Mapping Marathi theatre


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THEATRE happens everywhere, but only when it announces itself publicly can we assume that it is relevant to the community at large. The means of communication could range from blackboards placed at street corners to advertisements in newspapers to messages on the net. When theatre is not made visible by these or any other means, when one does not even get a call from a friend to say there’s a play on at such and such a place which must be seen, it is clear that one is in a place where theatre is not a vital cultural expression of the community.

I use the term theatre to mean an ongoing theatre activity that we may refer to as mainstream or professional, in part because Maharashtra where I come from has a long tradition of such theatre. An examination of this tradition reveals relationships built over time between theatre and space, space and audience and audience and theatre that one may not have the opportunity to study elsewhere.

Places where theatre is a sporadic activity driven by an individual playmaker will often produce brilliant plays. Theatre that has an unbroken history may not, because with a tradition to back the effort, theatre people can become complacent. The audience too may demand the comfort of the expected. A mainstream professional theatre allows theatre practitioners to live off it. But its very predictability often provokes others to go beyond commerce to create plays with a socio-political or aesthetic purpose. When mainstream theatre borrows whatever it finds useful from this other theatre, it recharges itself. In turn the shifts it makes towards the other theatre challenges the latter to question itself and possibly make radical departures from what it has been.

Though a neat theory, it does not always translate into practice. However, it serves as a measure against which to examine what is actually happening in both theatres.


About 15 years ago I spent a fortnight each in Calcutta and Bangalore as part of carrying out background research for my book on Marathi theatre. During the fortnight I spent in Calcutta, I saw a play every evening at the government run Nandan complex. During the fortnight I spent in Bangalore, I did not see a single play. It shocked me that Bangalore did not have a dedicated theatre space. The question about whether it had a dedicated theatre audience was answered on another visit when I chanced to see, by pure serendipity, a brilliant production of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s ‘Vasansi Jeernani’, translated into Kannada by Girish Karnad and directed by K.M. Chaitanya. Even though the hall where it was staged was dull and characterless, the audience was keenly receptive.

The problem of a dedicated theatre space in Bangalore was resolved in 2004 with the inauguration of Ranga Shankara. Despite its inconvenient location, it has had a full schedule of plays ever since. Arundhathi Nag would not have spent ten years striving to make this happen unless she had been confident of an enthusiastic theatre community and an eager audience. Reversing the logic, one might argue that nobody has attempted to create a space like Ranga Shankara in Chennai because the city lacks a theatre culture. While Chennai has no theatre culture, Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur and Sangli do not have a dance culture. To begin with, Maharashtra does not have its own ‘classical’ dance form. Further, I would like to speculate that any interest in dance that could have entered Maharashtra from neighbouring regions was scotched by those who influenced its culture. My speculation is based on a single well-documented instance. The Raja of Sangli was impressed by a Bhagwat Mela performance he had chanced to see. He instructed his courtier, Vishnudas Bhave, to create a similar entertainment for the Sangli court, but minus the vulgarity of dance. Bhave wrote, designed and presented ‘Sita Swayamvar’, the first Marathi secular play in 1843. It had music and action, but no dance.


As we have seen, a community which needs theatre creates and watches performances in the most inhospitable of outdoor and indoor spaces. Both performers and audience alike are willing to overlook all kinds of physical discomfort in the process. The performers make do without lights, wings, curtains. The audience sits on floors or benches, craning its necks to view the action. This happened during the 1930s and ’40s in Maharashtra, when the sangeet natak declined and cinema took away theatre spaces. Consequently, theatre got pushed into clubs, school halls and unspecified recreation spaces.

Outdoor spaces were always there to be used, but only certain kinds of theatre could be performed there. The Assamese mobile theatre is a case in point. In the ’60s Achyut Lahkar who started the movement saw that theatre had stagnated in Assam. His strategy to revive it was to take it to people’s doorsteps. So he built a stage of bamboo and wood that could be dismantled, loaded onto a truck and rolled out into the countryside. People thronged to see his plays. So successful was this venture that other playwrights and producers asked him for permission to copy the model. Permission was readily granted because Lahkar’s purpose was to revive theatre activity in Assam.

