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Pune-based Satish Alekar was one of those who broke away from the Progressive Dramatics Association (PDA), founded by Dr Shriram Lagoo and Bhalba Kelkar in 1952, with the entire cast of “Ghashiram Kotwal”.
In 1972, the play “Ghashiram Kotwal” was creating sharp divisions among theatre artists in Maharashtra. Written by Vijay Tendulkar and directed by Jabbar Patel, it was set in the era of the Peshwas but everybody could see that it was a political satire of their times, on the theme that absolute power corrupts. The play ruffled feathers in the corridors of power.
What has slipped unnoticed is that the controversy set the stage for the arrival of a new playwright who was all of 23 at the time. Pune-based Satish Alekar was one of those who broke away from the Progressive Dramatics Association (PDA), founded by Dr Shriram Lagoo and Bhalba Kelkar in 1952, with the entire cast of “Ghashiram Kotwal”. “This decision was taken because PDA had decided to close down the production after an initial run of 19 shows,” says Alekar.
A new group, with Alekar, Mohan Agashe, Jabbar Patel, Chandrakant Kale, Shriram Ranade, Ramesh Medhekar and the cast of Ghashiram Kotwal, was formed on the terrace of Alekar’s wada in Shaniwar Peth on March 27, 1973, which was World Theatre Day. It was called Theatre Academy. “But, before Theatre Academy could revive ‘Ghasiram Kotwal’ — which it did in 1973-74 — it needed a script to participate in the state drama competition at Bharat Natya Mandir,” says Alekar.
He penned his first full length play, “Mickey and the Memsahib”, about a molecular biologist searching for intelligence by experimenting on rats even as he falls deeply in love with a beautiful lecturer. It was considered too experimental and had only eight public shows. This year marks 50 years of “Mickey and the Memsahib” — and the beginning of Sangeet Natak Akademi-winner Alekar’s journey as one of the greatest living storytellers of the Indian stage. He has written plays such as Begum Barve (1979) and Mahanirvan (1974). During Covid, he wrote Thakishi Samwad, which was published last month in Marathi.
Time for politics and plays
Pune in 1949, when Alekar was born, throbbed with political ideologies and cultural activities. His parents, Usha and Vasant Alekar, were Gandhian socialists who had been to jail, his father in 1942 for four-and-a-half years and his mother for nine months. Usha, who died at the age of 93, was a “chaar-anna” Congress member, a term derived from the fee that one paid to become a member of the party.
“When I was in Class X or XI, my parents took me to the Deccan Gymkhana tennis court, where a temporary stage had been erected, and P L Deshpande and Sunita Deshpande were performing their first play, ‘Waryawarchi Warat’. It was my first experience of the theatre of PuLa and, like everybody else, I was enchanted,” he says. Tickets were expensive, between Rs seven and Rs 100.
Pune was fertile ground to nurture a child’s dramatic imagination. Theatre spaces were like the small Bharat Natya Mandir, where a mandap used to be erected to supplement the main hall. Every summer, open-air theatre spaces used to mushroom in Bhave High School of Sadashiv Peth. The audience sat in the open space and watched Marathi musicals of artists such as Chhota Gandharva.
“Today, there are various kinds of theatre spaces available in Pune, from formal to informal, designer to traditional but it is the proscenium (in which the stage and audience seats are distinct, separate spaces), an idea borrowed from our colonial past, which has emerged all over Pune. This is because the Pune Municipal Corporation feels that the proscenium is the only design in theatre,” he says.
The only exception was that, while constructing Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir on JM Road, the municipal commissioner, Bhujangarao Kulkarni, who was a theatre lover, took the advice of the Deshpandes. “As a result, though traditional in design, Bal Gandharva has features such as rooms for artists to stay all night and a lot of space in the basement for sets. A truck can reach almost the wings. All this was available to us in 1967,” says Alekar.
Films at FTII, Capitol Theatre
Alekar also recalls those Sunday mornings when a boy could cycle from Shaniwar Peth to Camp in 15 minutes to watch Bengali films at Capitol Theater, now called Victory. “Those days, the last bus left around 8.30 pm or 9 pm, after which there was no traffic since the population was low. We’ve lost that Pune,” he says.
Another loss has been the environment of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). When Alekar was at Fergusson College, FTII started a film appreciation course for college students and he was among those selected for it. “FTII threw us open to films from all over the world. We watched. Satyajit Ray’s trilogy, Ingmar Bergman and Ritwik Ghatak. That is the impact a film institute had on a young person who wasn’t even a part of the film fraternity,” he says. In “Mickey and Memsahib”, Alekar used a bandish from Ghatak’s “Meghe Dhaka Tara” as the background score.
Once, Habib Tanvir came to conduct a workshop at FTII and Alekar joined the audience for the famous play “Charandas Chor”. Thanks to FTII, Alekar never read a book but watched films instead. “FTII was a huge part of Pune culture. It had not shut its gates to people. You could go and attend classes there. I feel sad for FTII,” he says. Looking ahead with Lalit Kala Kendra
After liberalisation, the audience ratio went down for theatre as people gravitated towards television. There was a need for formal training in theatre. Alekar, a post-graduate in biochemistry, was teaching at the BJ Medical College in Pune. In 1994-95, he took over as the head of Lalit Kala Kendra, the Centre for Performing Arts at Pune University, and introduced innovative courses, such as physics, psychology and sociology related to performing arts. “Many of our students are working in India and abroad and several have entered academics. So, this is how we move on,” he says.