Issue No 125: I faintly remember passing the Scorpio, as I had trouped up the rickety staircase to the iconic, intimate theatre space in Pune, Sudarshan Rangmanch. The occasion was the staging of a long act play, ‘Wasansi Jeernani’ by Mahesh Elkunchwar and two Monologues/ Solos, by students of the Lalit Kala Kendra, university of Pune. That was their maiden and last show in Pune, before they embarked with this ensemble, on a journey to the interiors of Maharashtra, a part of their new venture’ Theatre Flamingoes’, an attempt to reach theatre to the masses . And as I learnt later, that was the Scorpio which would be’ home’ to these 9 friends and their driver, for the next 14 days ,covering a total distance of 4700 km.
I have spoken of the concept of ‘Theatre Flamingo’ in my last piece. In this article I listen on patiently, as this group of youngsters gush through their experiences on this trip. And believe me, they have lots to share! Having met them before they left and now chatting with them on their return, I noticed a stark difference in their demeanour. They seem to have ‘grown’ this fortnight, and are more cautious in their answers. The initial sheen and enthusiasm seems to have ebbed. Here I interact with a more mature bunch, weighing the pros and cons and critically looking at the effectiveness of this trip.
At this juncture, it becomes pertinent to speak a bit about the plays they had crafted, to showcase on their trip. Not because I wish to fill in this space with my banter, but because, as I realised later and so did these artistes on their trip, the selection of the pieces had a definitive impact on the places they were staged, the kind of viewer they attracted and the audience response. Mahesh Elkunchwar’s ‘Wasansi Jeernani’, tells a story of a rural based family and the debacle of family values, as each wait for the patriarch of the family, now on his deathbed, to breathe his last. This highly verbose play, spins around relationships and the false facade that we don while dealing with them. Set in a realistic form, the presentation is a mirror to real life. The first solo by Ketan Jadhav, is a philosophic piece inspired from the play,’Dinuchya Sasubai Radhabai’ by Baban Prabhu. It edges on concepts of existentialism and the absurd , with a strong subtext, requiring a maturity to decipher. The third,’ Chitrakati’, by Abhishek Dukhande, using the folk form of Chitrakati, popularised in the village of Pingoli in the Sindhudurg district. He tells the story of Padmini, Devadatta and Kapila, from Girish Karnad’s ‘Hayavadana’, using hand painted scrolls, to aid the narrative. It is a delightful presentation, garnished skilfully with contemporary issues.
They started their journey from Pune to Devgarh, Ichalkaranji, Jalna, Nanded, Amravati, Kankavli and then Goa. They had multiple shows in each destination and one wise thing they did, was to get most shows commissioned through personal contacts, before their departure. At some places the response was good and they were asked to perform for an additional audiences, which simply added to their list and they had no qualms to oblige! The venues varied from school auditoriums, to courtyards, to empty, undusted rooms, to marriage halls, to temples to a terrace atop a private house. This just added fun to the entire experience.
Their first stop was the village of Tallavale, in Devgarh. Though the play had been announced, no one turned up at the predestined time. The villagers were not ready to leave their daily soap halfway. The artistes had to then go to each house and remind them of the play. They did this in their costumes .When they finally turned up in huge numbers, a few hours off the scheduled time, they were ready to stay the whole night. This is interesting as they have been trained to watch folk forms like the Dashaavatar, which is a night long affair. The play finally started, but the audience was restless. They were not connecting with a realistic presentation. They needed melodrama. When the artistes made last minute changes in their style, it worked and had the audiences hooked!
People in small towns are connected in some way or the other, where power politics and personal ego’s, reign high. At one such village in Devgarh, a particular group which had sponsored the play took out a rally to announce the play. Another group which had also contributed took offence at someone else hogging the limelight. This ruffled feathers, but was finally sorted after much cajoling. Both groups sat together and watched the play!
At one such’ Jatra’ (Village Fair), where the group was scheduled to perform, no one turned up for the show. Vinayak came to know of this ‘peanut seller’, who was a crowd puller at the’ Jatra’, selling his peanuts to one and all. He convinced him to set up his cart near the play venue. And believe me, the crowd actually turned up, eating peanuts while watching the play.
