While putting together an ‘In Memoriam’ section for recently departed luminaries of the stage, it is really striking how their collective lives were a testament to the sheer diversity and breadth of Indian theatre. This is the second in a two-part series, the first can be read here.
In the capital, the arc lights dimmed on the redoubtable Jalabala Vaidya, who channelised years as a performing artist into co-founding, over forty years ago with late husband Gopal Sharman, the Akshara Theatre. Situated in the heart of Delhi, the compact arts venue has become the mainstay of small-scale sustainable theatre. Of Ms Vaidya’s virtuoso performance in The Ramayana, a one-woman adaptation written by Mr Sharman staged across the world, The New York Times remarked, “(Ms Vaidya) interprets her (twenty roles) in suitably heroic fashion [ . . . ] (and) often comes over beautifully and effectively in the quieter passages of the piece.”
Elsewhere, in the world of Assamese mobile theatre, which holds sway over rural audiences with its melodramatic excesses and dazzling stagecraft alike, singer and composer Dasarath Das made an untold contribution over four decades. Mr. Das was laid to rest with full state honours in October. Hailed in the local press as one of the “greatest pillars of the mobile theatre industry”, his catchy chartbusters for both stage and film have taken their place as a part of a rooted regional repertoire, blending essences from folk traditions like Bihu music with contemporary arrangements.
Also from the same ethos, actor Pranjit Das’ glowering visage on ‘ersatz cinema’ posters, will no longer be a crowd-puller for mobile theatre companies like Theatre Surjya from Kayakuchi. It wasn’t exactly the mid-act quietus that performers often wish for, but the veteran suffered a stroke on stage during a performance of the rambunctious production, Poroxunathor Preyoxi (‘Parshunath’s Beloved’), and passed away in hospital days later.
A noted exponent of a traditional form passed away in Manipur. Wareppa Naba was a master of the Shumang Leela or the characteristic open-air ‘courtyard play’ of Meitei theatre. A force of nature, Mr. Naba adeptly reshaped oral traditions, rituals and everyday practices, infusing them with contemporary relevance while safeguarding their originality, raw aesthetics, and distinctiveness. Having directed over sixty Shumang Leela plays, and written at least a score, Mr. Naba, who was accorded the Padma Shri in 2017, played a pivotal role in keeping a dying tradition with a turn-of-the-century provenance artfully alive.
A tragedy struck down a pillar of another traditional form, the Togalu gombeyaata, Karnataka’s centuries-old form of shadow puppetry known for its distinctive leather puppets. Belagallu Veeranna, who passed away in a road accident in April, was born into humble circumstances in a family betrothed to the performing arts. An accomplished doddata performer, since the 1980s he devoted himself single-mindedly to reviving the beleaguered Togalu gombeyaata. Under the auspices of his Sri Ramajaneya Togalu Gombe Mela troupe, Mr Veeranna not only resurrected this colourful folk tradition but took it beyond borders, performing in Switzerland and Germany. For his efforts, among many honours, he was presented with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2011.
Heading southwards, in one year Kerala lost five elder statesmen, all thespians born within fifteen-odd years of each other in decades before Independence. The eldest in this quintet was 93-year-old Maradu Joseph, followed by Varghese Kattiparampan, Poojappura Ravi, CV Dev, and the youngest, Vikraman Nair, who had completed 78 years. Mr. Joseph was laid to rest in Tripunithura in January, and was a newsmaker till the end, singing for the film A Dramatic Death in 2021, and agitating for a path to his house with the municipality, which mirrored the premise of Vazhi Thurannu, a play he acted in early in his career. He was a protégé of maestro PJ Antony, whose ‘tough love’ methods made him persevere long into his chosen vocation. Mr. Joseph’s extensive stage repertoire includes a production of Gopura Nadayil, the only play written by novelist MT Vasudevan Nair. Barely a stone’s throw away lived Mr. Kattiparampan, who passed away a few weeks earlier. He made his debut as a leading man of theatre in 1954, in Navodaya Kalasamithi’s Nashikatha Bhumi, and in his prime, he was the marquee name for a slew of historic theatre companies, including Kairali Theatres, Kottayam Kerala and Changanassery Geetha, coming to be dubbed the Raja Nagari (another name for Tripunithura) superstar, and also, more endearingly, Sathyan ‘on stage’, because of his striking resemblance to the legendary actor of the same name, who ruled the 1950s alongside Prem Nazir. Mr. Kattiparampan did make an auspicious debut himself in cinema with 1971’s Anathashilpaman, using the screen name Prasad, but that success wasn’t enough to lure him away from the stage that was his true fiefdom.
