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Of the old and the new

ROMESH CHANDER

“Awagha Rang Ekachi Zaala” proved that popular theatre doesn’t have to be vulgar.

Photo: Sushil Kumar verma

Engrossing A scene from the Marathi play “Awagha Rang Ekachi Zaala” at the recent Bharat Rang Mahotsav.

A couple of weeks back the curtain came down on the 11th Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM), marking the beginning of the 51st year of the National School of Drama. Started a decade ago the festival this year featured 63 productions out of which 51 were from India and 12 from abroad. For the first time, BRM also took 18 of these productions to Lucknow. In Delhi the festival attracted more than 50,000 people and in Lucknow about 10,000.

I missed most of the presentations this year but of those that I saw six to seven were outstanding and most of these have been earlier reviewed in these columns. The organisers tell that the main focus of the 11th BRM was to showcase the work of new directors. “We had invited ten, whose work is distinguished by the manner in which they open up older and even classic texts to stark political or gender scrutiny.” Unfortunately, I missed their work as also the face-to-face discussions between them and some senior established directors.

In the so called serious and popular theatre there is a category of theatre that is full of vulgarity and porn that draws a large audience even if the tickets are Rs.500 or more, in Mumbai and a few other centres.

But what we saw in “Awagha Rang Ekachi Zaala”, the inaugural presentation of the Mahotsav is any indication, the definition of the so called “popular” theatre in Mumbai is fast changing.

Since I don’t understand Marathi, first a brief summary from the director’s note; “Awagha Rang Ekachi Zala” depicts Appa Velankar, a well-known kirtankaar, and his family. Appa is constantly getting into arguments with Sopan, his son, who wants to modernise the ancient art by adding a touch of fusion music. He has not allowed his daughter, Mukta, to marry the boy she loves because he belongs to a different caste; and for a similar reason he has asked his elder son to leave the house.” Into this scenario enters Jenny, his America-born Indian disciple, who comes to learn the ancient art from him in the true Gurukul tradition. The play looks at the relationship that develops between Jenny and Appa and at her attempts to reunite the Velankar family. Is she successful in her endeavour? Does Appa teach her the traditional Indian kirtan? Is Sopan allowed to perform his fusion-kirtan? Will Mukta finally elope with her boyfriend? The play tries to answer these questions. “Awagha Rang Ekachi Zala” also highlights the rich culture and music of the kirtan form as juxtaposed against the growing popularity of fusion music.

The director in his note says that the play has given him the opportunity to work on a musical for the first time in his career, which spans over a period of thirty years. “The music is a mix of the traditional and the modern and can be called remix or fusion or any other name that means a break from the old traditional music. The play also raises the question of whether we want to accept change and move on or if we want to remain rigid and conservative and stagnate. While directing the play I faced the challenge of putting together a team of artistes from different schools ranging from the veteran Shri Prasad Sawkar, aged 81, to Swarangi Marathe, a teenager.”

The play must be brought to Delhi again so that the directors of so-called popular theatre need not think that it is vulgarity alone that can bring in full houses. Surely, the Maharashtra Government could help the local producers in this regard.

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