Theatre director Sunil Shanbag talks about Playing to Bombay, TheatreNama, and more

TheatreNama was born as a response to the lockdown last year. The monthly series started by Tamaasha Theatre kicked off with a guided viewing of the performance of the play Sex, Morality and Censorship. They are now using animation, performances and dramatic recreations for Playing to Bombay, their second offering that provides an insight into the city’s vibrant theatre history.

Show hosts Sunil Shanbag and Sharmistha Saha map Mumbai’s early theatre history from the first Bombay Theatre in 1776 to the flourishing Grant Road theatre district. You can listen to Vishnudas Bhave talk about laying the foundation for modern Marathi theatre, witness Jyotiba Phule using art forms like tamasha and powada to talk about caste discrimination and trace the journey of Marathi Sangeet Natak among other interesting facets of Bombay’s colourful theatre history.

Sunil Shanbag
Sunil Shanbag

The proceeds from the ticket sales will go towards TheatreDost, an initiative that supports members of the theatre fraternity. Shanbag, who is also the founder of Studio Tamaasha, tells us more about the show. Excerpts:

Tell us a bit about TheatreNama and the idea behind it.

Our definition of theatre is not just limited to performance alone but also includes the process of theatre. We are keen on sharing this with the audiences because we firmly believe that people are interested in how things get made and they are interested in the process of theatre. So, TheatreNama was really set up to look at that. We started with a guided viewing of one of my productions, Sex, Morality and Censorship, where we talked our way through how that production came together. It was a slightly unusual idea and a slightly unusual process. It also spoke about the history of censorship in a sense and how this particular production dealt with the idea.

Akash Khurana as Dave Carson
Akash Khurana as Dave Carson

How did Playing to Bombay come about?

I am very keen on history and the history of Bombay’s theatre is very fascinating. It is very interesting to note that what we watch today is a part of a long tradition of change. Bombay is interesting because you don’t have to go back 800-1000 years. The history of the urban city is much shorter, and it is interesting to see what happened, say 200 years ago, and the impact it has today. For instance, when the plague hit Bombay in 1896, everything was shut down, similar to what we are facing now with the pandemic. Today, we have new technology, the internet as a possible alternative for audiences. In 1896, it was cinema, so that seemed like the new competition. So, it was very interesting for us to try and see the parallels. That’s how the idea for the second TheatreNama came about.

Tell us a bit about the curation and why you picked certain aspects to highlight?

Vishnudas Bhave is credited with setting the foundations for the modern Marathi theatre, which is very much a part of our culture in Bombay. It is one of the most active language theatres in the city. Secondly, he also set the foundation for commercial theatre. He created a form of theatre, which is very different from the folk style of earlier, so he is a very significant figure.

Vishnudas Bhave
Vishnudas Bhave

Dave Carson is interesting not so much in himself, but as an illustration of what kind of things would go on in Grant Road theatre. He also comes from a fairly politically contentious form called the black-faced minstrels, which is an extremely racist kind of theatre. The fact that it was popular is a different matter but the point is that politically, it’s an extremely problematic thing. When he came to India, he thought of lampooning typical Indian characters and that became extremely popular. It just so happened that we had done Dave Carson’s story as one of the episodes in Stories in a Song a few years ago, so the material was with me. So, it is a combination of what is possible in a lockdown situation and also, what is important.

You are a history enthusiast, so a lot of these anecdotes and trivia about Bombay’s theatre history must have been familiar to you. Was there a lot of learning for you with this project?

A lot! I’m an amateur. I enjoy reading history and I have fun with it, but for something like this which is going out there in the public domain, one has to be very particular about the authenticity of the content as well as the perspective. Only an academic can bring in something like that. For this project, I teamed up with theatre director Sharmishtha Saha, who is an academician and has also written a book on this particular period of theatre. There were a lot of things in her research that I was not aware of, not so much about events but the connections that one didn’t know of. In any endeavour, theatre or otherwise, the instinct is that first of all it should excite you. If it doesn’t excite you, it is not going to excite anyone else.

What’s next for TheatreNama?

I want to go beyond 1896 because interesting things happened after that. Many forms of theatre emerged including the Marathi Sangeet Natak, the Gujarati Bhangwadi tradition and the Tiatr, which is still a very popular form of theatre in Goa. It is the beginning of very interesting forms of theatre that co-exist and each of them has a fascinating story. They have some things in common as well as some that are unique. The advantage is that I have created a play in the Bhangwadi tradition as well as another in Tiatr. I think it will be quite a fascinating and colourful programme.

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