How does it feel to come back as director to the place where you were a student in the early 1980s?
It’s a pleasure but I am also nostalgic. The institute has expanded. In my time, it was a training programme. There was only one course for 60-65 students and one repertory. BV Karanthji was director when I entered NSD, and in my third year, it was BN Shah. I am nostalgic about every inch of space here because saara sanskar hua hai yahan (my cultural awakening took place here). I could work outside, do theatre in three languages, Hindi, English and Marathi, run training programmes — my vision was born here.
Take us back to your first day at NSD.
I was a very shy boy from a poor family. My father was a farmer, with a small piece of land in a very remote area of Maharashtra. Even now, there is no approach road to my village, Daradwadi in Beed district, and in the rainy season, my village is inaccessible. I had only a pair of trousers and one pyjama. Dilli pehli baar dekha (I saw Delhi for the first time). My interview had taken place in Baroda, I had been selected from there. When I came to NSD, I looked around and my first thought was, “Such a beautiful place to learn something”.
A shy boy from a poor family, why did you want to do theatre? It is not a very paying profession even today...
I have taken part in progressive movements since my early days. We fought for rural and student issues. Since childhood, I had a leadership streak. In college, especially, I got involved with many progressive movements. We would meet the tehsildar, collector, nagaradhyaksha (mayor) to sort out problems; akaal para hua tha (there was a famine), there was no food and all the students were going back to their homes. They did not have jobs, their parents were poor. We would collect money and run a mess for them. Tackling these problems of farmers and rickshawalas sort of prepared me. It gave me an insight into the lives of people who are deprived and haven’t got their dues. All through this time, I wanted to have my own medium of expression. I had seen some plays and I realised that this could be my medium. If you create one play, it is equivalent to a thousand speeches.
Any play that proved to be a turning point for you?
Lok Katha in 1978, directed by Ratnakar Matkari. For seven-eight days, I was under the influence of that play. It was based on a real rape case. The narrative was about landlords using women from “outcast sections” of the society. It was such a powerful play. I tried my hand at college and street plays and realised I was comfortable with the idiom. I also realised that if I have to make theatre my profession, I must learn it. My training had to be sound. I went to Dr Balasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University for a year and after that, I was selected for a three-year course at NSD. Then I got a fellowship to research on the ritualistic and folk theatre of Kerala for two years. I had decided that I would not stay in Delhi, I would go to my native state.
You became famous for Zulva, and your theatre has always focussed on people on the fringes.
My concern is the man, the person, the life that is not even considered and respected as the life of a human being. I am pulled towards them. Zulva was based on a girl from a community called the Zoktins. She wants to be a teacher. These girls were offered to the goddess Yellama. Their work is to serve men, whoever comes to their door, they cannot refuse. Woh dulhan hai bhagwan ki, lekin dasi hai saari duniya ki (She’s wife to the gods, but servant to men). The story was how this girl struggles but her own community, even the whole society is against her. This was based on a real story. The girl is still there. She couldn’t become a teacher but she became an ayah at a hospital, assisting nurses. PL Deshpande (noted Marathi writer, actor and composer) told me the play disturbed him. It used to disturb everyone.
You don’t believe in theatre as entertainment?
I have not done a single play that is “entertainment”. I prefer that the audience questions and probes. Serious theatre does have an entertainment value, but only in a larger context.
Zulva, in a way, paved the path for Janeman, your play on the eunuch community, considered a milestone in contemporary Indian theatre.
There was a character in Zulva, the guru of all these girls. He is also offered to the gods, he has to wear a sari throughout his life, have long hair, and cultivate feminine behaviour. Those like him are protectors of the tradition, but they exploit the girls and they are also exploited by society on many levels, including physically. So, several people started calling this character a hijra (eunuch) and I would say that he is not a hijra. Then, I’d be asked, ‘Who is a hijra?’ I had to find the answer for myself, I had to be clear about the eunuch community and that took 15 years of my life —reading about them, meeting them, fieldwork. It was written over and over again at least 10 times. Finally, it became a play that would not only educate the audience, but offer serious entertainment.
Did you believe a play on eunuchs would manage to draw such a huge audience?
I deliberately titled it Janeman, so that people would come to see a ‘play’. After that, it would be the job of the content and the performers to hold the audience. Fortunately, that happened.
Since when have you been into music, because it is almost always a character in your plays?
Many of my plays do not have music, but the popular ones do. I belong to a farming community and was surrounded by folk music since my childhood. All our folk culture is agriculture-related and connected with the agricultural cycles. Folk artistes depend on farmers for their livelihood. Early in the morning, they would come to farmers’ houses for dakshina or alms. My father was also a folk artiste, though not a professional one. He and his friends would meet, sing a few bhajans and leave and then, perhaps, meet again after a month.
Another thing was that, when I came to NSD, Karanthji made me realise how rich I am because I had access to this tradition and could sing hundreds of songs. If you want a complete theatre experience, you cannot eliminate music.
Though these are early days, what’s your vision for the school?
I am talking to my faculty members and the theatre community. I would like to brainstorm first. My first agenda, which I told the minister for culture, Chandresh Kumari Katoch, at the 50 year celebration of the NSD Repertory, is that this should be recognised as an Institute of National Importance. Then, I’d like to set up branches across India. And it cannot just be me alone. Theatre always has to be a “we”. An institution cannot be built by one person. Vision cannot belong to only one person, the leadership could be with me but ultimately, you have to gather a collective vision and create an institution.
Does it bother you that the administrative concerns of the director of NSD will affect your theatre production?
I will find time. I will have to take care of both my academic and creative sides, though I really don’t know what my new play will be on.