In contrast to Mr. Kattiparampan’s dedication to the stage, Mr. Ravi’s career was marked by sheer prolificacy in both theatre (appearing in 4000 shows by some accounts) and film (800 films, with 2016’s Guppy being his last) performances. His forte was comedic characters that called for a residual gravitas rather than buffoonery. On the other hand, Mr. Dev’s stage oeuvre was perhaps eclipsed by his prodigious work in cinema, but he nonetheless boasts of classics like Sthithi, Agraharam, Paanan Padatha Pattu and the aforementioned Gopura Nadayil, alongside Mr. Joseph. A playwright and actor hailing from Kozhikode, Mr. Nair had also notched up significant air-miles on stage (with more than 200 plays to his credit, amounting to a mind-boggling 10,000 shows), even as a series of high-profile character parts in cinema extended his profile. In the Malayalam version of the great Indian epic, Mahabharatham, written by Thikkodiyan, Mr. Nair’s performance was widely acclaimed, earning him a state award.
Kerala also bid farewell to 51—year-old playwright and director Prasanth Narayanan, the youngest in this roster. His Sanskrit play Chayamukhi, named after the the mirror gifted to Hidimbi by Bhima in the Mahabharata, created a sensation when it opened in 2008, not least because it starred big cinema stars like Mohanlal and Mukesh in the lead. Director and actor Mushtaq Kak, who passed away at his residence in Srinagar in November, had served as the artistic director at New Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre, and won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for direction in 2015. Mr. Kak came to be recognised for his character parts in cinema, but his directing slate included plays in Dogri, Urdu, English and even Sanskrit, and included Dogri adaptations of Othello and Macbeth. An NSD graduate from 1982, Udupi’s illustrious Gopalakrishna Nayari passed away on the very day of a felicitation ceremony for his stage achievements at the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana at Haveri. J Srinivasa Murthy, a close associate, penned a biography of the experimental stage director in 2018, who was known for his intrepid productions of Bhasa’s plays. A Karnataka Nataka Akademi awardee, Mr. Nayari had close ties with theatre houses in Bengaluru and Tumakuru.
Also leaving us were Bengali director Goutam Halder, who balanced his film career with stage offerings like a recent long-running contemporary production of Rabindranath Tagore’s Raktakarabi; and the actor, Javed Khan Amrohi, who enjoyed an innings on the stage in the 1970s before moving on to cinema and television (becoming a household name with the 1980s serial Nukkad). Mr. Khan had a long association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association since 1972, serving as actor, director and general secretary.
This list wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t acknowledge the contribution by celebrated contemporary artist Vivaan Sundaram, who works sometimes included elements of theatre and performance. Sujata Prasad wrote in Scroll, “(Mr. Sundaram’s) celebration of sculptor-painter Ramkinkar Baij’s work in 409 Ramkinkars, is a monumental cross genre work that brought together theatre and a creative partnership with theatre directors including Anuradha Kapur, performance art, sculpture and installation. Annotated with text that referenced the life, ideas and the radical practice of the artist, the exhibition opened in 2015 at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts with 409 miniaturised terracotta recasts of the ‘Santhal Family’ and ‘Mill Call’, two of Ramkinkar’s most remarkable sculptures.” It’s a mix of spectacle and narrative also seen on other works like Meaning of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, on the 1946 revolt of sailors of the Royal Indian Navy, about which Ms. Prasad writes, “The leading-edge choreography of sound and light, in a huge 40-feet long steel and aluminium structure evocative of a ship’s hull left the audience with an ambient feeling of being a part of the forgotten slice of history.”
In this retrospective, we’ve traced the paths of visionary directors, talented actors, and prolific playwrights who left an indelible mark on the stage. Their legacies continue to guide us, reminding us of the richness and diversity they brought to the world of theatre. The enduring brilliance they bestowed upon the stage transcends time and will continue to resonate in the hearts of all those touched by the magic of live performance.