‘Much of our syncretic world has gone asunder. But there is still something for everyone’ | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times

‘Much of our syncretic world has gone asunder. But there is still something for everyone’

ByYogesh Pawar
Mar 24, 2024 10:28 AM IST

HT caught up with the author Ramu Ramanathan for a tete-a-tete about the book, theatre’s Mumbai connection and more. Excerpts

Mumbai Murmurings: 213 Tiny Tales of Theatre, a book about the connection between Mumbai and theatre and what lurks beneath is launching on World Theatre Day on 27th March. HT caught up with the author Ramu Ramanathan for a tete-a-tete about the book, theatre’s Mumbai connection and more. Excerpts:

‘Much of our syncretic world has gone asunder. But there is still something for everyone’
‘Much of our syncretic world has gone asunder. But there is still something for everyone’

Mumbai’s theatre movement has been around since pre-Independence. Why did you feel like bringing out Mumbai Murmurings: 213 Tiny Tales of Theatre now?

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I was conducting a lot of online workshops for young theatrewallahs and college and university drama clubs during the two Covid years. A playwright friend, Himali Kothari used to attend these sessions. I tried to narrate stories for young people to help them understand a bit about the masters. Kothari felt these are educative and entertaining and they should be documented before my memory fades. That’s how it began.

But had you not thought of the idea of a book on these lines before? How long has it been in the works?

I used to conduct a talk (formally and informally) called ‘A to Z of Mumbai Theatre.’ I’ve done 25 of them. So the idea has been in my head since eons. As Vinod Kumar Shukla says, you let ideas have vanvaas. Approximately 14 years. I think that’s what I did. I let the idea pickle. Whether at rehearsals or shows, a major chunk of theatre entails waiting. The gupshups and guftagus are the best part of theatre. Plus I had a formal stint as editor of PT Notes, a theatrical periodical which was published by Sanjna Kapoor, for Prithvi Theatre for 10 years and later co-editing the eSTQ bulletin, plus all the theatre writing. All of this has helped. As the French historian Marc Bloch said documentation work can be based on intentional or unintentional sources. That has been my process too.

Other attempts (academic and otherwise) have focused on the history of Mumbai’s theatre movement. Your book locates theatre in its ecosystem. Was that conscious?

This book is neither academic nor is it my personal memoir. It is tiny tales. To examine theatre in Mumbai through stories. And the stories are fun. It helps that my dad is a Tamilian-Malayali and my mother belongs to the Urdu-Punjabi-Haryanvi side. I was born in Kolkata and my spouse is Gujarati. And so, at any point, 7-8 languages are being spoken at home. And each language is a doorway into a new world.

How would you describe your book vis-à-vis others?

Well. Most of the books about Mumbai’s theatre movement are about a theatre company or stars and celebrities. I’ve always sought investigation which is both telescopic and microscopic. I find Bahuroopi by Kolhatkar or the autobiographies by Mama Warerkar and Kiran Nagarkar excellent. That’s what I was trying to do. To tell the untold stories of theatre in a city! This is important. Today, Mumbai is part of what I call ‘cement economy.’ So the policy makers and urban developers pour more and more cement and rebuild the city. This means creating skyscrapers, roads, flyovers at an unprecedented pace and scale. This sort of development has always been a class phenomenon. In Mumbai, it is a lot more accentuated because you are banishing the poor who’ve built this city. At a time when all other arts have capitulated to the tyranny of this urbanisation, theatre helps one understand this mutation better. It is all about the right to our city. The history of Mumbai is an interesting one. Unlike other cities, it is a city built by ‘the dregs of our society.’ And to understand, what kind of city we want, we cannot be divorced from its people.

Interviewing theatre persons, exploring iconic neighbourhoods of theatre I understand. But khanavals (traditional eateries)? Really?

Khanavals in Girangaon were the norm. Even today, some exist. I visited one in Chinchpokli last week. It used to be a community eatery where home-style economic and nutritious meals were served. Now the maushi there has even installed an AC. The point is all kinds of people, including theatrewallahs ate in khanavals. What is interesting is, food is central to theatre. Almost all great playwrights have penned a good food scene. Many Gujarati plays have one excellent food scene. A show in Bhaidas (now renovated) is as much about the play on the stage as it is about the farsan and namkeen circulating in the audience. Even a good rehearsal is usually about what’s cooking. The point is, food is a great unifier. It is not part of the food fascism rampant today.

Hmmm… Interesting! Please explain.

