The Theatre Month of October 2011
I spent five exhilarating days in Delhi within the revered precincts of the National School of Drama as a member of the Selection Committee for its fourteenth Bharat Rang Mahotsav scheduled for January-February 2012.
My biggest joy was meeting theatre experts from all the regions of India – some I had known by reputation or met personally on earlier occasions. But many were from the new breed of theatre passionatas…with their new insights and challenges.
I was thrilled when I was ushered into Chairman Amal Allana’s room on arrival and greeted warmly by old friend Raj Bisaria (Lucknow) from the Bharatendru Kala Kendra and Sadanand Menon (Chennai) whom I had met on numerous occasions with that exquisite dancer Chandralekha.
But I was soon pulled away from their embraces by the very efficient Sameera Zaidi to another room and another set of committee members. Within the three-minutes it took to walk to another classroom, I was informed that there were four selection committees with five members each representing a difference language. And in a span of five days I marveled at the body of work NSD had done over the years in every corner of the country… plays, and writers, and languages I had not even heard of being so cocooned in Mumbai-of-four-languages.
While there were Uttara Borkar (now settled in Pune), Hema Singh, C. Basavalingaiah (Mysore), whom I had known and whose work I had seen in the past, my committee was made up of totally unfamiliar theatre experts. But the most insightful and committed in my group was Mangai (Padma Venkatraman) from Chennai whom I warmed to immediately. She amazed me with her knowledge of her craft.
Tirthankar Chanda ( Aranachal), Banwari Taneja , and Ravindra Tripathi were the others I spent five days closeted with watching some 80 videos in Hindi, Bengali, Sanskrit, Tamil, Mizo, Urdu, Malayalam, Assamese, Punjabi, Tamil, Rabha, English, and some multilingual productions in addition to 58 entries of Ravindranth Tagore plays to commemorate his 150th anniversary.
Without computerized listings, I was duly impressed by the attendants who were able to retrieve information we demanded stored in labeled paper packets within seconds.
I cannot list the plays or begin to describe the response these plays on video evoked in me. Suffice it to say that I wish NSD would bring this festival of some 50 best plays to Mumbai for us theatre aficionados to learn from and relish. The fifty best productions selected by the best in the theatre fraternity in the country with their experience of working in the field of art and theatre.
Soon on the heels of this euphoric heady experience, I returned to Mumbai to be invited by Ira Dubey to be on a panel to judge the Short & Sweet Festival organized by Primetime Theatre Company.
The informality of their approach took one aback slightly. We were shown to our seats with a list of plays but no instructions whatsoever. I had to constantly ask ushers and Lilette and Ira what we were expected to do. But once the show started, it amazed me to see ten ten-minute plays staged one after the other with clockwork efficiency and the most minimal of sets. Again to list all ten plays and their original and provocative themes would be like a dhobi list. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed being there so much that I invited myself again the next day to see another set of 10 plays. The talent was phenomenal. Satchit Puranik impressed in every avatar as Director and actor. On one evening he participated in four plays in various categories… And Akarsh Khurana’s directing prowess with his repertory of familiar actors like Shivani Tanksale, Abir Abrar, Shruti Vyas was such a delight. A new face I would love to see again is Ariana Kewalramani in “It’s the Quiet Ones You Have to Watch Out For” by Chris Sims from Delhi.
This Australian franchise of Short & Sweet is a new treat to behold.
But the piece de resistance of my Delhi visit was my two-and-a-half hours with Zohra Segal. No visit is complete without climbing up three floors to her very modest flat in Mandakini Enclave. I had asked for 15 minutes, and she agreed to give me time at 5pm -- and stressed sharp. I entered her neat room and spotted her reclining Duchess-like on an easy chair – monarch of all she surveyed – and the first thing she said was said I was 10 minutes late!
And those 15 minutes stretched into two and a half hours. Like a child she sulked when her daughter Kiran, the Odissi dancer, came to chat. Zohra Appa said: “I thought you had come to see me?” Kiran discreetly withdrew leaving Appa all to me. And during that time we flitted between memories of her young days with Uday Shankar in Almora, Prithviraj Kapoor whom she refers to as Pappaji, London and our BBC contacts, Lahore, her film experiences, her flirtatious banter with Faiz Ahmed Faiz. And how after hearing his poetry for the first time, was mersmerised and set herself to learn Urdu. She recited his verses verbatim for almost half an hour..
At 99-and-a-half she still does her riyaz twice a day. No more walking up and down those precarious stairs. But her vocal exercises and physical stretches she never forgets. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has her on tape reciting her vocal exercises. And I hope one day I will be able to access them.