February 01, 2014

It’s a myth that theatre will die

Mohan Maharish is a renowned theatre director and teacher in India. He is an alumnus and also the former director of National School of Drama. He is known for his revolutionary plays like Einstei, Deewar Mein Ek Khidkee Rehti Thi, Raja Ki Rasoi, Ho Rahega Kuch Na Kuch. He has taught theatre at Dept. of Indian Theater, Punjab University and at the National School of Drama in New Delhi. The following interview was conducted when he was in Pune to direct and stage “Deewar Mein Ek Khidkee Rehti Thi” based on a novel by same name penned by Vindo Kumar Shukla.

You took up theatre training in 1960s. Was that a conscious choice? Also, what were the conditions back then in regards of training and survival as a theatre practitioner?

It was a very conscious choice. Conditions were bad. Theatre was not a career and it is still not a career. But during those days, there was no TV, hardly any chance of getting into films so one had to sustain on theatre. I remember I was paid 200 rupees to direct a play for a three months period for a group called “Yatrik” in Delhi. It was very miserable. We slept outside Connaught place and did theatre during the daytime.

What was the professional theatre scene back then?

That period was the initial days of spaces like NSD. The current conditions at NSD are much better if not best. Still I don’t know why there is no professional theatre in North parts of our country. Also, quality of the Marathi professional theatre is doubtful. Unless there is good, thriving professional theatre as in England, it is not possible to sustain an actor in theatre. He would run to other avenues like TV, films etc. I know very good actors who are residing in ghettos in Bombay and are living a subhuman existence. Still the conditions of actors are pretty bad. You see, an actor is an actor. He can’t do anything else. You can’t expect an actor to be a bank clerk in the morning and be an actor in the evening. He likes to devote his entire time to theatre. But that’s not possible due the absence of professional theatre in the country. Now its ironical that several universities have opened up theatre departments and they are opening more such departments which offer training facilities in theatre. What are you training them for? Where do they go? They are training them for Ekta Kapoor?

This is where I wanted to arrive at. Many of your fellow NSD passouts moved to films but you remained rooted in theatre. Why if I may ask?

The reason to that was my guru Ebrahim Alkazi. He advised me that it’s not the way you should be going. I was the topper at the drama school and he loved me. He told me that he would like to see me as a theater artist all my life. And well, his advice was god’s word for me. He was an excellent teacher, good director and a great person.

You’ve travelled around the world to see different kinds of theatre. Could you share few experiences?

I went to Germany in 1963 for six months and was attached Berliner Ensemble which was Brecht theatre. Brecht was really a god that time and still is for many people. There I really saw how a professional company works. I travelled with the company. Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel was one of the finest actresses I’ve seen that time. I had the opportunity to see her act as Mother Courage. I saw her in 3-4 plays and then I sent in a request to meet her. At that time, the officials stopped me from meeting her as she was the star of the troupe so I had lost all hopes of meeting her. One day early in the morning I went to see the place where Brecht was buried, where I saw a lady who had just walked in whites with a little red flower in her hand. She was Helena Weigel! I wanted to speak to her but couldn’t gather enough courage. I didn’t even know whether she understands English and I didn’t know German at that time. The same incident happened for the second day. Third day I gathered some guts and waived at her and she smiled. I approached her and started off the conversation. She knew English! Talking with her, I walked with her to the theatre where I saw rehearsal of one of their plays. It was not allowed then but the officials were confused whether to throw me out or allow sitting there as I had walked in with Helena Weigel. I learnt a lot about acting being with her and other actors at the Berliner. It was a great opportunity for me to get our of Alkazian training and see something different and more professional. With Alkazi it was very serious, as we were entering some temple.

You had a short stint with Doordarshan too in its formation days.

Yes! It was just beginning at that time and was black and white. P.L. Deshpande was there and I was recruited as a producer. And I was miserable there as it was not my medium. I didn’t like it at all though I did some good things for them, like I refused to drama there. The director called me to ask why I wouldn’t do drama where I was selected to do drama as I was qualified in theatre arts. I said yes and it’s because of these qualifications I am not doing it. Because I know how to do it, how it should be done but it’s not done like that. They would send me 20 scripts a month and approved by some third person and I was supposed to d them. I had never done theatre like that. I chose my scripts and crew and I will do it my way. When I told them this, Nandlal Chabra who was the director then, looked at me and asked whether I would be ready to work in Current affairs. I immediately agreed and it turned out to be a great learning experience for me. Here I was talking to professors from JNU, DU, Journalists, people like Girilal Jain (the then editor of Times of India), Frank Moraes of Indian Express etc. Lot of these great people were coming on my programs. I was happy doing it but I was unhappy too in certain sense. But after you’ve done a whole day’s work, there was no clapping which a theatre person craves for! There was no live contact with my audience and no immediate response. So I left Doordarshan as it didn’t suit my instincts of a theatre practitioner.

