That first time you stood in the wings waiting for the third bell or tensely chewed your nails watching the audience file into the theatre; that first sound of applause; that first time when an industry stalwart came backstage and shook your hand; that first tour to another city with your team; that first time you actually got paid for your work….these precious moments and many more stay etched in your memory forever. The masti, the friendships, the sudden feeling of self-worth as if you have finally arrived. That creative high of your first professional experience.
Thespo understands this better than anyone. For they have, over the years, given artists and theatre makers that final push from where so many have deep dived into the profession. So, what better way to celebrate their 22 years than a series of 22 heart-warming and nostalgic chapters from the life stories of a range of theatre professionals… handpicked by Thespo from across the Indian theatre spectrum.
The First Chapter asks each of them a very simple question – “Tell us about your first ever professional theatre experience?” From there unravel stories of joy and inspiration, struggles and triumphs. And that one thing that ties them all, young and old, together – the incredibly contagious spirit of theatre.
Ft ARUNDHATI NAG
“Man aasani se jeeta jata hai”
Arundhati Nag is no stranger to any theatre practitioner in our country. She began her theatre journey with IPTA and has scaled the ladder of success since. She is a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2008), the Padma Shri (2010) and the National Film Awards (2010). She has acted in productions in a range of languages: Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and English. Her work has taken her beyond the stage into the world of regional, national and international cinema. An inspiration to generations, she has immortalised her late husband (Shankar Nag) by building the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, one of the finest theatre spaces in the country.
It is such an honour to be conversing with her and finding out the stories that have made her who she is today. She is fondly addressed as ‘Aru aunty’ and ‘Aru Tai’ by those who’ve worked with her. I remember being awestruck by her performance, while I was a Stage Manager for Mother Courage and Her Children at the Kala Mandir in Kolkata (2017).
I had questions to ask her then, but did not want to disrupt the process. This time around however, my curiosity knew no bounds as I plunged directly into:
When was the first time you were paid as an actor Aru aunty?
“My first ever paid experience was in the 9th grade when I was selected for a play on All India Radio (AIR). It was like getting selected for a Hollywood movie! I got a 10 Rupee cheque for my part. Of course, nobody recorded it, but that cheque is proof that I worked for AIR. I didn’t have a bank account so I used my first ever pay to open one at Grindlays Bank in Khar (Mumbai).”
The thought of 10 Rupees and its value in 2020 as compared to its value when she opened the account, made me laugh. I continued:
What was your first ever Professional Theatre Experience?
“So the earlier 10 Rupee story is like a landmark moment for me, because you have to understand that it was a completely different time. I belonged to a non-theatre, middle-class family. We had ice- cream ONCE a year and cake only on our birthdays. These were made by Mum and there were four of us, so four cakes per year. When I was all of 16, I joined IPTA and they did not pay us anything. Except…when we had a house full show we would get 10 Rupees. It’s the MAGIC Number (she broke into a laugh). You should have seen the joy on our faces. Established character actors from the movies like A. K. Hangal and Shaukat Kaifi would wave their notes about, chanting, “Aaj toh mujhe das rupay mil gaye. Kamai ki hain humne, THEATRE ki kamai” [We got 10 Rupees today! We got paid a salary, a THEATRE Salary!] That 10 Rupee note was treated like the King’s Ransom.” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
I was beyond excited to discover that Aru Aunty was bitten by the acting bug at the age of 9! On further questioning she revealed that because of their consistent success during inter- collegiate festivals, she and Paresh Rawal (her contemporary at Narsee Monjee college) did not have to pay any tuition fees. She was also allowed to grab signed attendance slips and leniencies for her exceptional record at bringing in prizes for the college.
“We did not have a clue about maths and we were in a COMMERCE COURSE! I was so glad for the theatre. I do have one regret though. I really wanted to study at Sir J. J. School of Art. But my mum felt I should study something that would give me greater security. So, Narsee Monjee happened instead. I’m still surprised as to how they accepted me without my having studied maths in senior school.”
I pressed on to find out the first time Aru aunty was paid for her individual contribution to a professional theatre experience, not while she was part of an ensemble, group or anything of the like.
