July 27, 2011

Prem Utsav 2011 - Munshi Premchand Theatre Festival at Sathaye College

Munshi Premchand's Stories On Stage

Prem Utsav 2011 is currently underway at the Sathaye College Auditorium in Ville Parle (E), Mumbai. Over ten days, Mujeeb Khan’s theatre group, IDEA, is staging 75 plays adapted from Munshi Premchand’s works, ending July 31st, on the legendary Hindi and Urdu litterateur’s birthday. It’s an experience like no other. Go over and watch them.

If I needed any further confirmation that Mujeeb Khan was charting a path of his own and playing by his own rules, I didn’t have to wait beyond the minute after the lights went out at five minutes past eight to realize it myself.

Last weekend, just as the sixth and the last play of the second day at the ongoing Prem Utsav 2011 in Ville Parle (E) got underway at the Sathaye College auditorium, I’d noticed the artistes of his theatre group, IDEA, filter into the rows to the front, free of the costumes of parts they’d essayed through the evening in a series of plays dramatized from Munshi Premchand’s stories.

Mumbai Theatre Performances Of Premchand
I sighed in silence. So, there would be no curtain call, no names of artistes read out to the audience to the sound of applause at the end of each play, nor at the end of the day. Until then I had hoped to learn of the identities of the artistes against the roles they had performed if only to applaud the verve they had brought to each of the six plays staged that day.

Prem Ka Uday Munshi Premchand Story
They had performed spiritedly even though they had struggled occasionally to come to grips with the language of the legendary Hindi litterateur, a finesse in nuances and tone never easy to master in today’s age of Bambaiyya Hindi of ‘Kya Bey, Kettey Bey and Tu Kaiko, Mee Baiko’ variety, but at no point had they flagged in their enthusiasm or loosened the grasp of their characters, essaying their roles with a passion that must’ve done their mentor and teacher, Mujeeb Khan, proud as he looked out the window of the projector room to the back, his eye as unwavering upon his wards performing on the stage as over the audience engrossed by the unfolding drama.

Mujeeb Khan Theatre Performance
For, when I returned on day four of the ten day theatre festival celebrating Munshi Premchand’s works he remembered me as the ‘person who was photographing scenes from the plays the other day’. Mujeeb Khan apparently misses nothing in his presence. Bearded and clad in a kurta, his fingers were quick and his gestures, expansive as he made his point to the actors on some aspect of his craft.

There was applause aplenty at the end of each of the six plays staged at the auditorium, just that the actors would remain nameless to the end, the audience having to make do with a sheet of paper listing names of all student artistes involved in the 10-day theatre festival, oblivious of the parts they played in each of the plays.

Prem Utsav Mumbai Pictures
Apparently Mujeeb Khan placed greater emphasis on the staging of the play, the characterization of roles, the timing of dialogue delivery, and their precision within the constraints of the Hindi language of the late 19th and early 20th century, possibly of greater significance than the names of artistes. He takes much pride in his wards. And I assume the reverse to be equally true.

Premchand Story Drama Sampadak Moteram Shastri
Moreover there was no curtain for a ‘curtain call’. The end of each play was sounded by an echoing gong that followed a lights out lasting marginally longer than those between a change of scenes within a play. It took the audience some time to distinguish between the two but not after they’d applauded prematurely in the lights out between scenes with the applause they had reserved for the end of play.

Indian Theatre Performance In Mumbai
But no one minded it. The scripts were taut, the actors dedicated, and the performances energetic, making up for the occasional slip; the themes Munshi Premchand wrote about of the India of his time remaining as relevant to the times of the audience as his own even if their prevalence was not as pronounced an urban reality as it was in the milieu Munshi Premchand grew up in in the present day Uttar Pradesh to the north of India.

In my interview with Mujeeb Khan when I returned to Sathaye Auditorium two days later to ask him a few questions about his craft and his mission, Mujeeb Khan would characterize Premchand’s themes as ‘timeless’. He was right.

Poverty, Widowhood, Child Marriage, Feudalism, Worker Exploitation, Alcoholism, Relationships, Greed and the like are enduring in their centrality to society, and equally independent of time, geography, and milieu. Munshi Premchand’s skill lay in the persuasive way he wrote about them, constructing stories that draw readers into the narrative, living the characters in their moments of despair, enlightenment, and deliverance.

Sathaye College Ville Parle Picture
The entry was free. Mujeeb Khan explained it away saying his theatre group wanted to bring Munshi Premchand’s works to the people and had no wish to ‘sell’ Munshi Premchand. Just as Premchand’s works were ennobling for their themes and treatment, so was Mujeeb Khan’s intent, and dedication. Different, surely.