Is it the same time you went to Mauritius as a cultural advisor to the Government?

Yes. They were looking for a husband wife couple. So me and my wife, Anajala, immediately accepted it because I was getting back to theatre. There I was cultural advisor to the prime minister and my assignment was to start theatre in Indian languages in Mauritius. It was part diplomatic and part artistic. We enjoyed our stay for first three year though the last two years were not so good. We went to the villages. Each village was organized in youth clubs. There were about 300 such youth clubs. We visited all of them in a month talking to them and sold them the idea of doing theatre in their own language. They were eager to speak in their own language and immediately hoped on to this idea. When we came back to India after 5 years, there were more than dozen theatre festivals every year happening there in different languages and still continue. It became an institution in itself. We started a training program where representatives from all the clubs would come to attend and learn theatre.  It was hard work but rewarding. We started drama festivals in Urdu, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi etc. These people were taken as bonded labourers from coastal areas. They were very conservative and as a male, I would not have any access to young female members of the club hence it was very important for them to have a husband wife couple there.  The last year was bit boring as the political climate changed. I came back in 1979 and joined Punjab University and then was appointed as the director of National School of Drama.

How difficult it is to be a NSD director? I’m asking in a sense that the students who come to NSD come with their own baggage of culture and linguistic traditions. I guess binding them in a common thread would be a tough job.

I exactly understand what you are trying to ask. It’s a challenge! This problem can only be attacked by not considering this as a problem. One needs to attack it creatively. I don’t think it’s the weakness of class if its multilingual, multicultural class rather it’s the strength of the class. I tackled it in a manner wherein everyone was happy. The students wanted to do King Oedipus. Now I had a boy from Manpur, a boy from Surat, a boy from Bengaluru etc. in the class. The idea of king and kingdom the Manipuri boy had was different from that of the boy from Surat since they saw different kinds of kings and kingdoms. So each one spoke about it and they learnt about each one’s culture. Also I read a lot of material about linguistics and consulted many linguists on how to approach a multilingual class wherein we developed speech patterns that would help us address this issue creatively. That experiment could’ve brought tangible results to the table but my tenure there was short as I resigned on principles as they brought in things I didn’t like.

In the book “Community and Culture”, I read a piece by K V Subanna where he argues how national NSD is and how it has been primarily a hindi theatre school. In a country like India where there is such diversity in languages and hence theatre, do you think the idea of single national drama school holds relevance?

Uptil now, we can’t call it a “National” school of Drama. It’s a Delhi School of Drama. But the idea of the national drama school is strong. It is possible to reach there with proper research and work towards achieving this goal. The student should be encouraged to learn about
each other’s cultures and traditions. Also, in linguistics, you could do research in enunciation, and by realizing that there’s basically universal grammar. Kenneth Connelly, Noam Chomsky has done a great deal of work in these areas. So there’s a sort of network of languages which inherently at their very root are similar. So it is possible to sense it and hook on to this network and look for exchanges and communication.

Do you see NSD heading there?

No. Nobody’s working like that and nobody is serious about this. For example, this play (Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi) travelled across the country when it was staged by the NSD repertory. It was well received everywhere, even in rural Assam. It was understood and appreciated. So, it is possible to but there has to be very serious research towards creating a national theatre which we can truly call national.

And what according you would be features of national theatre?

Well, it should have local references. I think in this kind of globalization we’ve had in this country, the cultural impact on theatre is negative. In other arts it’s possible because the abstraction is higher and there’s no word.  Here, because of the language it is localized and I don’t think theatre should run away from that reality. Local reference is very important. We shouldn’t be doing a kind of post modern theatre which is being sold to us in some way. Lot of director have fallen for it. You can take elements and bind them with strong and authentic Indian content.

With your vast canvas of experience in theatre, do you think the love and craze for theatre is still there in the people?

Audience is there everywhere in this country! It’s a myth that theatre will die. People are hungry for theatre but the theatre is very little, both content and effort wise. The professional theatre, the touring companies is not there. If you do a good job, you will never have an empty hall. There are people to see it. In fact we have so many people in this country that a substantial part of them will be enough to run several theatre companies in India.

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