The story she revealed was absolutely worth the wait.
“See, I was 17. I was a ‘punkish’ girl…hands full of silver bangles wearing a sleeveless banyan. I was a complete mad hatter! At the time Kamlakar Sarang and his wife Lalan Sarang were looking for a new face. Kamlakar had just written a new play called Sahaja Jhinki Maana [Hindi: Man aasani se jeeta jata hai. English: The mind is able to live and breathe easily]. I don’t remember who recommended me to them, but there I was at a script reading. After the reading he took me to the balcony and sheepishly asked me how much I expected to get paid. I had thought this would be like IPTA, in terms of pay. Inside my head I was bursting with excitement, but in a composed fashion I remember saying I should get paid the same as everybody else here. To this, he coyly asked if 100 Rupees would be enough. CAN YOU IMAGINE MY EXCITEMENT? I consider myself so fortunate. The Marathi shows were so hectic though…something I did not foresee. There were months when I did 20 shows and some months with 42 and before you knew it, I was suddenly earning 3-5 thousand Rupees a month…in 1974!”
The play seemed to be an absolute hit with its back-to-back house full shows. Intrigued beyond my imagination, I asked her if she would tell me more about it.
“Shrikanth Moghe, the reigning star of the time, was in it. Kamlakar and Lalan Sarang were acting in it. My role was a pivotal one where I was there for the ten minutes just before the curtain went up and the entirety of the third act. They saw me as a strange butterfly in the garden of Marathi theatre. I remember the first tour of Borli Panchatan, another play but with the same group of people. I had not travelled by bus except in the 114/84 Ltd from Santa Cruz to Dadar. I was standing throughout the journey and fell terribly ill. By the 4th show I was beat. I remember telling the director that I wanted to go home. He said, no baby, you must complete the remaining ten shows…It was a very different world, the commercial theatre.”
During the run, she realised the privileged background she came from. She learnt the harsh reality…that a lot of her fellow actors and theatre makers were dependent on their theatre income for their daily bread. Her ‘butterfly’ status was probably only shared by Vijaya Mehta and very few others at the time, ones who didn’t need the money for their sustenance. This discussion prompted her to recollect what she calls the sledgehammer of her theatre career.
“We were doing a play called How the Other Half Loves. It was the beginning of the era of the multi-star cast. The show was performed in Marathi by Kala Vaibhav and in Parsi and Gujarati by INT (Indian National theatre). The ensemble consisted of Satish Dubhashi, Rohini Hattangadi, Avinash Surekar, Sudhir Joshi and myself. Moments before the show was about to start, as Rohini and I were preparing to make our entries, the production manager found out that the sponsor had not paid the committed 1000 Rupees. He walked to the centre of the stage and announced that the show was cancelled! Rohini fresh out of NSD and I from IPTA were in tears. We almost begged Sathish Sir to not take off his wig in resignation, while watching the carpenters bring the set down. I remember going up to Sudhirji, a seasoned commercial actor, along with Rohini begging him to do something, anything! I can still remember what he said:
Sudhir Joshi: What world do you live in? You want to change the commercial game? If we do the show today, every contractor is going to run away just before the show. This money may not be as important to you as the responsibility to perform to those 500 people out there, but think about those who are dependent on it. We cannot sacrifice them for our artistic satisfaction.”
As artists we aspire to learn. Sometimes the learnings are not restricted to the world of the play or that of the character. One of the striking things that aunty mentioned, which has now left me with a personal mission, is to find my ‘SAA’ (The first and last note of the Indian musical scale). She told me that in the last 30-40 years of her experience she has overcome hurdles and trained herself to know and find her ‘SAA’…the pitch to start on and the pitch to end on. The full circle of the performance – emotionally, physiologically and psychologically.
“There is really no alternative to practice. There are no shortcuts. Therefore, to recognise what you have in your kit, you have to keep honing your skill. You have to be your own ‘Dhwarapalaka’. I have not gone to any drama school and I’ve learnt by watching. My advice to the younger generation is to travel around India and be a good audience. Watching OTT is not India. Travelling the country and seeing the craft with your own eyes, that is India.”