Review: Mumbai Murmurings; 213 Tiny Tales of Theatre by Ramu Ramanathan - Hindustan Times
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Review: Mumbai Murmurings; 213 Tiny Tales of Theatre by Ramu Ramanathan

ByMahmood Farooqui
Jun 15, 2024 08:48 AM IST

A record of theatre personalities in Mumbai and Maharashtra through entries comprising brief life facts, illustrative anecdotes, and samples of work, Ramu Ramanathan’s Mumbai Murmurings surprises and delights at every turn

In the middle of this marvellous tazkirah of theatre in Mumbai, and Maharashtra, Ramu Ramanathan expresses his amazement that Patthe Bapurao, the doyen of tamasha, a Marathi folk form, wrote over 16,000 songs, especially lavanis. He explains that he was amazed to discover this fact because he thought he knew a thing or two about theatre. As we know, the present day crossing of Golpitha and Falkland Road, the red light district in Mumbai, is named after Bapurao. Golpitha has, of course, been immortalised in Indian literary history by erstwhile Dalit Panther and legendary poet of resistance, Namdeo Dhasal.

A play being performed at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai. (Prasad Gori/Hindustan Times)
A play being performed at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai. (Prasad Gori/Hindustan Times)

pp210, ₹640; Manipal University Press
pp210, ₹640; Manipal University Press

I thought that I knew a thing or two about theatre in India but Ramanthan’s book has left me gasping at my ignorance and former smugness in the same measure. Like the pre-modern Persian and Urdu tazkirahs about Sufis and poets, this book that alphabetically chronicles theatre personalities through entries comprising brief life facts, illustrative anecdotes, and samples of work, is a discovery of delights at every turn. For instance: at the height of his theatre superstardom, Sriram Lagoo was playing three lead roles in three blockbuster Marathi plays, Natasamarta, Himalaychi Savili and Gidhade, on a single day! Lagoo also travelled across Maharashtra to raise funds for the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and for the slain rationalist Narendra Dabholkar’s Andhsradha Nirmoolan Samiti. And yet, even during his heyday, he could not muster more than five people to see his performance of Mohan Rakesh’s Asarh Ka Ek Din at the Royal Opera House.

To understand the range of this book, sample this. Before the pandemic, Mumbai saw nearly 1,500 theatre shows every month mostly in Hindi, English, Gujarati and Marathi. The top Marathi and Gujarati plays could net 2.5 lakhs for each show and the annual turnover for Marathi theatre could go up to 20 crores per annum. In addition, there are plays in Konkani, Urdu, Kannada, Telugu and Malvani. Mumbai is also, of course, the city of theatre festivals, the NCPA, Nehru Centre, Avishkar, Prithvi, Thespo, Mumbai theatre festival, the Kamgar festival, Bhavan’s cultural festival, a week of Marathi Prayogik plays, and the IIT theatre festival, among many others. Remarkably, all this happens despite the Kafakesque labyrinth of permissions, NOCs, and clearances required before putting up a show: NOCs and clearances from the state office cultural secretary; NOC from BMC after paying venue charges and deposits; BMC show department’s NOC; fire brigade NOC; PWD electrical and stage compliance report; collector Mumbai for entertainment tax clearance after pre-payment of entertainment tax; police station NOC; RTO NOC, RTO bandobast charges, DCP Zone, Rangbhoomi permission for script and lyrics; censor board clearance and police station permission in the ward. And yet, theatre abounds! This work is a fascinating celebration of that spirit.

Like the city he so lovingly chronicles, Ramanathan is from everywhere, is everyman, and wears many hats. He is a celebrated playwright of plays such as Mahadev Bhai (now in its 22nd year of performance in English, Marathi, and Hindi), Cotton 56 Polyester 84 and Comrade Kumbhkaran. He is also a poet, editor (notably of Babri Masjid: 25 Years with Irfan Engineer and Samina Dalwai), and a copy editor, apart from being the most multilingual cultural practitioner in the country. He cut his teeth in Mumbai’s fiercely competitive Inter-College One Act competition, where Badal Sircar, the complex playwright of protest, action and chorus, still remains the most popular writer. The St Xavier’s that he entered, around the same time as the social activist Arun Farreira, was epitomized in a play called Snafu by Iqbal Khwaja. In it, a low brow Raghu More from Bhandup enters St Xavier’s, where the college anthem was a somewhat high brow:

‘Aristotle, Socrates and SpinozaMarx and Lennon, and TravoltaRight or Wrong we play this gameGive my regards to Mary Jane’

Actor Shriram Lagoo in a picture dated 05 September, 1990. (Maan Singh Deep/HT Photo)
Actor Shriram Lagoo in a picture dated 05 September, 1990. (Maan Singh Deep/HT Photo)

