Good evening, friends. I must begin by thanking the committee of the Dr Aroon Tikekar Centre for Advanced Studies at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai for inviting me to be the keynote speaker at this evening’s event. Dr Tikekar was a friend from my Times of India days. He would come up to my cabin once in a while to have a chat, often an angry one. His sudden and unexpected death ended an association that had lasted some 20 years, in the course of which, as editor of Loksatta, Dr Tikekar had persuaded me to write two fortnightly columns for the paper, the first one on culture and the second on good manners.

Turning to the topic of my speech today, I must confess I was at a loss to know how to make it relevant to this year’s research projects, one of which is on Marathi literature and the other on Marathi theatre. Four memories came to my aid in quick succession to give me the title and substance of my talk. Memory number one was a visitor from Chennai, staying with friends in Walkeshwar, assuming that my mother tongue was Gujarati. He seemed surprised to hear it wasn’t. “But isn’t that the local language?” he asked. You can imagine how my Marathi blood boiled at that.

Memory number two. The formidable Mehroo Jussawala of Elphinstone College asking me in genuine puzzlement how Dalits could write autobiographies. “I suppose they write in Marathi,” she said from her great physical and social height.

A young author’s casual remark made a complementary third memory. He said he had a smattering of Marathi because he had to speak it to his domestic help.

Memory number four. The great theatre director, Habib Tanvir, spent nine years in Bombay, writing for and acting in films and plays. He lived a bohemian life of drink, mushairas, passionate love affairs and ballroom dancing. However, when he finally decided that the vehicle for what he wished to say about life, politics and society, was not cinema but theatre, he packed his bags and moved to Delhi, where his language, Urdu, would be readily understood.

The first three memories point to what constitutes power in the politics of language. The fourth illustrates a fundamental feature of literature and theatre. Both speak directly to the community that shares their language and the culture embedded in those languages. Once we understand this, it becomes immediately clear why language divides the theatres of different communities; and why it divides their literatures even more. I say even more because fiction, for instance, is a purely verbal art. If you don’t get the meanings of words, you get nothing. Poetry can, at a pinch make sense across languages because its words are not chosen for meaning alone but for sound as well. Its lines too are crafted for rhythm and cadence, taking it close to music, generally conceded to be universal in its appeal.

Compared to literature, theatre is more accessible across languages because its sound and light design, costumes and settings work along with speech to create the meaning of the play. Its accessibility becomes even more facile when it includes a great deal of music and movement along with speech. But whether in theatre or literature, their first and chief impulse is to communicate with their specific language group. As a result, Mumbai, which speaks four languages, Marathi, Gujarati, English and Hindi, has four distinct theatres. The city is thus a salad bowl, where the discrete ingredients are sharply themselves while being part of the mix. The mix creates the city’s overall theatre scene, but it is the discrete ingredients that supply the taste and the flavour.

Having said this, we must examine why translation cannot step into the gap and carry Mumbai’s four language theatres and literatures across linguistic barriers. Fiction, when not too culture-specific, translates well. English and Hindi are accessible to all. What is missing across languages, is the inclination to read translated works. Poetry is tougher to translate well anyway, with sound and rhythm playing such an important part in its effect. The Gujarati poet, Sitanshu Yashaschandra dismissed the very idea of his poetry being translated. He maintained stubbornly that he wrote exclusively for his language group and nobody else.

However, a more generally applicable reason why translation fails to bridge the linguistic gap is because language isn’t merely words and their meanings. It is as much, or even more, an expression of the culture and sensibility of a community, the way people think, feel and express themselves; the way they see the world and their place in it. An alien sensibility becomes a subtle but strong barrier to appreciation of work even when it has overcome the language barrier through translation. The fact remains then, that Mumbai’s theatre and literature are not one, but four. I do not say this with regret. I am only stating a fact.

