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A brief biography
As part of the NSD Repertory Company, Baokar helmed several important productions, such as Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Carl Weber in 1968; Teen Take ka Swang, based on Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Fritz Bennewitz in 1970, and Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Virasat, directed by Satyadev Dubey, in 1985, among others
In 1984, actor Uttara Baokar was rehearsing a play at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, when they received the news that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her bodyguards and anti-Sikh riots had broken out across the city. She lived in Karol Bagh, several kilometers from Mandi House, where NSD is located. Bus services had stopped. So, Baokar walked home. She saw people running on the roads. Fires were burning everywhere and there was fear of mob violence. “I focussed on reaching the safety of my home and, a couple of hours later, I did. When NSD reopened after the curfew, all of us were back at work,” she has told The Indian Express. Intrepid off stage and on it, Baokar, who helped shape Indian theatre at the critical period after Independence, passed away in Pune on Tuesday after a prolonged illness.
“I have always maintained that acting just happened to me. Neither I, nor anyone in my family, had ever thought that I would make a career as an actor. Music was another matter. I had started learning Hindustani music at a very young age and dreamed of making my name as a classical artist,” Baokar had said in a conversation with Delhi-based Amal Allana for the book, The Act of Becoming, in 2011 in Mumbai.
One of Baokar’s defining roles was Gandhari, the queen and tragic mother of the Mahabharata in Andha Yug, in a production by Delhi-based MK Raina that was staged in 1986. Dharamvir Bharti had written Andha Yug in 1953, in the aftermath of the Partition and World War II. As news of losses from the Kurukshtra battlefield trickled into a dark auditorium where the play was being staged, Gandhari had raised herself and confronted her sorrows. She turned her wrath at Krishna. “Tum yadi chahtey toh ruk sakta tha yudh yeh (If you had wanted, you would have stopped this war),” she cried.
Only an astute performer could freeze audiences with enactment of the human losses of a war in this role. Raina would work with Baokar in several stage and television projects. “A rare actor and selfless human being….She would ask amazing questions during rehearsals for which I had to give answers and explanations and you would see the power of her executing skills and understanding,” said Raina.
It was in Delhi that Baokar first came on stage. Ebrahim Alkazi, a legend in theatre, was making Abhigyana Shakuntala for an international Sanskrit festival and needed performers who were well-versed in the language. Sanskrit was a part of Baokar’s graduate course. “It was my first exposure to theatre per se…Though I enjoyed the experience, I learnt nothing about theatre. I just did what I was told. After seeing the play, my family and even Mr Alkazi suggested that I consider studying at NSD, where he was the Director. Without giving the matter much thought, I agreed to join the school,” she says in The Art of Becoming.
As part of the NSD Repertory Company, Baokar helmed several important productions, such as Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Carl Weber in 1968; Teen Take ka Swang, based on Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Fritz Bennewitz in 1970, and Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Virasat, directed by Satyadev Dubey, in 1985, among others. She had acted in more than 50 pays in her lifetime. In films, she won the national award for best supporting actor (female) for playing the wife of a professor who goes out for a walk one day and does not come back in Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Achanak. Then, there were Tamas and Rukmavati Ki Haveli by Govind Nihalani. The latter was based on Federico Lorca’s The House of Bernaada Alba and Boakar was present in the lead as the mother of five unmarried girls whom she controls with brutal force. Tamas was a star-studded production where Baokar who played the Sikh woman Jasbir, caught in the Partition riots, shared space with Om Puri, Amrish Puri, AK Hangal and others.
Baokar, born in 1944, was three when Independence — and Partition— happened. “I did not realise the importance of freedom. I began to understand things during other wars — with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in 1965 — when loud, wailing sirens warned of air raids by Chinese or Pakistani aircraft. Entire cities plunged into darkness. People hid under beds, clutching one another. Everything could be obliterated in a flash,” she had told The Indian Express, adding that the lockdown as the first time since the 1984 riots in Delhi that she was confined indoors. Among Baokar’s last productions was Letter from an Unknown Woman, based on a German novella, which she was doing before COVID put an end to theatre. “Theatre is a part of the life of this nation,” she’d say.