Apara Mehta on tour in Toronto
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Gujarati Theatre: Awaiting The Third Bell

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Before Corona is the new BC for the year 2020. But before we started washing our hands ten times a day, looking for designer masks on Instagram or trying to Google how to do a digital detox, we, the Gujarati community, looked forward to a lot of other things. Let’s start with the weekend. Ideally, it began with the leisurely reading of the newspaper. Yes, I know I’m meant to write an article about the art and business of Gujarati theatre. But the pages and pages full of Gujarati play advertisements in regional newspapers is an image worth remembering. Just before we added ‘lockdown’ – a new word in our daily conversations – Gujarati theatre was flourishing, with sold-out shows through the week and public shows on the weekend.

Gujarati theatre has been thriving in Mumbai for decades – since the time of the Bhangwadi theatre in Kalbadevi. Its prominence led to the rise of iconic theatre venues across Bombay’s cultural landscape, like Tejpal auditorium, Mysore Association, Bhaidas, Prabodhan Thackeray and recent additions like Aspee and Clap. For most Gujaratis, a visit to the theatre is not just about going to watch a play. It’s an experience. With fixed traditions. Like the afternoon sold-out shows for women’s groups… quintessentially dressed home-makers with their dabbas full of khakhras and chevda.

A stalwart of contemporary Gujarati theatre, actor, director and producer Sanjay Goradia, shares the theatre’s far-reaching impact. He says, “Normally in Mumbai only Marathi and Gujarati plays see theatregoers crowding at the ticket window. It takes about Rs.5 to 7 Lakhs to produce a play. Each year 25 new productions go on stage and almost 2000 shows take place, including shows in Mumbai, Gujarat and overseas. The cost of hosting one show can go up to approximately Rs.75000.” Gujarati plays typically travel to the US, Canada, London, Dubai, Muscat, Kenya (East Africa), Australia and New Zealand and over a two month season they perform a show every day.

Sanjay Goradia in Ekko Raja Rani

The economics of Gujarati theatre depends primarily on the patronage of various social groups and their sold-out shows. In the light of the recent pandemic the dynamics have altered. The virus has caused a sudden blackout for the industry. This raises serious concerns for the future. Shows that were booked, new plays that were about to open and theatre groups that were supposed to travel internationally, are now clueless about when they will next hear the third bell.

But the Gujarati theatre community is a close-knit one, where colleagues, co-workers and support staff are like family members, Therefore looking out for their welfare at this time has been paramount. Sanjay Goradia spoke about how producers and senior actors contributed to a relief fund through which they were able to pay a monthly sum of Rs.3000 to more than 150 people. But unfortunately they were able to sustain this for only three months. With the pandemic not looking to end soon, tragic stories have started surfacing. He talks about a make-up artist who has been compelled to wash cars to earn a living.

Actor, director and producer Rajendra Butala, also spoke about the plight of backstage workers and other assistants associated with theatre production. He said, “Initially we were all expecting an end to the virus, but once things got from bad to worse, some leading producers got together and we requested our clients, i.e. the social groups, to donate funds. We managed to collect money for three-four months and sent relief to our people. But for how long can we sustain this?” Butala also spoke about the cancellation of two major productions that were about to open on 29th March and the loss for the producers being not less than 10 lakhs. Two other plays had opened just weeks before the lockdown and now they do not know when they will face the stage lights again.

Rajendra Butala

Not just mainstream Gujarati theatre, the troubles of experimental and upcoming theatre practitioners also seem to be never ending. But the adoption of the digital space has been an option tried by some. Young experimental theatre director Pritesh Sodha shared his experience. “I feel, theatre in Corona times has dared to ask more imaginative questions about our complex reality. I experienced it when I stopped asking myself ‘when will things get back to normal?’ I have to adapt to the digital times. I had ticketed performances of my play “Dastangoi” (Gujarati) and “Nanimaa”. I had a live reading of my play “A Fair Affair” on Zoom and had YouTube premieres of some of my experimental work like “Mara Asatya Na Prayogo” and “Happy Diwali”. Theatre has continued to surprise my audiences. In spite of the anxiety of internet lags during live performances or sound issues or the screen freezing, emoji claps and digital sighs from the viewers made my actors happy. For me, the theatre did what it is supposed to do. And I am sure that in the post-Covid world, it will continue to demonstrate why this art form is invincible. As a strong advocate and practitioner of Poor Theatre, I have never felt so empowered.”