Sathaye College Auditorium In Ville Parle Mumbai
The Sathaye Auditorium is located in the campus of Sathaye College on Dixit Road and seats 150+ Mumbai theatre enthusiasts, small by Mumbai theatre standards but significant for its existence as a part of the college.

Mumbai Theatre Audience At Prem Utsav 2011
Soon after the three of us made our way to Sathaye College, at walking distance from the Ville Parle (E) railway station, theatre goers began to filter through the gates. A security guard sat in a white plastic chair by the board listing the schedule of plays for each of the ten days of the theatre festival, answering queries from visitors as to the starting time.

Munshi Premchand Theatre Schedule
“It’ll start at 5:30 pm,” he said without tiring of repeating it each time someone stepped through the gate.
“Are there tickets for the show?”
“No, the entry is free. There’re passes though,” he would reply.
At which some got flustered at not possessing passes for the shows. It’s easier buying tickets at the counter than chase after passes for entry.
“Where does one get the passes for the shows?”
“There,” the security guard pointed to the door of the auditorium.

Sathaye College Theatre Entrance
Dutifully, people stepped up to the door and pulled at the handle. The door would not budge. A little later, another theatre-goer pulled at the door handle. It still would not budge. The attempts stopped only after someone who knew better informed the others that entry is first come, first serve. And the doors retained their handles.

Eventually I did not see any passes given out and we got in without any. I assumed passes would be of use in the event the auditorium was packed to capacity. It wasn't that day.

Plays Based On Munshi Premchand's Stories
Strung between supports framing the approach to the door opening into the auditorium were motifs from Munshi Premchand’s milieu – kerosene lantern, woven baskets, and a tarazu. The latter was a constant in the undercurrents his narratives wove for, in the end, realization, and repentance had to balance out the straying from the righteous path for the message to go out.

The scales of justice had to tilt the right way. It was in the journey bridging both ends of human character, including the greys in between, that Munshi Premchand’s masterly portrayal of the human condition was essayed. And which Mujeeb Khan had sought to dramatise. He had come a long way, and he had a long way to go.

Theatre Banner At Prem Utsav Mumbai
Blowing in the breeze, a large banner hung from the trees along an open area where students were busy playing football in their colours while cadets stood to attention to one end. A group of student cadets, probably from the NCC, had hop skipped through slush with rifles held over their heads. The rifles were vintage, most likely Lee Enfield .303, at least from where I stood in the distance. I couldn't be certain.

The banner depicted a montage of images ranging from a farmer scouring the skies for signs of rain from his parched fields, a hangman stringing up nationalists from Indian Independence movement, fields under plough, monuments, temples, and Mahatma Gandhi, each a context in Munshi Premchand's writings.

Sathaye College Audi
It had just rained and K and V had disappeared to a roadside tea stall for a glass of chai each before returning just as the bell sounded and the door opened as theatre enthusiasts drawn by Munshi Premchand’s aura trooped into the small auditorium.

Schedule Of Plays At Mumbai Theatre
The next two and half hours skipped time as the six plays staged in succession brought a whole gamut of human condition alive, bringing to life India’s legendary Hindi and Urdu littérateur and his sensibilities while trammeling the composure we had stepped in with, twisting and straightening it at each turn.

It was an evening to remember, and an experience to cherish.

The plays we saw that evening: (1) Pashu Se Manushya Tak, (2) Zindagi Aur Maut, (3) Pachtaava, (4) Boodhi Kaaki, (5) Prem Ka Uday, and (6) Sampadhak Moteram Shastri.

Note: In the next installment I’ll post the pictures from the above plays with brief story outlines.

Plays Scheduled for 28 July: (1) Mandir, (2) Tyagi Ka Prem, (3) Masoom Baccha, (4) Dhithkar, (5) Sava Ser Ghehu, (6) Nimantran, and (7) Jihaad.

The theatre festival opens each day at 5:30 pm, and continues until 31 July, 2011.

IDEA – Ideal Drama and Entertainment Academy.

July 24, 2011

Ganapati Idols Idle Streetside In Mumbai

Ganapati Idols On Sale In Mumbai

If Mumbai needed any further reminding of the approaching Ganesh Chaturthi festival, the makeshift structures made of bamboo supports lashed together and alternately covered by plastic sheets and the occasional tarpaulin now cropping up on roadsides with colourfully done Ganapati idols on sale do an effective job of reminding the city that its most cherished, dutifully celebrated, and much revered deity, Ganapati, pot belly and all, is due a visit to their homes.

