD – a Marathi play called Zulwa (1987) – had renowned Marathi writer Namdeo Dhasal in tears when he saw it. “The play is about girls who are offered to the goddess Yellamma in certain parts of Maharashtra. When Namdeo saw the production, he said tearfully, ‘Your one production has given a strong voice to a voiceless section of society... something which we strive to do over years.’”
Of work and play
Till now, says Kendre, Zulwa remains a production close to his heart. Some other productions he feels equally proud of include Nati-Goti (1989; based on the life of a differently-abled child and his family), Ranangan (1999; based on the battle of Panipat) and Jaaneman (2002; based on the tribulations of the hijra community).
His most recent production is Ghazab Teri Ada (2014; based on the after-effects of World War I) which will also be staged at the 17th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the flagship theatre festival of NSD in Delhi (1 February - 18 February, 2015).
So how does he view his current role as NSD head? A creative sacrifice on the altar of directorial responsibility? Kendre disagrees. “Balancing responsibilities is quite possible if one really wants to. I enjoy the duties I have now,” he says and adds, “I worked with National Centre For The Performing Arts, Mumbai, for 10 years and a lot of that also involved organisational running. At its theatre development centre, I developed my archiving and research skills. So it worked out that way.”
Pointing to his desk which looks very well organised and neat, Kendre says, “Balance karna aana chahiye... I enjoy these responsibilities as much as my rehearsals. Which is why every evening when I go home, there are hardly any pending papers on my desk!”
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From HT Brunch, February 1
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