Paresh Vora in Pritesh Sodha's Happy Diwali

The entire community is naturally eagerly waiting for sold-out shows, block bookings, house full boards, ads in newspapers, flying out of the country with their teams, asking the make-up dada to apply more blush on their cheeks. But along with this wishful thinking, how optimistic are they about reopening theatres and what the future looks like?

Sanjay Goradia feels, “It is not right to expect people to come to an auditorium till the vaccine is here. They will fear sitting in an enclosed space. Television and production houses working for OTT platforms have resumed shooting, but theatre without human interaction is a utopian idea.”  Rajendra Butala is not very optimistic either. He rightly feels that most of the audiences for Gujarati plays are senior citizens. They will avoid venturing out to the theatre, and obviously, without an audience, a play means nothing. Also, after this devastating economic slump, entertainment will be the last priority for everyone.

Sanjay Goradia with Roopa Divetia

There are other concerns as well – from the quality of productions to the costs of staging shows that adhere to Government protocol. Sudhirbhai Tejpal, the owner of Tejpal Auditorium, has seen the highs and lows of the Gujarati theatre business for more than three decades. He believes the reopening of theatres could lead to substandard productions, as people in the business are likely to want to make a quick buck. Hence the quality might suffer. “As I own an auditorium I know for sure that if a play is being staged, I want it to be excellent, not just anything. If I am allowed to fill only half the auditorium and not its full capacity and if therefore tickets are costlier than usual, I cannot afford to risk all this with a bad play.”

Tejpal also talks about how it is impossible to follow sanitization protocols round the clock, especially for those working on the sets. How do you avoid surface contact? He adds, ‘We need to accept that entertainment won’t be a priority for some time. Also, inflation is high, so the compensation will have to be bigger and that is going to be difficult. Maintenance will also be an issue- from light bills to ushers salaries to transport costs.’

While talking to veteran theatre actor Apara Mehta, a known face on television and films, a darker picture of the ‘lights off’ situation emerges. She says, “I am worried that a time will come when people will talk about live theatre as a myth. There is not just the fear of the virus, but of not making money, sitting next to a stranger, making a loss while selling only 300 tickets in a 700 capacity auditorium and much more. This is true for everyone involved in the process of making and watching a play.” She feels that if things go back to normal, seniors might have to take pay cuts. We may have to work with folding sets to save money, have fewer helpers and make other adjustments too. According to her, with Bhaidas auditorium not being available for over two years now, the number of sold-out shows has reduced. And with new auditoriums charging exorbitant rents, there has been an overall shrinkage of the Gujarati theatre industry. She believes the pandemic has proved to be a warning bell for the Gujarati theatre industry.

Apara Mehta and the team

Sharing a tragic insight into the economic conditions of actors who come from Gujarat to Mumbai to make a living, she says, “They are juniors so they survive only on theatre shows. They manage to get a bed to sleep on rent by paying Rs.100 a night. They cannot survive in Mumbai if there are no shows. They have gone back to their hometowns, looking for work in Gujarati serials which are being locally produced.” Adding to that she says, “It’s not just actors. Those who worked at set storage godowns have gone back to their villages. With no labour, many have emptied these warehouses as they can’t manage to pay the rent. Many sets are also irreparable after the rains.” In conclusion she says, “I have no clue how everything will work out. And it doesn’t make sense to have plans. We all had them for 2020 and look what happened.”

To conclude, a cliché might help – at this point we have nothing else but hope that will keep us all going. In Mālavikāgnimitram, one of the first plays he wrote, Sanskrit poet Kalidasa (4th-5th century AD) evoked the sublime power of drama, describing it as a beautiful visual sacrifice for the Gods. He ends a shloka with: “Natyam bhinna rucherjanasya bahuopyekam samaradhanam.” – “Drama is the single (unique) means of pleasing people of different tastes in many ways.” A shloka that resonates with all the thespians even today. That is the reason why theatre aficionados are certain that the curtains will go up once again, the audiences will be there to talk about who was better on stage, which saari looked gorgeous and why the play made them laugh or cry!

Special Thanks to Kajal Gadhia Budhbhatti for her invaluable help and advice
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About Chirantana Bhatt

Chirantana Bhatt is a journalist and a writer currently working as an editor of gujaratimidday.com. She is a trained dancer and a performing artist. She is a keen observer of theatre and has written plays. She strives to be a continues learner of stagecraft and aspires to be more active on stage.

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