I’d have to stretch my memory to recollect any other Hindu deity as creatively rendered as Ganapati or Ganesha as the elephant-headed God is known. If he didn’t occupy the minds as much he wouldn’t find himself skillfully rendered in mediums ranging from plantain leaves, coconut shells, rava ladoos, to wood, Plaster of Paris, and clay among other material. It obviously helps to have a trunk as his most distinguishing feature.

For the sake of Ganapati, the devout will banish fish and other non-vegetarian food from their house until the time he occupies centre stage in the house, preening in decorated luxury while neighbours troop in for his blessings, and the modak of course. It's another matter however, like they say of Goans good-naturedly, that hardly has Ganapati been borne out the front door to much merriment and tears alike, the fish comes in the backdoor!

Ganesha Clay Idols In Mumbai
Across the road in Vile Parle (East), just as we approached the railway station yesterday, headlights from the traffic streaming past lit up the Ganapati idols on sale at a roadside shelter manned by a woman busy on the phone fielding enquiries for the Ganesha idols on sale while her assistant was showing a couple around the place. They had a difficult time choosing from the shapes and sizes on display, each as endearing as the next.

Soon, as the days pass and Ganesh Chaturthi draws near the idols disappear as families take the deity home to continue their love affair with harbinger of good.

And somewhere trackside, only interrupted by the local trains hurtling past, youth from shanties and slums neighbouring the railway tracks will be drumming away in small circles, practicing for the return journeys Ganapati will make, back to the earth from whence he sprang into the Indian consciousness.

Note: On the highway between the western suburbs of Borivali and Jogeshwari, workers in makeshift tents are busy at work on Ganpati idols, adding finishing touches before putting the Ganapati idols on sale.

Note: This year the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations will kick off on September 1.

Related Posts

1. The Last Journey Of The Elephant-headed God

July 14, 2011

The Burden Of A Hundred Tunes

Street Vendors In Mumbai

Framed by arches of the David Sassoon Library across the street from where he stood facing the road, the flute player held fort with his tune on the pavement outside the Jehangir Art Gallery, an impromptu stage he chose to lend his burden of carrying a hundred unsung tunes on his shoulder.

Photo Flute Player On Mumbai Street
Circling around Mumbai’s celebrated Art Space, the pavement conducted the moving mass of Mumbai’s humanity along in choreographed chaos not unlike a river in spate breaching its banks to the terrifying scream of its intimidating silence wreaking unsuspected violence from the force of its unrelenting movement forward.

David Sassoon Library Kala Ghoda Mumbai
And like a hapless tree caught in the middle of a strengthening river, the street-side flautist stood alone among his tunes, gathering his melodies around him into embracing his isolation on a busy street.

Jehangir Art Gallery In Kala Ghoda
With the flute pressed to his lips, the flute player had emerged from the Pavement Art Gallery that runs along the length of the K. Dubash Street in the Kala Ghoda precinct, barely breaking his stride past framed paintings of hopeful artists mounted along the open stretch, scarcely interrupting his tune along the way, hoping to interest passersby into lending a home to his many flutes that jabbed the sky indignantly at the indignity of lacking embraces.

But then Yeh Tho Mumbai Hai Meri Jaan.

Street Flute Player In Mumbai
As his tunes flowed outward they wrapped around passing feet without managing to slow them down, lingered by conversations without succeeding in pausing them, floated alluringly past reading eyes with nary a glace gracing them, dodged impatient taxi drivers unmoved to the passing melody, stepped past speeding traffic, and circled around invisible wakes of passing humanity in the hope a tune would find a home in an earnest ear, and a flute, a new shoulder to lean against.

Time fled past. The day grew shorter by the minute. The melodies wound hopelessly by. And a not a single flute left his shoulder.

Selling Flutes On Street In Mumbai
The soulful melodies that issued forth from him thinned out before he let the flute drop, turning his head to scan passing humanity for passing interest. There was none.

Framed by the Bombay of yesterday, with time having chipped city sensibilities to the functional, the promise of possibilities the city once held out to street-side melodies had met their end in the reality of the irrelevance of the individual, and individuality.

Pavement Art Gallery In Kala Ghoda Mumbai
Turning on his heels he returned the way he had come, seeking deliverance for his flutes at another street corner.

The search for acceptance circles around without ever completing the circle.