There was a time when being on stage meant you knew almost everyone in the audience. And what a delight it was to be acknowledged and recognized by all. It is a different story today. We are thrilled that the audiences have grown. But the professionalism and commercialism have taken away some of the earlier excitement.
A memory that lingers of my younger days in College still thrills me.
The year was 1963. I was in Miranda House, Delhi, when the College peon came to our B Block residential building announcing that there was a phone call for me. I was completely taken aback as I hardly knew anyone in Delhi. Very few people had telephones back then, and certainly none among my acquaintances.
The voice at the other end of the phone said they were calling from the Prime Minister’s Office, and asked me if I could stage a one-act play for an African Delegation visiting Delhi. The Prime Minister would be attending. And the Prime Minister then was the man we all adored -- Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
I was all of 18, in my first year of MA English. I was stunned. My mind was in a whirl. Imagine performing before the Prime Minister of India.
The play that immediately came to mind was 'SQUARE PEGS IN A ROUND HOLE'
I had staged this two-actor play in an Inter-College Drama Festival in Lucknow, representing Loreto College, about a year earlier, and it won us an Award.
The lines were still stored in my memory.
I quickly got in touch with my fellow actor Manju Vyas (now Dr Sampat of The Learning Curve) who also happened to be in Delhi at that time -- doing a Secretarial Course and living at the YWCA in Delhi.
We were bundled into a car and driven to one of the sprawling ministerial bungalows in Lutyen’s Delhi, and told that we had to perform before the visiting Foreign Delegation at Constitution Hall. That Panditji would be in the audience. And we had 36 hours to rehearse it.
Just thinking about it gives me gooseflesh even now!
The University was some ninety minutes away through a forested dark meandering Ridge Road. We could not afford the time to drive back and forth. And between the khadi-clad hovering officials it was decided we would stay the night there. We had carried no change of clothes or toothbrush, no costumes. But they did not allow us the luxury to even worry about such inconsequentials.
Suddenly scripts were thrust into our hands and we were told to refresh the lines.
There had been some political crisis in the Uttar Pradesh Government. Hence all the heavies of Uttar Pradesh had assembled in Delhi, and were in this very bungalow where we were to rehearse.
We soon discovered we were in the Delhi home of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh C. B. Gupta. Being politically alert, I recognized the Freedom Fighter Sucheta Kripalani fussing over our sleeping arrangements, and the very attractive Shanti Bhatnagar – daughter of staunch Nationalist Purshottam Thakurdas (later wife of Dr. Sadiq Ali who was the Governor of Maharashtra from 1977-80), rummaging around to put some semblance of a costume together for Manju and me.
My most vivid memory is of me squatting beside the intellectual political leader and spiritual guru Acharya Kripalani -- draped in immaculate white, sprawled in a rocking chair, under the shade of a huge banyan tree on the lush green manicured lawns – taking up my lines.. I felt no nervousness…only the rush of adrenalin in the presence of such august company.
The euphoria of the run-up to the play has driven out any memory of the actual performance. Those were days when we could boast of photographic memories. There was no dependence on sets, lights or music. Just a bare stage, and the arrogance of two young actors ready to perform before an international audience without any technical rehearsal..
Manju and I took our places on stage when told the delegation had arrived. Suddenly there was some hurried activity and it was whispered that Panditji had been called away almost from the door of Constitution Hall -- to presumably an urgent meeting, but Indira Gandhi stayed behind to witness our play.
I do not recall any applause or being mobbed after the performance. Everybody cleared the auditorium and we were driven home,
Who would have thought that even though the Prime Minister did not see our performance that day, we had the future Prime Minister in the audience!