Somehow, we have been struggling hard against our great cultural diversity since we became an independent nation. That was the moment when it was imperative to define ourselves as a nation; to discover answers to the pressing questions of national identity – who are we as a people? Are we one or many? As a nation, should we not be one? A Drama Seminar was held in Delhi in 1956 under the aegis of the newly formed Sangeet Natak Akademi to answer these questions in relation to theatre. Among the participants were Mulk Raj Anand, Balraj Sahani, Mama Warerkar, Prabhakar Machwe, Adi Marzban, Dina Gandhi, Ebrahim Alkazi and Shombhu Mitra. The chief issue under discussion was the nature and form that India’s “national theatre” should take, now that the country could at last be itself after 200 years of colonial oppression. Several participants at the seminar harked back to India’s classical, folk and traditional theatres as the genuine expressions of the dramatic art of the country. In doing so, they were already identifying three distinct streams of theatre without even considering the different languages in which these theatres happened.

The primary impulse in the deliberations was to reject what was seen as a colonial import – realistic plays performed on a proscenium stage equipped with a front curtain. Some claims made on behalf of the “true” Indian theatre against proscenium theatre were palpably misleading. It was claimed, for instance, that actors and audience were not separated by a stage and a curtain in Indian theatre. Yet, the Natya Shastra gives detailed instructions for the construction of a correctly proportioned and equipped stage for classical theatre. We need only look at one example of traditional theatre, Kathakali, to see how a distinct separation is maintained between actors and audience even without a front curtain. The venues for Kathakali being temples, the only available lighting would come from tall oil lamps. The time for its performance was night. Actors had to be made up and costumed extravagantly to ensure they were visible to the audience in the flickering light of oil lamps. As for curtains, one of the most intriguing features of several traditional and folk forms is the thiraseela or javanika. This is the half-curtain held up by two assistants that cover the entry of a major character. In Kathakali, the actor makes a great play of revealing himself gradually, bit by bit, till the curtain is finally folded away and he is revealed in his full glory.

Traditional theatre, by its very nature, is a theatre that does not change. Human history and technological advances have little effect on it. Folk theatre by its very nature is a theatre that changes. Meant for the common folk, it changes as folk change in their tastes and interests. No folk form of theatre has remained untouched, for example, by the advent of cinema. The lavanis of Maharashtra are no longer those written by the great shahirs of the past. More often than not, they are borrowed from films. Likewise, in modern Indian theatre, realism and the proscenium stage were not colonial impositions. They were a way of doing plays that the educated youth of the day adopted voluntarily because they found them effective in exploring modern social problems. The potato, on the other hand, was indeed a colonial imposition. But nobody thought of rejecting it after Independence. In fact, by then, we had adopted it with such reverence that it had become the staple of the pious Hindu’s fasting food.

Given the cultural cross-currents of history and our national diversity, it is no wonder that, at the end of the Drama Seminar in Delhi, the problem of identifying the “essential” Indian theatre remained unsolved. In fact, the debates threw up a series of binaries in theatre that the new nation would have to deal with: Indian/Western, traditional/modern, rural/urban and folk/elite. In addition, there was the impossibility of conceiving an Indian “national” theatre given that India spoke 22 languages, each with its own theatre traditions and conventions.

The idea behind such a seminar was fundamentally flawed. Art does not lend itself to prescription. It grows out of the here and now. The here and now cannot be changed by decree. Suresh Awasthi, one of the participants at the seminar, who became the General Secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1965, held fast to the notion of folk theatre being the “real” Indian theatre. He launched a scheme in the mid-1970s whereby young urban theatre directors were funded to spend time with artists from their chosen folk theatre form and then produce plays for the urban audience using elements from that form. Young directors took the money, chose their folk forms, spent the required amount of time watching folk artists perform and produced plays using elements from them. Once the prescribed plays were done, they returned to doing urban plays of their choice.

Diversity, the reason why the Drama Seminar failed to fulfil its aim, is also the reason why there is no such thing as Mumbai theatre, except as a description of its distinct theatre scene. In Mumbai, the diversity does not lie in forms of theatre, although that continues to be a dividing factor, but in the diversity of languages. Each language theatre is born out of a historical and cultural trajectory that is specifically its own, unshared by the others.

