(Exit: Stage right.) It is the evening after maverick theatre guru Satyadev Dubey’s passing. At Prithvi Theatre, Juhu, Christmas lights hang from the trees above his usual seat at the buzzing cafeteria. A small photo printed on A3-size paper is pinned on a board at the theatre entrance: “R.I.P.”, it says. Three generations of Dubeyists—Sunil Shanbag, Hidayat Sami and Trishla Patel, his closest protégés—file past all of this, turn the corner and sink into the last bench of the café’s extension.
Sanjna Kapoor tells Lounge via email: “Dubey’s legacy remains—in the work of many, many chelas (followers), all of whom he managed to plague with the indomitable ‘theatre ka keeda’.” Playwright and political scientist G.P. Deshpande, who once famously called Dubey “the most loved and most hated man in Indian theatre”, is bedridden, too ill to talk, in Pune. Mohit Takalkar, who last worked with Dubey, is in Varanasi. The late Chetan Datar’s spirit hangs quietly over this dispersed crowd. It is among this motley crew, the custodians of his legacy, that the shared void of Dubey’s loss is deepest.
Shanbag came to work with Dubey in 1974, Sami in 1991 and Patel, after a role in Feroz Khan’s play Mahatma vs Gandhi, in 1997. All three dominate the experimental and professional theatre space at Prithvi, at different levels.
Shanbag, Dubey’s direct theatrical descendant, is a founding member of the theatre troupe Arpana, and is best known for directing Vijay Tendulkar’s The Cyclewallah, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Pratibimb and Ramu Ramanathan’s Cotton 56, Polyester 84. He won the National Film Award for Maihar Raag in 1994. Shanbag is currently working on adapting Shakespeare into a musical set in Saurashtra, to be staged at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, London, in May.
Both he and Dubey were mentors to Sami, who made his debut in Julius Caesar with Naseeruddin Shah in 1989. Dubey and Shanbag conducted workshops for the all-woman cast of Sami’s directorial debut All About Women, interpreted from a Miro Gavran script, in 2008. Sami inducted Patel, who was already acting in various productions, into the Dubey fold. Patel now runs TPot productions.
Stamp of a genius: Dubey. ‘Satyadev Dubey: A Fifty-year Journey Through Theatre’ by Shanta Gokhale/Niyogi Books
Together, the triad represent three distinct phases of Dubey’s work and life.
They continue to work across languages, without allowing a mishmash tongue to creep in—an imperative of Dubey’s legacy. Theirs is the obsessive need to “make their plays better than them”—a philosophy that has seen Antigone and No Exit interpreted in Urdu and Hindi. Dubey’s primary triumph was the position he won for regional language theatre.
The 1970s were a time when Dubey was anti-English. “Don’t forget Dubey was an MA in English Literature. He was very well-read,” Shanbag says. It was not the language Dubey was against, but what it represented: a pseudo-colonization. “The whole attitude was, ‘we are introducing Bombay to Shakespeare.’ When I first worked with him, Dubey, my God, was bitterly anti-English,” he adds.
In this context came Dubey’s linguistic rebellion. Ramanathan, former editor of PT Notes (Prithvi Theatre’s in-house magazine) and writer of plays such as Cotton 56, Polyester 84, directed by Shanbag (a play Dubey didn’t like), and Kashmir Kashmir, which resonated with Dubey’s voice, has since quit theatre. “He was the first of the bourgeois revolutionaries,” Ramanathan says.
Dubey’s interpretation of Dharamvir Bharati’s radio play Andha Yug was staged by Ebrahim Alkazi at Purana Qila, Delhi, in 1962. Dubey later wrote: “Andha Yug was the proof one needed and the verdict was in favour of Hindi, and ultimately all Indian languages” (excerpted from Enact, 1972 in Shanta Gokhale’s book Satyadev Dubey: A Fifty-year Journey through Theatre).
Dubey (on the floor) directing Amrish Puri and Jyotsana Karyekar in Aadhe Adhure, 1969. Courtesy Amrish Puri’s family.
By the time Sami did his first play with Dubey, it was the translated-into-English play Striptease. “He would say, ‘Now English is even a North-Eastern state’s official language, so ye to hamara hi hai (it is ours now)’,” Sami says. Patel, who didn’t speak Hindi till she met Dubey, works primarily in Hindi to this day. In The Cyclewallah, Shanbag’s play, Patel had only two lines. “But those two lines... (laughs)...it was tough to perfect, because Sunil is as tough as Dubeyji was.”
Sami, Patel and Shanbag have all cut their teeth on rigour in language, while adapting to changing context. Each had to put in a year and a half of backstage work before landing small roles.
