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Ever since data got cheaper, internet reach in rural areas has hit a growth spurt, and so did the online viewership. But there’s no dearth of audience for the rural theatre form Zadipatti in eastern Maharashtra. It continues to be a rage among viewers and artistes, and is still a major source of entertainment in the local dialect spoken in eastern Vidarbha. Zadipatti is a huge commercial success too.
Loud cheers and whistling, with occasional bursts of laughter amid some gossiping in a makeshift theatre are typical of any Zadipatti audience. The plays showcase contemporary topics, and present them in a unique style. Zadipatti is most popular in four districts — Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Bhandara and Gondia. Zadi in local dialect means bushy forest and patti is belt.
Follow The Money
Commercially, Zadipatti is so successful that it has been an alternative source of income for many commercial actors from the mainstream Maharashtra theatre, TV and cinema. Marathi stage and film veterans like Mohan Joshi, Deepak Shirke, Ramesh Bhatkar, Alka Kubal and many others used to act in Zadipatti plays during the off-season — four months a year.
Trushant Ingle, who directed the recent Marathi hit film Zollywood, is one of them. “I worked in Zadipatti for years, which helped me survive in the Mumbai film industry,” he says. Zollywood is a story based on Zadipatti.
The theatre provides succour for lesser-known artistes too. Nisha Dhongade, who runs a beauty parlour in Chandrapur, travels to far-off villages in the evenings to be on a Zadipatti stage.
Zadipatti’s story is at least 150 years old. It began as a movement to promote local talent, and keep farmers and farm hands of the rice belt entertained. Before Zadipatti, a few folk art forms like Dandar and Dandigaan used to be popular among villagers.
Sometime in 1886, a few dwellers from the forested areas of eastVidarbha got to watch Marathi theatre form ‘Sangeet Natak’ (musical drama) in Nagpur. Fascinated, they replicated it in their own style, which came to be known as Zadipatti. It became so popular that villagers would walk several kilometres to watch the plays. Veteran researcher Dr Harishchandra Borkar, who has done his PhD in Zadi dialect, says Zadipatti got the initial patronage from malgujars, the then landlords. “The plays were staged in the night, during village fairs, harvest festivals and religious events. ”
Setting The Stage
Zadipatti stories were at first woven around folklore. The dialect used was the locally-spoken Marathi. Since there were no auditoriums (even today, there are only a few), makeshift stages were set up. People used to bring their own mats. Until 1960, men used to play the female characters. The first ticketed show was staged in Gadchiroli on February 26, 1960. Today, Zadipatti theatres, though makeshift, have seating arrangements. Posters of the plays often match those of movies. Tickets are usuallypriced lower than those of conventional theatre.
A School Of Drama
Modern Zadipatti theatre, like a Bollywood masala movie, has evolved into a total entertainer packed with songs, live orchestra, dramatic lights and several characters on stage. Zadipatti musicians sit in front of the stage and not in the wings.
Salim Sheikh, Nagpur head of Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Natya Parishad, an apex body of Marathi theatre, says at least 100 actors from the city are associated with Zadipatti. “We all have learned a lot from Zadipatti. Acting here may appear loud and raw, but it’s a school of theatre. Be it dialogue delivery, singing, presentation, technicalities, Zadipatti teaches you everything,” he says. The directorate of cultural affairs, government of Maharashtra, launched a competition for Zadipatti plays last year.
Soul At Risk
When homeopath Dr Parshuram Khune, who has been associated with Zadipatti for 50 years, was awarded Padma Shri this year, themovement came into the limelight once again. “The soul of Zadipatti lies in local artistes, especially the amateurs who speak the local dialect.
Commercialisation brought in the much-needed money but over-commercialisation is bad,” warns Khune. He argues that Zadipatti theatre is an ecosystem in itself. “There are at least 60 theatre groups that employ scores of people like drivers, make-up artists, technicians and helpers. If you take all this into account, the seasonal turnover of the theatre touches Rs 50 crore,” he says.
NO FEAR IN THE RED ZONE
Despite emerging from the land infamous for Naxalite presence, neither the Zadipatti artistes nor villagers have faced any threat. In fact, the Reds attend some of the Zadipatti shows, says a journalist who interviewed a few artistes associated with the theatre movement. “Once, some Naxal cadres stopped a Zadipatti troupe travelling for a show, but let it go after making the artistes perform for some time,” says the journalist, recalling the experience of the artistes.