Let us start with Mumbai’s Gujarati theatre. It drew its original inspiration from Parsi theatre, a popular form across India, that was thoroughly derided by the participants of the Drama Seminar. The Parsi theatre became popular primarily because of its swashbuckling stories drawn eclectically from the Persian Shahnama, the Mahabharata, The Arabian Nights, Shakespearean tragedy and comedy and Victorian melodrama, and its gorgeous costumes, music, dance and comic interludes. The total theatrical experience was further elevated by magical trick scenes created with the use of Western technology. The Desi Natak Samaj, founded in 1874, took its inspiration from this flamboyant form of theatre. The Gujarati and Marwari plays it presented, took their name Bhangwadi Theatre from its location in an area called Bhangwadi in Kalbadevi. The narrative material for the plays came from folk tales and Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, with social issues making their appearance in later years. The essential feature of the plays was an abundance of songs set to jaunty tunes, accompanied by sprightly dancing. Meant originally for the entertainment of local traders, Bhangwadi theatre began to draw crowds even from places as far away as Surat and Vadodara.

Bhangwadi was not, by any stretch of imagination, modern theatre. Simply put, modern theatre places the individual at the centre. Being realistic, its characters do not sing. Traditional theatre puts kings and noblemen at the centre and does not aspire to be realistic, so everybody sings. Indian society at large puts the clan/caste/community at the centre. The audience for Bhangwadi theatre came from this community-based society and the theatre stuck to the rules of the community. Its aim was pure entertainment with no pretensions to edifying the audience.

Pravin Joshi was the first director in Gujarati theatre to show an interest in modern theatre. Joshi found an enthusiastic sponsor in Damu Jhaveri, whose Indian National Theatre had its own rehearsal and performance spaces. This is where, under Joshi’s direction, modern Gujarati theatre was born and flowered. It was called “naya theatre” to distinguish it from the ‘old theatre’ of Bhangwadi. However, the well-heeled audience that came to see Joshi’s plays was not quite ready to accept modern theatre in toto. Soon after Joshi began to direct plays for INT, he ventured to stage a Gujarati translation of Badal Sirkar’s Bengali play Ebong Indrajit. The play had been translated and staged across languages and hailed by theatre lovers and critics alike as a modern classic. However, its theme, revolving around four angst-ridden youths in search of employment, bored Joshi’s audience. The Gujaratis are a wealthy business community. A visit to the theatre was generally followed by dinner out. Plays which raised disturbing questions did not fit into this entertainment package. After Ebong Indrajit, Joshi returned sensibly to the safety of adaptations from successful Western and Marathi mainstream plays. It was a decade before he made one more daring attempt, this time with Madhu Rye’s original Gujarati play, Kumarni Agashi. The play became an instant hit, appreciated by critics and laypersons alike. The play’s immense popularity was at least partly due to the fact that it was a murder mystery which explored the repressed desires of upper-class Gujarati society. Unfortunately, Pravin Joshi died prematurely in a road accident.

Mahendra Joshi a young director from Mumbai’s college circuit, was the next big thing in Gujarati theatre although he belonged to the experimental fringe rather than to the mainstream stage. Unfortunately, he too died prematurely. Currently, Manoj Shah and Utkarsh Mujumdar carry the mantle of contemporary Gujarati amateur theatre. The professional theatre meanwhile, has all but given up on ticketed shows. There is too much risk of loss involved. The current practice is for organisations in the city and elsewhere to sponsor shows for their members. This works to the mutual benefit of theatre producers who get assured returns, and audiences who get to see plays of their choice. However, even before this change of business plans took place, the audiences that watched English, Hindi and Marathi plays, did not venture into the Tejpal or Bhaidas auditoria where ticketed Gujarati plays used to be staged. Names of Gujarati hits floated in the city air but did not intrigue theatre lovers from other language groups enough to draw them in.

We turn now to English theatre, located chiefly in south Mumbai, where wealthy, westernised communities live. Theatre Group was the only serious amateur group doing English plays in the pre-Independence and early post-Independence years. Headed by Ebrahim Alkazi during his Bombay years, it was later taken over by Alyque Padamsee. Most producers and consumers of English plays in the nineteen fifties and sixties were Anglophiles. Alkazi had been trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and returned with British ideas of staging, design and performance. Interestingly, writer-director Habib Tanvir also trained at the same Academy but decided the training fitted ill with the idea of theatre he had imbibed in his native Chhattisgarh. His first play when he moved to Delhi, was not Shakespeare or John Osborne. It was his Urdu adaptation of Sudraka’s Mrichhakatikam.