Dubey never did a “Hinglish” play. He’d pick a Billy Russell. “He went to great lengths to make sure you got the correct syntax. By this time Dabholkar and Co. and Rahul daCunha and his lot had started realizing there was a large audience interested in Indian English, and had begun adapting their language. At this time, this guy starts doing pristine English stuff,” Shanbag says. Sami explains the pages and pages of rules Dubey established for actors. His rigorous workshops had an Urdu text, a Hindi text and an English text, almost always a piece by (George Bernard) Shaw. “It was about respecting a language and the culture of a language. It was important for him,” Sami says.
Such prowess gave Dubey creative mobility. It earned him the collaboration of Shreeram Lagoo and Girish Karnad in Kannada, Bharati and Badal Sircar in Hindi; and Amol Palekar, Elkunchwar and Tendulkar in Marathi. In an interview to the Gujarati theatre magazine Natak in 2000, Dubey said: “The NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) was inaugurated. We forced them to do the Marathi play Vallabhpurchi Danthakatha.” (excerpted in Satyadev Dubey). His instinct for the rhythms of language, where he lacked a command over the languages themselves, allowed him to change meter in the poetry of Marathi poets Kusumagraj or Shirwadkar, or adapt Elkunchwar’s work, which also earned him the ire of some playwrights, as Gokhale documents.
(From left) Shanbag, Patel and Sami at Prithvi. Photo by Hemant Mishra/Mint.
In this ability to cross-link, the theatre world deeply misses Dubey’s protégé, the late Datar. Kaushal Inamdar, the Marathi music director best known for the film Balgandharva,was once, as he describes himself, “Datar’s stenographer”. Inamdar says: “Chetan was the last missing link. When he died, he was in the process of taking plays to Assam and Hyderabad. People like Dubeyji and Chetan were those portals through which theatre, poetry and music travelled from mainstream to experimental, from Marathi to English to Kannada to Hindi, and from stage to film.” Today, Inamdar points out, creative collaborations between these parallel communities are almost non-existent.
Dubey worked within the framework of a gharana. Patel feels the loss of this keenly: “I feel there is a sense of confusion in theatre today. Sometimes, confusion can also lead to something beautiful. But nobody has a focus. Dubeyji was a focus for many groups and many actors.” Dubey’s style was to mentor rigorously and then, abruptly, cut an actor/director loose. Shanbag was among the first. It was a time when walking away from a mentor meant no coming back. Dubey, above all, was extremely particular about it.
The method had its disadvantages: It was limiting for actors, and it gave directors a limited pool of talent to cast from. It was said of Dubey that when you shut your eyes, all his actors sounded like him. Yet Shanbag, who has spent the morning at a rehearsal where six different actors were functioning in six different styles on one stage, says he now realizes how major a problem the theatre world faces today: “We all spoke in his style; with his technique. No Dubey actor would ever swallow the end of a line. Now, I spend the first two weeks of any play trying to get actors to work homogeneously, otherwise my production won’t hold.”
Dubey had his flaws. He could be crude and foul-mouthed. “But it was never personal,” Shanbag points out. Those who realized that it was necessary for learning, could get past it. As Kapoor puts it: “Dubey was a provocateur more than anything else, a provocateur with the wonderful ability of seeing a person well, so he would always push the right buttons (even though they would feel wrong so many times!). Central to his tireless provocations was theatre. Nothing more!”
These methods shaped actors from Amol Palekar and Amrish Puri to Naseeruddin Shah; it is impossible to list completely the extent of Dubey’s influence. But Dubey’s methods are not those that can be wielded without the force of character he came with. “It is not just the crisis of theatre,” Shanbag says, “but a crisis of the age.” This transition phase in theatre will throw up its own icons, his protégés hope. But that requires a man without an agenda, a personality, like Dubey, who was about the ideas.
For, Dubey’s legacy was the theatre of ideas. He took political stances, as Sami puts it, “very strongly”. He fought the censor board on freedom of speech. He was a political being: a card-carrying Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) man. Dubey never played it safe. “Today a lot of theatre is multiplex theatre,” Shanbag says. “Pleasant to look at but eminently forgettable. Today theatre doesn’t ruin your dinner.”
Patel explains Dubey’s method: If you liked a film, Dubey would hate it. Then he would proceed to have a 2-hour discussion-turned-argument, often without reason, about it. “It was not that he was invested in a film. He was invested in making you think.” Dubey’s ultimate weapon was thought.
Patel’s lasting memory of Dubey is a rehearsal a few years ago during which Dubey was restless and stood up to exit. He pointed to his seat, saying, “Think that I am there and do.”
“Ever since then,” says Patel, “that is what I think when I rehearse. For me, that is where he will always be.”