Over the last four decades, the mobile theatre has turned into a well-oiled industry, employing approximately 10,000 workers. Something like 40 companies take to the road each year with 150 new plays. They travel across the length and breadth of Assam from September to March, each company doing about 200 shows in 60 centres. It is a professional theatre whose aesthetics is governed by its itinerant nature.


Outdoor spaces are inclusive. A mobile theatre audience comprises thousands. Consequently, plays must be loud in all respects – voice, movement, gesture and costume. It is interesting to note how the kind of space Marathi theatre inhabited over its 160 year old history and the constitution of its audience influenced its aesthetics. As pointed out earlier, its origins were in folk forms like the Bhagwat Mela which were performed in temple precincts. From available descriptions we know that even Bhave’s plays performed in the Sangli court retained many features of a folk performance.

When the Raja of Sangli died and his heir expressed an inability to support the troupe of players who had come to depend on theatre for their livelihood, Bhave shifted back into the open. But now, instead of performing in temple courtyards, his troupe performed in the courtyards of the rich. The base of patronage was thus expanded from one king and his court to many aristocrats and their courtyards. It is possible that Bhave made commensurate changes in his style of presentation to cater to this new audience.


Ten years after the performance of ‘Sita Swayamvar’, Bhave visited Mumbai. While there he happened to see a play on the proscenium stage at Grant Road Theatre. He was instantly fascinated by the possibilities of this kind of theatre space. He could not afford the theatre charge of Rs 500, but his wealthy Marathi well-wishers helped him get a booking. His first production on this stage was of a play called ‘Gopichand’. This was the first Marathi play to be performed on the proscenium stage, the first to be ticketed and the first to cater to a linguistically mixed audience.

The theme and presentation of the play were influenced by all these factors. From one royal patron, to several aristocratic patrons, to a large gathering of the well-heeled, comprising Parsis and Muslims along with non-Marathi Hindus, all paying for themselves, Bhave had made really big strides. That these factors affected the presentation of ‘Gopichand’ may be deduced from a line that appeared in its advertisement. It invited the audience to ‘see the bundle of firewood on Machhindranath’s head levitate and float in the air.’ This magical effect was the precursor of the ‘trick scenes’ that became an integral part of popular theatre for many years to come.

By the time the sangeet natak (music theatre) arrived in 1880 (Annasaheb Kirloskar’s ‘Shakuntal’), the proscenium was firmly established. Its possibilities were fully exploited for realistic effect. But paradoxically the more realistic the production, the more magical it seemed to the audience. A scene from ‘Vadhupariksha’, one of S. K. Kolhatkar’s minor plays, probably performed in the second decade of the 20th century, is described thus by a connoisseur in his memoirs: ‘When the desperate Triveni jumped into a well, which itself was a breathtaking example of stage setting, not only did we hear the sound of the splash, but water actually flew up from the well. The same thing happened when Dhurandhar jumped in to save her. But the ultimate effect came when the two emerged from the well. The audience gasped in wonder because both of them were dripping wet.’

B.V. (Mama) Warerkar the author of ‘Satteche Gulam’ (1932) writes, ‘We decided to think of the stage set as architecture rather than painting. The doors and windows were to be shown in their solidity. The depth, length and width of rooms was to be realistically represented to make them look real. For this Kale [the designer] was going to construct a proscenium arch.’

The proscenium and the box-set have remained Marathi mainstream theatre’s fixed space and stage design ever since.


Spatially, Marathi theatre moved from general open air performances to enclosed court performances, to exclusive open air performances, to enclosed, exclusive indoor performances. For patrons it moved from a collectively paying public in temple precincts to a single royal patron to a more numerous aristocratic patronage to an even more numerous individually paying patronage. Thematically it moved from mythology that belonged to everybody, to sangeet nataks about warrior heroes. But since music continued to be a vital attraction, the sangeet natak continued to cater to a heterogeneous audience.

Modern, realistic/melodramatic plays cut down on the number of songs used but did not abolish them altogether, thus maintaining a relationship with the traditional sangeet natak and its traditional audience. It was only after the advent of cinema that mainstream theatre became a reflection of middle class mores. It now dealt exclusively with middle class problems set in middle class drawing rooms. This is the class that has kept mainstream theatre alive in Maharashtra till today. Other sections, which once patronised folk theatre, turned to the cinema in overwhelming numbers.