The English language theatre had no problems with Western-style modernity, as did other language theatres in which Western ways of thinking, feeling and being created friction with deep-rooted traditional values. Theatre Group, driven chiefly by men and women associated with Bombay’s advertising industry, staged only European and American plays until the late 1960s. Their aim, as noted by Deryck Jefferies in an interview with the National Centre for the Performing Arts newsletter Facts and News, was to acquaint Indians with Western theatre techniques. We might see this as carrying forward the white man’s burden, which assumed that non-whites needed such exemplars for their development. Neither the members of Theatre Group nor its audience had a clue about the varied theatre forms that the non-whites had evolved over centuries by and for themselves. However, towards the end of the 1960s, a strong back-to-the-village movement had begun among the urban elite. It was perhaps in response to this, that Theatre Group announced the Sultan Padamsee Award for Indian plays in English. The competition in its first phase threw up plays by Gurcharan Das, Gieve Patel and Dina Mehta and in its second, Cyrus Mistry’s Doongaji House.

The disconnect between the English language theatre in Mumbai and the varied cultures of the country at large, particularly in rural India, is reflected in Nissim Ezekiel’s 1969 play, Nalini which concerns itself precisely with the class of Westernised Indians who were beginning to feel guilty about their rootlessness. The protagonist, Bharat, is an advertising executive who sells dreams. Nalini is an artist who responds to reality through her art. Called upon to publicise her show, Bharat finds himself out of depth. Reflecting upon who or what he is, he says, “I can’t increase India’s production of eggs. I can’t work for a Family Planning unit. I’m not qualified to teach in a school or college. I have business sense. Can you see me in these clothes, and without a word of any Indian language, helping peasants in a village or organising workers in a trade union? I can’t create anything. I can’t build anything. I can mix only with people like myself, who dress like me. That’s why I work in the advertising industry.”

All through the 1960s and ’70s, English was seen as part of the colonial hangover. If that was the only language you spoke, efforts were made by society at large to make you feel deeply guilty about it. There were two aspects to the anti-English sentiment. There was a post-colonial nationalistic position, shared by newly freed nations across the world. But there was also an aspect of envy of the social power that the English language granted its speakers and the economic benefits that flowed from it. I encountered this two-fold complex, particularly from the Marathi theatre world, when I was editing the Times of India’s art page. On the one hand, they maintained that, as a Mumbai-based paper, the Times was obliged to give space to local culture. On the other, they did not want to be seen as helping the paper reach them. The general feeling was, we can do without you. Consequently, no information was sent to us regarding new plays, no photographs and certainly no passes for our critics. Fortunately, our drama reviewer Mukta Rajadhyaksha, already belonged to the Marathi literary world of the city and managed beautifully to cover every significant play that opened.

By the mid-1980s, everybody who could afford to, was sending their children to English medium schools, expanding the footprint of the language from the metros to semi-urban areas and in the process, making English very much an Indian language. The Bangalore-based playwright-director Mahesh Dattani, whose only language was English, realised that, although his audience was English-speaking, it was not westernised in the way that the Theatre Group’s audience had been. Their sensibility, like his own, was rooted in Gujarati culture. His plays, written in English, were rooted in his experience of life in the Gujarati community. When a journalist once asked him why he didn’t write plays in his own language, he said, “But I do.”

Hindi theatre was a comparatively late entrant on Mumbai’s theatre scene. By the 1970s, it had found itself a performance space in the Chhabildas school hall in Dadar, held by Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande’s theatre group Awishkar. It was a moment when Mumbai’s emergent Hindi theatre and long-standing Marathi theatre came together in a single space. The man who engineered this, not by design but driven by his own unquenchable passion for theatre in any language, Hindi, Marathi or Gujarati, was Satyadev Dubey. Marathi actors acted in his Hindi plays because he found that no Hindi actors available in the city then, possessed their performance skills and experience. By the mid-80s, the inflow to Mumbai of actors trained at the National School of Drama had begun. They came in search of work in films but also did theatre.