We used to frequent a sociologist’s home in Santa Cruz. Once during a longish discussion about the campaign of a Revolutionary Socialist Party candidate from Jari Mari, the aroma from the next door khanaval wafted in. That’s the first time I ate dal bhatti churma and litti chokka. The reason was simple. Most of the clients were migrant labourers and workers from the unorganised sector. I learnt from a grill welder that Hyder Ali who was the superstar of Birha (a folk perfoming art form popular in the Bhojpuri-speaking regions of UP, Western Bihar and Jharkhand) was coming to perform. At the show, there were hundreds of Biharis gathered in an open air Malad East venue where this ‘Shahrukh Khan of Birha’ was performing. It was an eye-opener. The form needs razor-sharp wit and nimble on-the-feet thinking. The exponent must have a repository of at least 10,000 songs on the tip of his tongue, to trounce his opponent and win the Birha contest. Now isn’t this theatre? And isn’t Hyder Ali like Dantë composing cantos. The only thing is, Dantë composed it in Italian and Hyder Ali belts out his stuff in Bhojpuri. Anyway, the point is, a khanaval became a starting point of this politico-cultural excursion. Obviously it had to become part of the book.

How’ve you ensured the book works universally with readers unfamiliar with Mumbai’s theatre movement?

I’ve delivered the A to Z talk for students in other cities too. Usually there are a couple of people in the audience who seem interested. So I guess those who are keen will read. At the end of the day, theatre is a minority art.

Communism, Socialism, India’s Labour Movement and even the Samyukta Maharashtra movement are have links with Mumbai’s theatre movement. How challenging was it to include it all in the book?

For me, the template is easy. I tell stories from A to Z. This permits me to travel across language, time-periods and ‘isms.’ I concur with Engels when he says, ultimately an artist describes social relationships with the purpose of destroying the conventional ideas, and forcing the thinking public to ask the important questions. I guess, my mantra was non-conformity and doubting the tenets of the established world order.

Theatre was once seen as a means to aid different ‘isms’ -socialism, secularism, anti-communalism, anti-fascism and anti-casteism. Is that engagement with the sociopolitical a thing of the past now?

On the contrary. Lots of young theatrewallahs are staging radical political plays. Even those theatre people who used to say I am apolitical or non-political, have ‘something’ to say, since 2014. And most of them are saying it to the best of their ability. Most award-winning plays be it inter-collegiate plays in Mumbai or playwriting competitions have an angry strident voice. I think, what’s come to a grinding halt since the late 70s and early 80s is the belief that theatre is dead. Theatre obituaries were written (they continue to be written). There’s a huge amount of ignorance about our theatre after the 1980s. It is the oldest art form on this planet. What many people under-estimate is its innate ability to survive... overtly or covertly. Theatrewallahs know when to deploy guerrilla strategy. If the play is the thing, then playwrights since the time of Khadilkar know how to say “the thing” metaphorically or allegorically. The audience understands the subtext and they get the message. Never under-estimate their intelligence.

Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Tamil and even Parsi theatre once had its own distinctive loyal audience and subjects in Mumbai. When and how did we homogenise and lose this distinctiveness?

If you refer to Murphy’s Map of Bombay (1843), you see the city was born from seven geographical islands. So that’s a gain. Contrarily, it has retreated to a position of seven linguistic / cultural islands. With Mumbai, there’s a constant ebb and flow. I think my generation took many things for granted. We were complacent. And so much of that syncretic world has gone asunder. But there is still something for everyone. In the past one month, I attended three literary festivals, the Bhendi Bazar one near Mohammed Ali Road, the Majestic Guppa sessions in Vile Parle East and the Gateway Fest at the Mumbai University. All very well attended with their own exclusive audiences. This is a complex city with multiple disjointed narratives. Once upon a time, the dots were easier to join, now we don’t seem to have the backing of a powerful cultural movement to do so. And so it looks like we are in retreat-mode…

Tiny, privately-owned theatre spaces with steep rentals which only professional, mainstream or big theatre groups with deep pockets can afford leave amateur theatre high and dry. Can theatre survive without fresh blood infusion?

Pre-Covid I met a young theatre person carrying a 144-page magazine Shamsher. It contained full-length articles on Shamsher Bahadur Singh’s oeuvre penned by the likes of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, Vijay Dev Narayan Sahi, Malayaj, Ramvilas Sharma and Dr. Raghuvansh. Also Raghuvir Sahay contributed a short piece that analysed and explained Tooti Hui, Bikhari Hui (Broken, Scattered). This young person was planning to stage 3-4 hours of Shamsher. This is such a unique way to present the work of one of the best Hindi poets of the 20th Century. The point is, once a Mumbaikar knows what to look for. It’s there to see. Theatre permits you that luxury.

You once used the top of a water tank at YWCA, Andheri to stage a play, others have used train compartments and bus depots. Is the disappearance of such efforts the doing of audiences or theatre practitioners?

