Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Theatre is Mumbai, Mumbai is theatre

Last year, Mumbai’s St Stanislaus High School celebrated its 150th year. Joining the celebrations at St Peter’s Church on Hill Road, listening to a four-part harmony, I realized that more than hockey, it was music that kindled a Stanislite’s mind. The school, with government support, was plebeian. But the music was snobbish. Many years later, I realized that the church is a place where you can listen to music in the old-fashioned way. Today, with music being heard “on the move" or “on your headphones", this community sharing of music is fading away.

In a way, when I started writing Jazz (the musical), it was about reconnecting with music from my school days. The research gave me the opportunity to relive the good old days. Jazz was an ode to the contributions of Goan-Christian musicians to Bollywood, and a salaam to the Bandra I knew and loved.

In the 1970s, I stayed at the LIC colony, located opposite the Santacruz BEST bus depot. A lot of my time was spent playing bat-and-ball at the depot. My cousins in Kerala climbed coconut trees; we climbed double-decker buses. Life was simple. Mumbai was a city of equals. A lot of my friends were children of Bhandaris and Kolis and Kunbis and Mahars and Mangs.

As a child, I accompanied my friends to watch a play performed at the community centre of the LIC Colony. My first serious play, this was Ramnagari by Ram Nagarkar, who was also the songadya (singer-narrator) in the superhit lok natya, Vichha Majhi Puri Kara, alongside actor Nilu Phule. The play begins, “Saala, hajjam, ahe, hajjam." It is a roadside altercation. Nagarkar, the son of a barber, who is watching the entire episode, wonders. “Why do people, drag ‘our’ hajjaam profession into their petty fights?"

In Mumbai, theatre is language. It is everywhere. Even today, there are more than 1,500 play performances in a month in four main languages: Hindi, English, Gujarati and Marathi (you can now add Telugu, Kannada and Konkani to this list). This beats the monolingual theatre culture of New York or London or Berlin, hands down. The top Marathi and Gujarati plays net 2.5 lakh at the box office for a single show.

The origins of Mumbai’s theatre are in south-central Bombay. This is the area from Khetwadi to Kamathipura: the centre of Bombay after the Portuguese gifted the island city to the British. The first thing to spring up here was theatre. There were 35 makeshift theatres which featured plays performed in English for British soldiers.

Old-timers say that a theatre had to fulfil three conditions: proximity to a tram stop or railway station; proximity to a dingy bar; and proximity to a red- light area.

It’s most befitting that Falkland Road and the Golpitha chauraha are called the Patthe Bapurao Marg. Patthe Bapurao was the doyen of the Tamasha theatre tradition. Besides the 16,000 songs he composed, there is the legend about how he, then a novice, participated in a jugalbandi and defeated the opponent, a veteran, in a sawaal-jawaab. A young and very pretty courtesan named Pawala, from the Mahar community, was besotted by his singing and poetry. The Brahmin Bapurao married the girl. On cue, the theatre performances were banned.

But the manager of the Bangdiwala theatre, a Muslim, ensured the show went on. He got the Brahmin-Mahar husband and wife to sit on stage and charged 2 annas for tickets. The audience watched the wedding on stage. The manager made more money at the box office from a staged wedding than from the actual show.

For performances at theatres like Victoria, Rippon and Baliwala, the drama companies used to bring their own curtain, which would be operated by two men. The curtain pullers often dozed off, and the cue to bring down the curtain was the shrill blast of a whistle. During one of the shows, the curtain pullers, who were asleep, were awakened by a shrill whistle, and hurriedly brought down the curtain in the middle of a scene. It was only later that they discovered the whistle came from the street outside. I used this scene in my play 3, Sakina Manzil. I borrowed from the city.

Theatre springs up at the most unlikely of venues in Mumbai. From grounds like the Jambori Maidan, which hosted the month-long Kamgar Fest (the oldest theatre festival in this city) in 1938-39, to a cult play like Vastraharan, whose 5,000 shows have been performed by mill workers from Lower Parel and Naigaon. Plays were performed in chawls and in bylanes.

Ordinary Mumbaikars provided a backbone for theatre in the city. Playwright Premanand Gajvi was a Bombay Port Trust employee, Vinda Karandikar taught English at a city college. Vijay Tendulkar was a journalist.

In 2005, Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar penned a book, One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices, a history of central Mumbai’s textile district. Menon wanted to organize readings from the book, and I told her I would prefer to write a play instead. Sunil Shanbag agreed to direct it, and that’s how Cotton 56 Polyester 84 was staged.

My research began by attending court hearings in Room No.56 of the Bombay high court. The lawyers on either side were Iqbal Chagla, Goolam Vahanvati, Arun Jaitley, Soli Sorabjee, Mukul Rohatgi and Abhishek Singhvi. The Bombay Environment Action Group was the petitioner. It was like watching Vijay Tendulkar’s Shantata, Court Chalu Aahe and the German film Stammheim: The Baader-Meinhof Gang On Trial in one go. In that room I rediscovered the magic of theatre. Much of this experience went into Cotton 56 Polyester 84.

Ramu Ramanathan is the Mumbai-based playwright of, most recently, Postcards From Bardoli.

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