The Prithvi Theatre, specifically built for Hindi plays, was inaugurated in 1978 and became home to migrant actors. People associated with films who lived in and around Juhu found Prithvi a great place for talent hunting. When the Chhabildas Hall space became unavailable for theatre in the 1980s, Dubey shifted base to Prithvi Theatre. Marathi actors were not available to him as easily there as they had been in Chhabildas, because of distances and soon, because they found soaps on private Marathi television channels more lucrative to work in than theatre.

I shall not go into the details of Marathi theatre history. It is too long and complex. I will only say that the Mumbai Sahitya Sangh Mandir in Girgaum played a significant role in giving the theatre, born elsewhere, a firm footing in the city. The MSSM hosted a grand festival of plays in 1943, to celebrate 100 years of Marathi theatre, in which the first play, Sita Swayamvar, was created and presented by Vishnudas Bhave under the patronage of the Raja of Sangli in 1843. It was inspired by a performance of Bhagwat Mela which a troupe from North Kanara had presented at a local temple. The young courtier Bhave, having demonstrated his writerly and other theatrical skills earlier, was told by the Raja to create a play on the lines of the Bhagwat Mela performance for the entertainment and edification of the court. Edification was the operative word here, the one that would later make a fundamental difference between the Marathi Sangeet Natak and the Gujarati Bhangwadi plays. The sophisticated tastes of the court also demanded that the dancing and the noisy battle scenes of Bhagwat Mela be diluted or dropped altogether.

When the Raja’s patronage ended, Vishnudas Bhave’s rag-tag bunch of actors became itinerant players. Mumbai was the centre of attraction. It had a readymade paying audience and auditoria built for travelling troupes from England and the Parsi theatre. Whether Bhave is conceded the honour of being the first Marathi playmaker or not, and there are several contesting views on this, he was certainly the father of Marathi professional theatre; that is, of the ticketed plays we now see in Shivaji Madir, Dinanath Natya Griha and auditoria in Navi Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan and Dombivali. His was the first ticketed “native” play to be performed in an English-style proscenium theatre in Mumbai. His was the first troupe of secular, that is non-ritualistic performers to tour the length and breadth of Maharashtra. His was the first troupe to put entertainment on par with or even higher than edification. The journey of Marathi mainstream theatre has continued from those early days to the present without a break

I must now give literature a brief airing. A single event should illustrate the nature of inter-language tensions that exist in the field. Kiran Nagarkar wrote his first novel in Marathi. It was hailed by some critics as ground-breaking and dismissed by others as pretentiously non-conformist. Even as we were looking forward to his next, Nagarkar wrote it, and all succeeding novels, in English. He still hoped to take his Marathi readership along. Rekha Sabnis, actor and Sanskrit scholar, translated his English novels into Marathi. But the Marathi press took no notice of them. In a discussion about the reach of translation in fiction held at the NCPA, Kiran accused the Marathi press of deliberately ignoring his work because the politics of language demanded that he write only in Marathi. Gauri Deshpande, his fellow panellist that evening, had a similar accusation to make, but hers was against the English press. She had just published a collection of her Marathi short fiction which she herself had translated into English. She accused the English press of having ignored it totally, despite her high standing in the Marathi literary world and in English language journalism. She suggested the snub was rooted in the Marathi-English power equation, in which Marathi literature counted for little.

In theatre, the great language divide is also a divide in the approach to the modernity of the diverse language communities. I will not speak of Hindi here because it did not have as long or rich a history rooted in the city as did the other three theatres. The theatre sensibilities of each of these three were formed by their social and economic status and their cultural roots. Modern Marathi theatre, unlike the other two, was rooted in the reformist movement of the early 20th century. It gave us plays like Sangeet Sharada, a critique of the practice of marrying off young girls of poor families to rich old widowers; and Ekach Pyala, a warning against alcoholism. They were not dry, didactic plays either, but alive with memorable characters, wicked humour and enduring music. Post-Independence, however, the professional theatre turned lachrymose and melodramatic in deference to the sensibilities of its middle-class audience.