With the advent of cinema, theatre lost its indoor spaces. Every one of the playhouses listed in Mumbaicha Vrittanta (A Chronicle of Bombay, 1889) authored by Shingane and Acharya, including Gaiety, Novelty, Alfred, National, Victoria and Ripon, were transformed into cinema houses. The Grant Road Theatre where Vishnudas Bhave had performed ‘Gopichand’ had by then been demolished to make way for a textile mill. In 1943, when the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh celebrated the centenary of the first Marathi play, it pledged itself to building an indoor auditorium; but it was only in 1964 that the pledge could be fulfilled. Till then Marathi theatre was kept alive in clubhouses and school halls.

What happened to the Sahitya Sangh Mandir within twenty years of its inauguration underlines sharply the relationship between an active theatre space and an active theatre-going community. Girgaum, where the auditorium is located, was once the stronghold of the Marathi clerk, school teacher, small businessman and government official. With liberalization real estate prices rose. The Marathi middle class saw an opportunity to make more money than it had ever dreamt of. It sold its chawl homes in Girgaum and moved into the distant suburbs. The communities which replaced them had no interest in theatre. Consequently, by the 1990s the Sahitya Sangh auditorium had become a dead space. Simultaneously, municipal auditoria sprang up in every suburb to which the Marathi middle class had relocated.


Till the early 1990s, the mainstream theatre offered scope for cautious shifts in theme and form as long as play endings were happy and the plays contained a few fine speeches. Thereafter, coinciding with the economic boom, theatre became not just conventional but often positively regressive. A shining example of mainstream success was the late Vasant Kanetkar, who had begun his career writing off-mainstream plays. Expounding on his theory of kalatmak tartamya (artistic propriety) in a series of lectures delivered at the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh in 1974, he asserted that the duty of theatre was to give the audience an opportunity to experience rasa. The bibhatsa rasa was inappropriate on stage.

Kanetkar roundly condemned the scene in Vijay Tendulkar’s ‘Gidhade’ where Manik runs out of the house with bloodstains on her sari indicating a miscarriage. He also vigorously argued against showing dinner scenes and scenes of lovemaking on stage because he thought they released the audience’s baser appetites. He also believed, taking Rangayan’s production of ‘Chairs’ as an example, that plays should not be difficult for the audience to understand. In his opinion Jaywant Dalvi’s play ‘Sandhyachhaya’, dealt with ‘the same subject’ as ‘Chairs’, namely an aged couple’s loneliness. But whereas Dalvi had handled the subject in a way that made it accessible to the audience, Ionesco had made his play opaque and inaccessible.


Let us now return to that neat little theory about off-mainstream theatre pushing the mainstream towards new forms, new themes and new acting styles. While the mainstream stage was held by Kanetkar and his colleagues, Rangayan and Theatre Unit in Mumbai and Theatre Academy in Pune were staging plays by Vijay Tendulkar, Satish Alekar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, G.P. Deshpande et al. There was absolutely no give and take between these two streams till Tendulkar and Shreeram Lagoo, who began their careers off-mainstream, moved to the mainstream with realistic plays and a low-key, naturalistic acting style that was new to it. Both made good on the mainstream stage proving its flexibility. But Tendulkar was acceptable only as long as he did not offend the audience with the bibhatsa rasa or sexually explicit scenes. In this sense the mainstream actually co-opted the off-mainstream.

What subverted the Shivaji Mandir stage, that iconic middle class theatre space, albeit unintentionally, was a three-day festival of dalit plays held there in 2007. The six plays featured in the festival were uneven in terms of craft and presentation. But for those three days, this ‘sacred’ theatre space resounded to voices that had never before been heard there.

Theatre is a constant see-saw in Maharashtra between the two streams. The mainstream is not doing too well at the moment, but things are happening off mainstream in Pune and Mumbai. New intimate spaces have sprung up around which new writers, directors, actors and a new audience have gathered. This theatre is by no means radical or revolutionary, but it is young and it is fresh. So the tradition continues.


* Paper read at the ‘Not-The-Drama Seminar’, Ninasam, Heggodu, 22-26 March 2008.