At the seventh edition of the Pratibimb Marathi Natya Utsav, or the Marathi theatre festival, which began on Friday at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, it’s not surprising that most of the troupes performing belong to Pune’s theatre circuit. Clearly, a theatre foundry that delivers the cutting-edge in contemporary theatre is whirring away somewhere in that city, churning out plays that are often technically proficient, rigorous and possess a handcrafted finesse that is packaged with a political world view.

Two groups that have risen to prominence in the past few years are Aasakta Kalamanch (established in 2004) and Natak Company (established in 2009). They are chalk and cheese in terms of sensibility and temperament, but both share a penchant for experimental theatre in the truest sense of the word. A cursory glance at the advertisements in local newspapers and listings on booking websites (Marathi natak in Pune is partial to www.ticketees.com), indicates a respectable churn of offerings from several troupes. Weekend matinee and evening slots at large halls like the Yashwantrao Chavan Natyagruha in Kothrud are most in demand.

On the surface, there is little to distinguish this playhouse culture from what we find elsewhere—the mainstream doesn’t seem to be particularly adventurous, even at its most well-intentioned. It’s the city’s experimental groups, even with their relatively niche followings and complex productions, that do most of the creative heavy-lifting and corner much of the acclaim.

This active ferment owes much to Atul Pethe, a theatre warhorse with a mileage of more than two decades. “He is the pioneer," says Mohit Takalkar, Aasakta’s resident director. Playwright Makarand Sathe concurs, adding, “Nowadays in Maharashtra, there is hardly any theatre outside Mumbai and Pune. Atul is still the only person touring everywhere." Pethe delivers popular accessible fare to the hoi polloi, but he has also toured extensively with trickier productions like the Mohan Rakesh adaptation Aashadhatil Ek Diwas and taken theatre to cities like Amravati, Latur and Solapur.

“I don’t have a group of my own. Just the goodwill of people and my activist spirit sustains my brand of theatre," says Pethe. Most of his productions employ teams assembled from scratch. For 2012’s Satyashodhak, based on G.P. Deshpande’s 1992 play on the 19th century anti-caste crusader Jyotiba Phule, he cast mostly non-professional actors from the Pune Safai Karamcharis Union, a subversion that blended superbly with the play’s agenda.

Pethe’s work, however, is in the common idiom that pervades much of Marathi theatre. Takalkar, on the other hand, turns this straightforward aesthetic on its head. Sathe points out that Aasakta plays are auteur-driven projects in which the playwright’s vision is merely ancillary. He remembers attending only a single rehearsal of his Charshe Koti Visarbhole, a script transformed by Takalkar’s flair.

“This is in marked contrast to earlier directors like Pethe who would delineate my plays, like 1999’s Surya Pahilela Manus, word for word, much to my exasperation," says Sathe. Takalkar’s métier lies in the striking visuals and precise ensemble work seen in plays like Gajab Kahani, based on Jose Saramago’s Elephant’s Journey, and the zestful Uney Purey Shahar Ek. His works are stimulating, sometimes even esoteric. Most have limited runs even in Pune.

In the university circuit, teeming with drama competitions, there is a promising churn of ideas, but, as Takalkar says: “A theatre workforce is erected within a few months but dissipates just as quickly. Their commitment is not long term." This is what makes the Natak Company a special breed.

Two of its prolific directors, Alok Rajwade and Nipun Dharmadhikari, trace their beginnings to collegiate theatre and have retained a following. “At this time, we have five running productions, performing regularly to good houses," says Rajwade. This can be attributed to engaging content that has a finger on the pulse of its youthful audience. The group has a resident playwright in Dharmakirti Sumant, who has developed a reputation for edgy works like Bin Kamache Samwad, a play based on the breakdown of language and discourse. The Natak Company has the feel of an open collective, with plays like Sumant’s Geli Ekvees Varsha and the uproarious Dalan, a D.M. Mirasdar adaptation by the talented Abhay Mahajan. Both plays feature popular television actor Amey Wagh.

Unlike Mumbai, a city of immigrants, Pune is rooted in an ages-old ethos. The theatre here benefits from being linked to the language of its community. “This is not in a regressive sense because there is still space for introspection," adds Sumant.

According to Takalkar, the artistic temper is innate to Punekars. “Our mothers read a lot, the radio was a constant feature in our homes, and music permeated our lives." Small venues like the Maharashtra Cultural Centre’s Sudarshan Rangmanch contribute to the fearlessness of experimentation by lowering the financial stakes, whereas the Vinod Doshi Theatre Festival, now in its eighth year, raises the bar with the audience it attracts. Social media has emerged as the preferred publicity machine.

Other directors making their presence felt include Niranjan Pedanekar, Vibhawari Deshpande and Shrikant Bhide. Mumbai-based Chandrakant Kulkarni has picked up Sathe’s latest play, Aashad Bar, while the illustrious Sushama Deshpande, who hails from the nearby town of Baramati, keeps her links to Pune alive with frequent stagings of her plays, and an occasional collaboration, like acting in Dharmadhikari’s Lose Control.

Ringan, a series of community theatre events by Aasakta, has created a climate of cross-pollination between groups. Stage actors from Pune, like Sarang Sathaye, Siddharth Menon and, of course, Radhika Apte, have become the toast of independent cinema in recent years.

There is a flip side. The troupes generate little revenue, and the practitioners are forced to maintain day jobs. Sumant, who rues the lack of a reviewing culture in Pune, also wants to draw more Muslims and Dalits into the cultural sphere. “When a group becomes an institution, it creates a culture of unquestioning allegiance than can be unhealthy." He would rather there were several groups mushrooming across Pune, linked by a shared aesthetic rather than a single dominant one.

Takalkar has just returned from Mumbai, where his production of Jennifer Haley’s Nether with Naseeruddin Shah was pulled 10 days before opening night owing to creative differences. He is certainly stoic about failure. “At Aasakta, we have failed at many things. At getting audiences, at collaborations, at building bridges with other groups."

Yet it’s this kind of introspection, and the resilience that comes with it, which leaves us optimistic that experimental theatre in Pune is in safe hands for at least another generation.

Atul Pethe’s Tarkachya Khunteevaroon Nisatlele Rahasya will be staged on 6 August, at noon, and the Natak Company’s Sindhu Sudhakar Rum Ani Itar, on 7 August, 7pm, at the Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai. The Pratibimb Marathi Natya Utsav is on till 9 August. For tickets, visit Ncpamumbai.com.

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