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Friday, May 11, 2001

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Theatre time is here again


IT'S FESTIVAL time at Prithvi Theatre and Nadira Babbar, once again, mesmerises the audience with her sparkling effort. Here is a woman completely in love with the medium and her love is reflected in her indefatigable spirit. Adrenaline is flowing, and despite so many years of exposure, the magic remains intact. ``Saku Bai'', a monologue written by Babbar and enacted by the ever versatile Sarita Joshi, tells the story of a house-maid Shakuntala, the eldest daughter of Laxmi and Tukaram Zamble. She leaves Sawantwadi village for the big city to support her family. She has been working as a domestic servant for as long as she can remember. Supposedly illiterate and oppressed, but more wholesome and strong than many of us, Saku Bai has extraordinary insights into her own life as well as her employer's family. Enterprising and completely fearless, Saku Bai retains her sanity aided by her native intelligence, and even though she has many ghosts haunting her , Saku Bai hasn't lost the ability to enjoy life.

The play reflects the double standards of urban society. What happens in our servants' lives (domestic abuse) happens in our lives as well, only we define our insecurities in modern packaging. Superbly performed by Sarita Joshi, who sings, dances, impersonates, cries, gushes and moans and in short, has the audience asking for more!

``Begum Jaan'', on the other hand, is the story of a renowned classical singer living in self-imposed exile. The 80-plus maestro referred to as `memsaab' even by her nubile grand- daughter Zarina, is a feisty old woman with mercurial moods and shifting memory. Like most people of her generation, Begum has a colourful vocabulary, abuses and showers affection when you least expect her to. She shares confidences and then withdraws, she leads you with promises of intensity and then condones informality. Zarina is used to her fluctuating fancies, she has been a victim of it three times when she loved and lost. She is now doomed to a gloomy existence in a crumbling mansion and functions as Begum's secretary-cum-house-keeper.

Life changes for the two women when one day, a young journalist, Sanjay Pandey, impersonating as a paying guest, walks into their home looking for accommodation. He has found out that the legendary singer pretending to be dead, is leading an anonymous existence. He has ambitions of writing her memoirs and represents the new breed focussed on material goals. Begum is sharp to recognise his motives and gives him her dose. He is intrigued by her, but increasingly exasperated. He empathises with Zarina who is trapped by circumstances but is too preoccupied with his agenda. After multiple gallant efforts to extract information out of the old woman, the young journalist gives up and disappears.

Written by Javed Siddiqui and performed by Nadira Babbar, and daughter Juhi Babbar making her debut on stage, the play through the singer's experiences tells us of an era gone by. It revives our rich heritage, forgotten in present time. As usual, Siddiqui touches our hearts with his introspective pen. There are many inspiring lines and original similies. He compares human beings to onions, disguising hurts within the olds of life, but a slight prick and the tears trickle down...

As Zarina, Juhi is effective, but the play belongs to Nadira, who is more comfortable on stage perhaps than in her own living room. Her entry scene, of an awesome woman staggering down the staircase damaged after a paralytic stroke, is a haunting visual that stays with you long after the play is over.

The tradition of Indian theatre started some 2000 years ago. Till the 13th Century of the Vikram era, only Sanskrit plays were performed in the temples and the palaces of Gujarat and the art did not reach the masses. Subsequently, the tradition of Sanskrit theatre did not percolate into Gujarati theatre, when folk plays were performed without curtains. With the passage of time, the backdrop appeared, the stage was elevated and gradually, torches were lit up for illumination. The English introduced the front curtain. For the entertainment of the English officials, Italian and Russian artistes performed operas. The Parsis were inspired by these performances and they started their own companies, which comprised only Parsi writers, directors and artistes initially. But the language of the medium remained Gujarati. There are stories of a major showdown between the proprietor of the Parsi Theatre Group and his Gujarati accountants, following which Mumbai Gujarati Natya Mandali was established in 1878. Plays continued to be performed to full houses. Utmost care was taken to woo the potential audience, which included providing creches with cradles, so that young mothers could watch the play undisturbed. The theme was usually family entertainers. The opening night was an occasion to remember. The auditorium was decorated with flowers and glittering lights. Ardent lovers of theatre waited with beating hearts as the curtain went up, and as one event after another unfolded, adequately supported by lilting songs, the theatre resounded with deafening echoes of ``Once more...''

``Master Phoolmani'' pays tribute to the artistes and salutes that golden era. Written by Chandrakant Shah, directed by Manoj Shah and based on Satish Alekar's ``Begam Barve'', ``Master Phoolmani'' was first performed at Horniman Circle Garden, Mumbai, during the Prithvi festival in 1999. About the ``Bhangwadi'' tradition, it is an engaging story about fantasy and reality, so finely blended that it evokes an overwhelming response from the audience.

Two out-of-work ``Bhangwadi'' actors, living in deprived conditions, recreate their dreams in a dramatic manner by entering the fantasies of two, aged, bachelor clerks. One of the male actors forever desiring to play the female lead, fulfils his fantasy by enacting a role wherein he marries a clerk.

A one-man show on poet Narmad (1833 - 1886), the references interestingly are not limited to just the ``Bhangwadi'' but offers a world view.

The play examines the period of the early 1900, profiling the tradition of old Gujarati theatre when Jayshanker Sundari, a Gujarati legend (like Bal Gandharva), participated in path- breaking plays in the theatre tradition of ``Khada Nu Natak'', which when literally translated means the theatre of the `dug out'.

The exercise of writing ``Master Phoolmani'', says the author, has been ``very intimate and intense''.

BHAWANA SOMAAYA

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