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 littĂ©rateur 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.


Anuradha Shankar said...

So you got to attend this! wonderful! and we get to experience it second hand! I read about it, but the time and place made it difficult for me to attend! and 'timeless' describes premchand so well!!

Riot Kitty said...

I would love to go!

Connie said...

Wow, a ten day theater festival! So much work must have gone into producing these plays and making them happen. This is very impressive.

Anonymous said...

The banner reminds me of my days in community art, thanks for a wonderful post!

Nona said...


Lynn said...

What a wonderful festival - I hope you are enjoying everything as much as this one!

Anil P said...

Anu: I attended several stagings. At first I was apprehensive considering the distances involved in travelling to the venue of the Munshi Premchand theatre festival and back, and the timing of the shows as many would be.

But then I was drawn into actually going considering it was being staged as a tribute to Munshi Premchand, an attempt to bring him to a larger audience. Without audiences it's difficult to retain anything over time, more so the heritage Premchand left behind in his works.

The scripts were delightful in their variety. Mujeeb Khan has apparently put considerable effort in adapting Munshi Premchand's stories for the stage, and in directing the plays, and I'm sure he must've faced great odds in doing so, many sacrifices to make, yet continuing without losing heart.

In a way, attending it was as much paying a tribute to Mujeeb Khan's efforts as with being introduced to Premchand's fine stories.

The variety and treatment of the plays staged during the festival has been excellent save a few blips here and there.

Hopefully you'll triumph distances and make to the last two days.

Riot Kitty: You would have liked them.

Daisy: 75 plays staged over ten days with students of Mujeeb Khan's Drama Academy acting out the scripts; each day staging between 5-8 plays in succession, over 2-4 hours at a stretch is some feat.

Indeed, lot of work went into staging the theatre festival. Like you said, very impressive.

Toenail: Thanks.

Nona: Thanks.

Lynn: Thank you. Am enjoying attending many of the plays.

Red said...

Wow, I wish I could be there :( havent done theater since a looong time.

anilkurup59 said...

Hello, That was very good post to read. Though my knowledge of theater is very very minuscule or nothing, I have heard of Premchand's works and appreciate your keenness in blogging on it.

I have seen a few plays by Kavalam Narayana Panicker ( in Malyalam) and they were novel for its presentation , and was a bit like the description you gave.

Maybe you can visit on the blogger the Post of Balachandran.V , titled "My Travels, My Life", profiles of interests of you and his seems delightfully almost similar.

Anil P said...

Iengar Chick: Maybe next year you might want to schedule your visit to Mumbai see the plays.

Anil Kurup: Thank you. Nice to know you liked the post.

Munshi Premchand's writings, primarily his stories, constitute an important period of Indian history and milieu, in addition to being very evocative, and rich in style and content.

It's nice to have Mujeeb Khan dramatise his work for stage, while retaining the key essence of the message contained in his writings.

I haven't read Premchand's work in the original excepting a few shortened stories in Hindi as prescribed at school. His full length novels should make for even more interesting reading.

I do read Balachandran V's postings, and he writes well, and evocatively of his travels. Thanks for suggesting.

marja-leena said...

What a rich cultural experience. I love your beautiful photos of the stagings, they remind me of similar scenes in one of Deepa Mehta's films, maybe it was "Water".

marly youmans said...

I enjoyed following your outing and musings about the play and playwright and director--lovely photographs, too. I like the little episode with the door handles: a tiny play in itself.

Anil P said...

Marja Leena: Thank you. The costumes in the plays Mujeeb Khan directed, he took care to conform with the clothing in the time of Munshi Premchand - late 1800s and the early 1900s. Premchand died in 1936.

Even now, save certain styles, the clothing hasn't changed by much in India's hinterland.

Marly Youmans: Thank you. The door handles, yes, anticipation of entry drove the little drama there.