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. M. S. Sathyu
“Believe in fairy tales!”
It isn’t every day that a young, starry-eyed theatre actor is able to engage in a conversation with one of the doyens of Indian theatre.
As I prepared to interrupt a fine evening of cricket watching, that too RCB vs CSK, my mind raced back in fond recollection to the briefing for Thespo 18 (2016) Lifetime Achievement Award. I was responsible for escorting, The M. S. Sathyu, onto the stage to receive the award. Every millisecond of the journey, from the front row to the stage, prompted visuals in my enthused mind accompanied by a consecutively increasing heart-beat. Ba-Bum, the director of Garam Hava (1974). Ba-BUM, the awardee of ‘The Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film’ and ‘The Padma Shri’. BA-BUM, one of the brilliant minds of 20th Century Indian Theatre. Six feet tall, I felt like a little boy gazing with awe at the embodiment of a true craftsman… a magician.
My curiosity and excitement at the time hoped to be able to pick the brain of this legend on how it all began. Lo and behold. The initiation of The First Chapter granted this amateur the distinct honour to engage in an interview titled, ‘What was the experience of your first professional theatre endeavour?’ Little did I know the conversation would cast a spell and transport me to a bubble where we would talk about his most nervous moments, his theatre rituals and his fondest memories.
Intrigued? Let me cut to the chase.
M. S. Sathyu had his first brush with professional theatre, designing and scripting productions for the Indian National Theatre such as Dekh Teri Bambai, Krishna Leela and Discovery of India.
Sathyu, recollected that back in his ‘Bambai’ days, “we didn’t take anything lightly. We were all campaigners of perfection regardless of professional reputation or personal consequence. I remember in my early days Pravin (Joshi) would drive up to my then Mumbai house, tell me it’s an emergency…a crisis…with the last scene of ‘Kumar Ni Agashi’ and force me to accompany him to The Juhu Hotel.”
“We would sit for hours ON the table. I think the bar was open only for us. I remember some of my most appreciated set designs began on the paper napkins served with our drinks. It’s not like this happened just once. Every play that gave us a crisis, saw us racing to our spot on the table. That is theatre for me. It takes over your life and you don’t mind it.”
As I held my breath on the other end of a phone call listening to this story, my mental registry flashed through members of my ensemble and how I would have to organise an impromptu expedition to the nearest adda, to design a play. Secretly hoping, later in life I can say Sathyu sir inspired me…like the many minds he has in his 90 years and counting.
And counting? Yes! Earlier this year sir was seen working in the foyer of the Ranga Shankara theatre for a play directed by Surendranath. The eye witness account can be provided by none other than Atul Kumar who commented, “Kab tak tum kaam karte rahoge?”
Sir was not trained in any particular discipline of the theatre. His creations sparked from harnessing his own inner element. Delving deep into his soul to find that suspended moment of fantasy and then enchanting his audience by making the seemingly impossible, possible!
“Every play, every film, is a challenge before you. As long as you feel the challenge you can overcome whatever difficulty that process has to offer. Challenges help you. You have to take on one project after another…it never ends. If one project is a success and you become complacent, that’s not fair to the next project! Every time you approach a play you should look for THE challenge so that you can be in your element. You’ll feel yourself bringing out something that surprises you.”
He gracefully articulated a simple philosophy about ‘giving it your all, always’ and it successfully shook me to my core. As I contemplated my own baby steps into the world of theatre, I stuttered into my next curiosity-fuelled inquiries about his most nervous moments and his theatre rituals.
“Theatre always makes you nervous” he said, “The first show or the last, it doesn’t matter. The first day of any show makes you feel insecure, apprehensive and excited at the same time. My most nervous moment was when I was working with The Theatre Group, Bombay and they locked me up in a room at the Belvedere Court and refused to let me out unless I handed him (Alyque Padamsee) the designs. As you can see we all took our jobs very seriously. This was for a production of Othello in 1963. I was compelled to hand in one design after another. And finally when one met the standards…the expectations…the door was opened with Alyque’s smile marching forward with his iconic, ‘Let’s crack on’. This particular show was witnessed by a foreign delegation from London. They wanted to see a replica or miniature of the set. We didn’t have anything in place so Derek Jefferies our Light designer used cardboard and I set it up on a huge cake that was baked specifically for this purpose. We used it for our Green Room party and it was then taken to the Shakespeare Museum in London where it now lives.”
As for theatre rituals, M. S. Sathyu giggled at how he would love to crack a champagne bottle at the end of a successful show or post wrap up.
“On a serious note though, I would always encourage the breaking of a coconut before any of my creative endeavours, be it screen or stage. Personally, I am a non-believer but I enjoyed the faith in a greater power as a good omen.”
As our interview drew to a close, I kept edging for one last question.
Sir humoured my request by telling me his fondest memory associated with the legendary Gautam Joshi (a founder member of the INT) and the Babulnath Temple.
“The 82 Steps!” he burst out in painful recollection. With his hearty laughter and warmth in his voice he strung together a tiny tale.
“My fondest memory was attending the workshop conducted by (Gautam) Joshi. It was an incredible workshop that he had organised on top of the Babulnath Temple and I wouldn’t miss it for anything. If my faculties enabled me, I would stride up and down those stairs multiple times even today.”
Sir, if you are reading this, I would like to reiterate that this stroll down your memory lane has charged every ounce of my being to create, strive and challenge myself…along with those around me…for excellence.
Thespo is a youth theatre movement that curates a range of activities through the year aimed to showcase, and train young theatre enthusiasts. Through community theatre watching experiences, a quarterly e-zine, workshops, performances, play readings and an annual festival, we celebrate young talent and hope to build a community of young theatre professionals.