The Scenes We Made

By (Ed.) Shanta Gokhale

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    Naseeruddin Shah

I heard of Chhabildas in ’73 or ’74 while I was studying at the Film Institute in Pune. I think I first went there to see a performance of Dubey’s production of Aadhe Adhure with Amrish Puri, Bhakti Barve, Amol (Palekar) and Sunila (Pradhan) in it. That first experience of seeing Chhabildas was a shock. It had none of the jazz which I associated with theatre, having been a student of Alkazi’s at NSD (National School of Drama), and bowled over by the spectacle he always liked to create, and at which he was very good. But even while we were in the middle of grand productions like Tughlaq and Razia Sultan, I had seen my first Dubey play, Evam Indrajit. I was struck by the starkness of his staging and the austerity of his approach to theatre. I have to say I preferred Alkazi at the time. I was dazzled by him. Yet I identified more with Dubeyji, with his crumpled jeans and rugged chappals, although he was nowhere close to Alkazi, who, I thought, was the real representative of class in theatre.

My orientation in theatre—thanks to Alkazi and the fact that we had done grand operas annually at my school, and I had seen filmed theatre with Olivier—was towards the typical West End kind of thing, which I have now come to abhor. I think it was Jaidev Hattangadi, my contemporary at NSD, who talked a lot about Chhabildas. But I was pretty appalled when I saw the place. I said, ‘Hell, this is theatre?’

I saw several wonderful performances there, but the supposed magic of Chhabildas continued to elude me until I finally performed there. It was a place which was hardly conducive to concentration. There were sounds from the street, sounds of television sets. You could see the neighbours’ television sets when you were on stage. There was no air conditioning, the seats were uncomfortable, lighting arrangements rudimentary. We were actually performing on the floor with just black curtains and flats around. But that is where I realized that ideal conditions are not of paramount importance when you are performing a play. I saw Dubeyji rehearsing in all sorts of places, wherever he got an opportunity—in lassi shops, in buses and so on. This is one of the treasures that Chhabildas gave me—the realization that you must retain your concentration no matter what. All the disturbances, in a funny way, helped me to keep my energies together while performing. The audiences were always very thin. I think we once performed for an audience of fifteen or twenty. But they were people who cared.

I even felt encouraged to do a production in English. I don’t think that was ever done at Chhabildas, with the exception of Don Juan in Hell which Dubeyji did later. So Chhabildas, gradually, became a tacky little heaven for me, available to people with no resources, and where you could count on a few crazy chaps to turn up to watch you perform.

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