Meanwhile, another stream of theatre sprang up in the late 1950s and early ‘60s to challenge the soppiness of the professional theatre of the time. It explored new forms of staging and performance while also producing plays of raw realism by young, upcoming playwrights. The pioneers of this movement were Vijaya Mehta in Mumbai and a young group of writer-director-actors in Pune. This group had broken away from their parent body to do Vijay Tendulkar’s play Ghashiram Kotwal, which the elders had disapproved of. The young group, Theatre Academy, went on to make the play a modern classic despite the State and street censors calling for a ban on it.

The battles that the new Marathi theatre of the ‘70s in Mumbai had to fight, some of them in court, had everything to do with the modern value of looking at life straight in the eye and creating no-holds-barred drama out of that reality. To some extent, the different ways in which the Marathi middle-class, the Gujarati business class and the English-speaking elite related to modernity was as much a dividing factor as language. I cannot do better than to illustrate the point with two examples. The first highlights the divide between Marathi and English theatre; the second between Marathi and Gujarati theatre.

A Marathi play called Charchaughi, written by Prashant Dalvi and directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni, arrived on the professional mainstream stage in 1991 causing something of a stir. It was considered ahead of its time then and, not surprisingly, it is still considered ahead of its time today, when its revival has completed 1000 shows. During its first run, news of the play crossed the linguistic boundary into the world of English theatre. The theatre group Rage, headed by Rahul da Cunha, was open to various forms of experimentation. Da Cunha was intrigued by what he had heard about Charchaughi and was keen to see if he could do it in English. He asked me to translate it for him, which I did. We had several sittings over the translation, tweaking this, tweaking that, till finally, da Cunha gave up on the idea of doing it. Not because the play or the translation was flawed, but perhaps because he did not feel the excitement a director must feel when he chooses to do a play. Or perhaps because he could not see the play exciting his audience in the way it was exciting the Marathi audience. Ideas that were ahead of the times in Marathi, were no big deal in English.

The other experience relates to Satish Alekar’s complex tragi-comic play, Begum Barve. The play is about a female impersonator of minor roles in the old Marathi musical theatre. The golden age of the Sangeet Natak is over. Begum Barve is out on the streets. His life gets intertwined with the life of two lower-level government clerks, who spice their dreary lives with impossible dreams of the boss’s daughter and one Mrs Nalawade from their office. The clerks’ life is nothing like the fantasy life Begum Barve once lived, on brightly lit stages, rubbing shoulders with celebrity singer-actors, although never being in the limelight himself. The play is replete with snatches of songs from famous sangeet nataks, often used with gentle ironic intent. Alekar has created a play here that holds up to view both the rampant exploitation in the sangeet natak world of the past and the uncertainty of lower-middle-class life in the present.

In 1999, Chandrakant Shah of the Gujarati stage, adapted Begum Barve in Gujarati, seeing in the sangeet natak a parallel to Bhangwadi theatre. His version, Master Phoolmani, directed by Manoj Shah, was not a critique of the old theatre but a nostalgic look back at it. The play turned the tragic figures of the lower middle-class clerks into two comic, out-of-work actors. The snatches of stage songs from Begum Barve became 29 full-blown songs from the Bhangwadi repertoire. In the show of Master Phoolmani that I saw at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the audience sang along lustily with the actors. The play left not a trace of a shadow on our bright lives. The audience hummed and laughed its way out of the house. Maharashtra did not quite get Begum Barve in its first run when it did barely a dozen shows. It did much better in its second run in the 1990s. But that was not a patch on the 100 shows that its Gujarati counterpart had enjoyed.

Both Hindi and English are understood by a large section of Marathi and Gujarati-speaking people. Hindi plays, staged chiefly at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, and English plays chiefly at the NCPA at the other end of town, are inaccessible to the Marathi theatre-loving crowd who live in the far suburbs. And so we have four language theatres living their separate lives in a single city. Marathi theatre has travelled to wherever its audience has moved, from Girgaon to Dadar to Vile Parle to Navi Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan and Dombivali. Neither English nor Gujarati theatregoers are aware of what is going on in Marathi theatre; nor is Marathi theatre aware of what is going on in the other theatres. The language divide is complete.

Shanta Gokhale gave this keynote address at the annual programme of the Dr Aroon Tikekar Centre for Advanced Studies at The Asiatic Society of Mumbai on February 1.