In contrast to the konkan area, Ichalkaranji and Nanded had a knowledgeable audience, who has seen theatre. They identified with the realistic presentation. However the venue was in shambles with no place to even hang the lights.
Setting up the performance place from scratch, doing the show, then winding up and travelling the next lag to an adjoining village, was soon taking its toll on the youngsters .Though this had been a part of their training at the department, the hectic schedule was unexpected.At this point their driver came in handy. Apart from helping load the Scorpio, he also helped back stage and even offered to film the play on the handy cam. He was the great moral booster, when they were tired and exhausted.
As they moved from village to village, traversing cities and geographic locations, their experiences mounted. At times it brought smiles to their faces, at others astonishment or then mere frustration and surprise. They cleaned makeshift rooms before the show, doing door- to –door rounds calling people for the show, sitting through long lengthy speeches before their show by organisers out to make the most of this opportunity, actors needing to change in the open, in a cordoned off area, moving about the village doing their own publicity and many more such. At one point they even performed in a moving bus! Another incident they all share with amusement, is when a long ribbon was tried across the performance area ,in from of the set, before the show, and which was cut ceremoniously, to inaugurate the play But each experience was a learning they had never expected to encounter.
As Ketan expressed,’ At times it felt stupid being there. What was the condition of the people in the villages? What was their real need? Was showing them theatre going to relief them of their daily struggles and angst? Were we doing the right thing by coming to them with these plays? How were they going to relate to the stories told? In Jalna and Amravati, the people did not know anything about the Chitrakathi form, so the response was poor, while the solo on caste issues was greatly appreciated. This we realised at most places, where people related to plays depending upon the circumstances they lived in, their upbringing and sensibilities. But I wondered as to how we could influence their aesthetic sensitivity and whether by doing so it would make any difference to their lives? When people are to struggling to survive against multiple hardships, bureaucracy, corruption and natural calamities, how, by us doing theatre, the quality of their lives would change for the better?’
Vinayak added,’ We wondered whether we should have included more of the folklore and ‘Loka kala’ (Folk theatre), than the realistic plays? When we go to the villages, it will be important to understand the temperament and sensibility of the locals and design plays accordingly, something that they can connect with. We got a tremendous response wherever we went, strengthening our belief that people are interested in theatre. Just that we need to go there more prepared to face all eventualities. In this tour we did all aspects of theatre, which made us very confident. It was also a learning experience in team work and management. It has been tiring and demanding, and at the same time enjoyable and educative. We are determined to go back there, for which we are already getting our acts together.’
I have seen the functioning of such experiments from close, especially the Tirugatta of Ninasam , the Kinnarimela of K.G. Krisnamurti in Heggodu or Janakaraliya in Srilanka. And there are many such travelling theatres in India. However I am cautions not to blow the bugle and announce ‘ Theatre Flamingoe’ to be an ideal venture, but there are things that work in its favour. Youthful excitement can be volatile, especially with these talented bunches, who are sure to make headway in their chosen careers, but their resolve seems unabated. One thing strong in their favour is the flexibility provided to the actors in their participation. This will ease them of the stress to a commitment which, at this point, only gives them immense satisfaction of travel and performance and the inherent learning, sans monetary returns. Different actors will be able to join in to fill in vacant spaces and the wheels can keep turning. This will add freshness to the venture and probably churn up different approaches to make it more feasible. On the flip side if it generates money, fresh graduates could use this avenue to tilt on, till they make their break in whatever field they choose-a buffer of sorts! I say this with conviction, because a similar attempt by actor Altaf, who graduated from Performing Arts department, Hyderabad, started an NGO, using theatre for the underprivileged section of society, created a definite source of employment for fresher actors who are recruited by him on their graduation. And he pays them well!
There are numerous possibilities that could arise out of this venture. One thing the ‘Gypsie actors’, voiced unanimously, that this was an unbeatable learning experience. Now isn’t that what makes all the difference?
Dr. Ajay Joshi is a practicing dentist, with a PhD in theatre criticism and an MA in Journalism and Mass Communication. He has freelanced as a theatre journalist for publications like Times of India, Indian Express, Saakal, PtNotes, Himal etc. He is involved in theatre as a media person, organiser, coordinator, judge and teacher.