In several entries, Ramu writes about tamasha, and its deep antecedents in Marathi culture. There are still some 150 touring groups which actively perform it all over Maharashtra, and although it is castigated for its misogyny and the exploitation of its artistes, it is a multifarious genre. A lower caste, lower class form of entertainment, it is also irreverent. In it, a lok shahir or a folk poet could criticise Lord Rama for deserting his wife, and a jester could ridicule a minister. Once, when the filmmaker Jabbar Patel asked lavani queen Shakuntala Nagarkar to do less, she protested saying that “When I hold a pose and gaze into the darkness, a man in the auditorium believes ‘She is mine, and so I must pay her!’” Lavani or tamasha is not just performed, explains a critic, it has to be played. Unfortunately, it is increasingly being squeezed out. Perhaps one can now understand why the poet who most impressed Pablo Neruda during his visit to India was not some modern Europeanised voice, but Amar Sheikh, the balladeer or pawda singer who played such a critical role in the rise of a new political theatre in India with IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). Amar Sheikh, Anna Bhau Sathe, and Gangaram Gavankar, the big three founding voices of modern Marathi theatre and music, as well as radical poets such as Narayan Surve, successfully created bridges between pre-modern Marathi cultural traditions, workers, mills, chawls, modern Bombay and the progressive movement. Sathe wrote and performed 18 to 20 tamashas and about eight powadas, which brought together the songs of the people with popular movements. During the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, his tamasha, Majhi Mumbai became so popular that Morarji Desai banned it. Plays such as Sateche Ghulam and Bhumikanya Sita by Mama Warrekar discussed religious traditions, class, caste as well as Gandhi and Marx, and provided a different kind of bond with the working class. Incidentally, it was Warrekar who suggested to Nehru that Ebrahim Alkazi, then a young director in Bombay, should head the National School of Drama.

All who have seen it swear by the finale of the film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, where a performance of the Mahabhrata degenerates into a farce. It so happens that around the same time as the film was made, the actor-director Machhendra Kambli had started staging Vastraharan, a farce centred around the staging of the Mahabharata. The play has now done over 5000 shows, and is still being performed as I write. It was first written by Gavankar when he was a student at JJ School of Art, and emerged from his experience of watching Dashavtari folk theatre, which centres around tales from the Puranas. Like the film Sholay, it initially had a modest run and would have been shut down had PuLa or PL Deshpande, writer-actor-dramatist-solo performer, not blown its trumpet by sending a letter saying he wished he could act in it. The letter duly found its way into the play’s publicity material in the papers. Since then, this three-hour long rustic show in the Malvani dialect has travelled across the country, and abroad. I saw it at the Prithvi Theatre festival in 2002. It is the only play in the country, perhaps, whose tickets are sold in black. When Kambli, who played the lead role in the play 4923 times and also performed in 6000 shows of other plays, died, the funeral at Maratha Mandir was attended by the who’s who of Mumbai including the then chief minister Sharad Pawar.

Some of the most wonderful sections of this book serenade the unsung and the unknown, such as Chandra Patil, the make-up man for over 5000 shows of Vastraharan and Kamal Shedge, who created single column ads for Marathi newspapers for decades, or Baloo Maruti Vaskar, the chai server at Shivaji Mandir, at one time the Mecca of commercial Marathi theatre. The decline of the mills, the workers movement, and the shutting down of the balcony of that legendary hall coincided. Ramanathan writes of the now deceased Tiwariji of Prithvi – whom I missed when I performed there last year – consoling him after his play, Collaborators, ran for 17 shows, often for an audience of not more than 17 people! “Look into the sky, even the sky is empty but tomorrow the stars shall be twinkling!” he said. With Tiwariji, Ramu attended the memorial service for Baba Sathe, the ticket seller at Prithvi. A theatre critic himself, the condolence meeting for Baba Sathe drew not just the biggies of theatre but also film personalities such as Amrish Puri and Ramesh Sippy. He writes of the King of Biraha, the Bhojpuri singer Hyder Ali, and of his muqabla with Pappu Yadav over Rasiya, Birha and folk qawwali. Hyder Ali’s concerts in Mumbai often draw thousands and he also discusses Hindu parables, gossips about gods and goddesses and displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Puranas, while still regaling his audience with a song about the friendship between a Hindu and a Muslim girl.

