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The concrete basement below a cheap goods market in Andheri, Mumbai, is the unlikely base for a movement dedicated to preserving the legacy of the 20th century literary icon, Munshi Premchand.

The basement is the rehearsal space for the Ideal Drama and Entertainment Academy (IDEA). It’s a makeshift room, decorated with digital prints of past and future plays, and posters of Saadat Hasan Manto, Mirza Ghalib and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Every evening, a group of young actors can be found rehearsing their lines with barely a glance at the printed sheets in their hands. On one side, tacked to the wall, is a list of plays and actors that will be part of Prem Utsav.

The 10-day Prem Utsav is an annual theatre festival that celebrates Premchand’s birth anniversary by bringing alive some of his best works on stage. The number of plays coincides with the anniversary year—134 plays this year to coincide with the 134th anniversary. The festival hopes to move Premchand from being the “I’ve heard of him" writer to someone occupying a larger psyche in our culture.

The man leading this mission is Mujeeb Khan, revered in theatre circles for his unwavering dedication to keeping Indian literature alive. The postgraduate in Islamic history from Mumbai University started the theatre group in 2002 but shifted focus to bringing Premchand’s work to the masses in 2005. IDEA’s focus may be Premchand but the group has also done plays on Swami Vivekananda, Manto, Rabindranath Tagore, Ghalib and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

Khan’s fascination with Premchand has a simple root: He believes that the writer’s works are contemporary. “His stories talk about live-in relationships, farmer suicides, child marriage, and the absence of laws for women…he told the truth about society back then and you can find a reflection of those stories even now," he says.

He believes, and it is something he attempts to inculcate in his academy’s students, that our values and our sanskriti (culture) can be gleaned from our literature. “Our literature has a strong relationship with our country. Our younger generation doesn’t know about Premchand or Manto or Ghalib. We grew up reading their stories in school, in English, Hindi and Urdu. Can you find their work in a school syllabus today?" he asks.

If you ask his actors, many confess to having heard of Premchand vaguely before joining IDEA. Anand Jaiswal, 25, had read two-three stories of Premchand in school in Kolkata. Then he came to IDEA and spent two years improving his diction, learning to read and speak Urdu and acting in about 80 plays based on the writer’s works. “The kind of language that Premchand used is simply unheard of," he says. “It’s great to be able to read that language and perform with it."

Amolikka Mishra, 23, has another reason to love Premchand: his exceptional female characters. “Premchand’s stories are very real. I love that his female characters are strong and maintain their dignity even in adverse conditions," says Mishra, who has acted in 100 plays. She considers being part of Prem Utsav a “challenge", especially on days when she has back-to-back plays or is given the script a few hours before the start.

If they’re successful in their plan, IDEA could enter the Limca Book of Records for a drama group doing the maximum number of plays dedicated to one person. The aim is to do 315 short plays in 24 hours—the details are still being worked out.

Prem Utsav starts on 26 July, 6pm onwards, with a play at Mavalankar Hall, Rafi Marg, New Delhi. Fifteen plays will be staged from 31 July-2 August, 6-10pm, at Sane Guruji Samarak, Sinhagad Road, Pune. The staging of 134 plays in Mumbai will begin from 4-14 August, 4pm onwards, at Sathaye College, Vile Parle (East). Seating on first-come, first-served basis. For details, call 9821044429.

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