There are two things that drive theatre. Language and space. As a city, Mumbai is antagonistic to space. As an architect friend of mine jokes, Mumbai suffers from empty space phobia. Unfortunately, theatre requires space to rehearse, to perform, for ideas to proliferate. So when you don’t have space, you improvise. Today 40-45 informal theatre spaces have sprung up in places like Aaram Nagar and other suburbs. Many of these venues are below the radar. Hence they can stage a lot of interesting work. For example, I am most impressed with Jairus Banaji’s remarkable new book (Writing Something Completely Different) which has more than hundred vignettes. This book is unavailable in India. So, as a theatrewallah, I can read passages from it for an audience. That’s the magic of the theatre.

This could have to do with the changing demand for content too?

Yes. Consider Shivaji Mandir. The mecca of Marathi theatre. What this auditorium loses in terms of finesse, it makes up with an atmosphere which consists of three-four shows a day, round-the-clock audiences, and the hustling of vendor selling batata wadas. The Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982, altered the nature of theatre. Post the strike, the working class abandoned it. The balcony section at Shivaji Mandir was shut down. It modified the kind of stories being told on the stage. Mumbai’s theatre never recovered from this banishment. Although to-date the Marathi theatre nets between 20-25 crore from box office collections. (Of course these are pre-Covid numbers) But imagine what could’ve been.

Who according to you are contemporary legatees to the legends Vijaya Mehta, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Alyque Padamsee, Satyadev Dubey and Ratnakar Matkari?

Sushama Deshpande’s penned a play called Whay Mee Savitribai (1989). Later she performed this piece 2,500-300 times in Marathi. Approximately 10 years ago she staged Urmilla Pawar’s Aaydan with three young theatre actors. Now this trio (Nandita, Shubhangi, Shilpa) stage Whay Mee Savitribai in English and Hindi. There’s even a production in Pardhi language. Point is, theatre talent takes time to develop. It doesn’t drop out of a tree like Newton’s apple. Legacy and legatees need time and nurturing.

Despite the consuming optics and surround sound of the mainstream, folk forms like gondhal, birha, bharud, batavni, kavit chhand, etc are a big draw with masses. Why don’t they get their due in theatre?

These forms know how to, and always unfailingly find their niche Everyone knows about Prashant Damle and Bharat Jadhav plays. One of the most interesting plays I’ve seen in recent times is Zameenicha Paisa which deploys multiple folk forms. This is a play about the Agri community; performed 4-5 times a month in Dombivali, Kalyan and Thane. It cautions the Agri youth about NOT selling their land for easy money. Each and every show is houseful and impactful. Do remember there will always be lokdharmi theatre and natyadharmi theatre. Their outreach and long-term impact will be different. It’s unfair to compare a Mukul Shivputra with Sonu Nigam, or a Venkatesh Kumar with Arijit Singh.

Many like Jyoti Mhapsekar and Manjul Bharadwaj have used theatre as a vehicle to drive social change. Is there space for that kind of theatre any more?

There is. Today two of the most performed authors in Mumbai are Manto and Ismat. Young theatre group members can’t read the original Nastaliq script. But they are accessing the words in Devanagari or Roman script and mouthing the same for audiences. That’s the clout of theatre: the spoken word.

Do you think today’s sociopolitical climate would let you write plays like Mahadevbhai, 3 Sakina Manzil, Cotton 56, Polyester 84, Jazz, Comrade Kumbhakarna and Postcards From Bardoli?

With the honourable exception of Comrade Kumbhakarna, I think all the plays can still be written and staged. Having said that Comrade Kumbhakarana is being performed by young university students in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu

But one hears of playwrights self-censoring to avoid getting into any cross hairs…

There are those who dare to say what they want to say and then there are those who say very important things deploying metaphors. Shakespeare of course was the coolest cat in town. And so, when you read a play like Richard III, you realise the true genius of the playwright. To be a Catholic and write such a play; and not be arrested for treason by the religious thought-police. To say what you want to say as a playwright; and yet appear to save the soul of a thousand-year old medieval history. To dodge the censorship of the state; and the ban from the religious rights; and to enforce the Queen’s will. And above all, to stage one of the biggest box office blockbusters of the times.

Theatre person, playwright, writer and theatre trainer. You wear quite a few hats. Which fits best?

The one that fits the best is a reader of plays. I really like to read plays.

What are you reading now?

These days, I’m reading the Nobel laureate Efriede Jelinek’s Totenauberg. In the play a philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt (the woman) and the nationalistic existential philosopher Martin Heidegger (the old man) have a dialogue. It is a brilliant play about the entanglement of philosophy and fascism and the mechanisms of repression. You might find this trivia interesting because the Oscar season’s just ended: Sandra Hüller (who bagged an Oscar nomination for Anatomy of a Fall at the 96th Academy Awards and also starred in the Oscar nominated The Zone of Interest) starred in a play by Elfriede Jelinek Die Strasse, die Stadt, der Überfall in 2013 in Berlin. This is the stuff theatre is made of!

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