The Sassoon Docks in Mumbai. Gentrification has meant that workers and poorer people are increasingly being squeezed out of these areas. (Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)
The Sassoon Docks in Mumbai. Gentrification has meant that workers and poorer people are increasingly being squeezed out of these areas. (Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)

The book reminds us that Maharasthra has been India’s crucial laboratory for many conflicting ideas. It is the land of the sant-poets, such as Dhyaneshwar, Namdeo and Tukaram, of political professional poets such as Bhushan who wrote panegyrics to Shivaji, but also the land of Phule, Savitri Bai, Ambedkar and Tilak. It is equally also the land of Hindu fundamentalism, the birth place of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, and the state where Gandhi’s assassins hatched their plan. Like the United States, it has been the best of worlds as well as the worst of worlds. Through multiple entries, Ramu traces the intermeshing of theatre, culture and politics in the state. There is the Vidrohi Chalwal, the counter code to the mainstream Sahitya Sammelan at Shivaji Park, the world of rebel lok shaahir or popular poets such as Vilas Ghonghre, who reinvented lokshahiri in the tradition of Amar Sheikh and Annabhau Sathe by adapting it for cutting edge protest politics, before taking his own life in protest at the desecration of Ambedkar’s statue in 1997. The political folk performances continue with Sambhaji Bhagat, the son of a cobbler who read Marx in English, and who inspired and featured in the film, Court. His work Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla has had a thousand shows, which have made the politics of Phule, Ambedkar and Marx clear and accessible to everyone. Another famous performer is Shishir Vithal Umap whose Jambol Akhyan is based on a fable in the Mahabharata about Draupadi’s attraction for Karna. Umap honed the traditional storytelling Gondhbal form into a powerful modern show, which won him the first prize at an international folk, music and art festival in Cork, UK. There is Premananad Gajavi and his tableau Ghatobhar Pani, on the issue of water, with over a thousand shows, which touch upon untouchability, Brahminism, death rites, and Hindu hypocrisy. There is Ratnakar Matkari, the writer of social plays who has worked with children in bastis, and for the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Author Ramu Ramanathan (Wikimedia Commons)
Author Ramu Ramanathan (Wikimedia Commons)

The book obviously features many of the modern greats of Marathi stage such as Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchhwar and Satish Alekar. Yet, Ramanathan manages to shine a different kind of spotlight on them, like Tendulkar’s documentation of violence in Indian prisons, or his six plays for children which he wrote at the instance of Sulbha Deshpande. She was instrumental in galvanizing Rangayan, the experimental theatre group which often performed in the Chhabildas auditorium, in the basement of which actors and directors, such as Shafaat Khan, conducted all night addas. The journey of Tendulkar’s Ghasiram Kotwal, and the legal and political troubles it faced, is mentioned via a book called Ghasiram Ek Vaadal, which chronicles the Pune Theatre Academy’s internationally renowned production and the role played by the sahebs from Baramati and Matoshree in determining its fate.

There are some wonderful ideas about theatre too. Kavalam Narayana Panicker, renowned for reviving Sanskrit plays in modern India, was influenced by the great Kathakali performer Vallathol, who alerted him to the fact that contemporary theatre practice was much removed from the Indian tradition of total theatre. Classical Indian theatre stressed on visuals rather than the spoken word; performance was more important than text. This is a thought echoed by Rajeev Naik, who explains that there is scripted theatre and there is folk theatre. The text is seen to be powerful in urban, middle class theatre, “whereas in parallel and folk theatre, the performance is supreme.” We meet doyens of Gujarati theatre such as Paresh Daru and Chhel, who have designed more than 700 plays for Marathi, Gujarati and English theatre, or Naushil Mehta, who explored Mumbai through a Ghatkopar chawl in Devno Deedhael, and a park in Lovin Mumbai. His one-act play Apghat Kare Chee was first performed in English by and as, Ashutosh Gowariker Commits Suicide, and was adapted for the big screen as Hero Hiralal. We meet Kanti Madia whose plays inspired films such as Mili, Namak Halal and Chori Chori Chupe Chupke. There is a wonderful vignette about how Ramanathan came to discover back issues of Prithvi Theatre Notes, first published by Jennifer Kapoor, and how he revived it under Sanjana Kapoor.

This is a tazkirah of theatre, but also an ode to Mumbai, where all these teeming worlds come together, and where alternate spaces are once again flourishing, where 22 different dialects may be spoken in one tiny neighbourhood near the docks, but where workers and poorer people are increasingly being squeezed out. It is also an ode to Mumbai’s uncelebrated chroniclers such as Manohar Shyam Joshi and Abdus Sattar Dalvi. This is a must read for all who are interested in theatre, in Mumbai, in modern Indian literature, in the art of protest and resistance, and who love the word and the stage.

Mahmood Farooqui is known for reviving Dastangoi and will be presenting a bunch of Dastans, old and new at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, in June.

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