How Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande created ground-breaking theatre from a school in Mumbai

The Awishkar group was one of the many contributions of acting veteran Sulabha Deshpande, who died at the age of 79 on June 4.

Shanta Gokhale’s The Scenes We Made An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, a collection of interviews with key figures from the 1960s and ’70s, includes a contribution by Sulabha Deshpande. The highly regarded theatre and film actress, who died in Mumbai on June 4, told Gokhale about the challenging circumstances in which she and her husband, Arvind Deshpande, set up and ran the theatre group Awishkar.

Sulabha Deshpande is one of the finest actors of the Marathi-Hindi stage and cinema. She began her work in theatre by directing plays for the students of Chhabildas Girls’ School where she taught for many years. Her performance as Leela Benare, the protagonist of [Vijay] Tendulkar’s Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe, directed by Arvind Deshpande, is a landmark in Marathi theatre. She directed the verse play Pratima, with which the Chhabildas space was inaugurated. But perhaps, her most experimental work was the Marathi adaptation of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s one-woman play Request Concert, which she evolved and performed at Chhabildas in collaboration with directors Rustom Bharucha and Manuel Lutgenhorst. One of her most enduring contributions to theatre has been Chandrashala, the children’s wing of Awishkar, which she started when the group acquired the Chhabildas space. Chandrashala has been a training ground for generations of child actors, some of whom, like Nana Patekar and Urmila Matondkar, went on to become stars.

Sulabha Deshpande in her own words: ‘Chhabildas was a space that got young theatre people moving’

The Chhabildas Hall was a fairly large space. In order to give it a more intimate quality that would better suit the plays we expected to do there, it needed to be contained in some way. As it stood, it had a stage at one end and chairs on a few raked platforms at the other end. There was also a gallery running down its length and a large room at the back.

A clip from ‘Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe’.

We curtained off the stage because it was too small for plays, and too distant from the seating arrangement, and instead, created a floor-level performance area in front of the curtain. This brought the chairs closer and left enough space between them and the performance area for a durrie-covered space on the floor for youngsters and latecomers. The gallery was used as a lighting cabin and in other different ways. For instance, when the acting space was used lengthways, you could seat half the audience in the gallery and the other half on the other side of the acting area. All decisions about how to configure the space were taken collectively by our group.

The space had one major problem. It was on the second floor and you had to climb four flights of stairs to reach it, something that elderly people found exhausting. But the advantage was that back in 1974, when we were allowed the use of the hall, the rent was quite low. We could afford to pay it from the gate money we collected at Rs 3 per head. When we were asked to leave in 1992 after eighteen years, things had changed. The earlier management committees had been very sympathetic to what we were doing, particularly after we started Chandrashala, our children’s wing that tied in with the objectives of the school. The school students were given free entry to our workshops. Arvind (Deshpande) was able to give a lot of time to setting up the space. He had given up his laboratory job and was concentrating on doing professional theatre. He and Kakade Kaka were the two pillars of the project. Later Vinod Doshi gave Arvind a job. He told him he could wind up work whenever he needed to leave early for his theatre commitments and not worry about what his colleagues and superiors would say. He said he would deal with that. That’s how the Chhabildas space was developed.

Unfortunately, the committee that took over in 1992 was not sympathetic to our work. When they decided they would not be able to continue allowing us the use of the hall any longer, they gave us no reason at all. But we suspected the reason was to do with money. The space could potentially make them a lot of money if they rented it out for weddings and other such events. However, while the space stayed with us, it was filled with energy, because we invited all the theatre groups who were doing plays to treat it as their own.

We had been collecting equipment like lights and wings with small donations, often made by members of our own group, like my sister. If somebody happened to be moving to another city like Pune, he would donate his chairs to us. That’s how we accumulated things. We allowed the groups to use them without charging a fee. They only had to pay for any extra lights they might require. Similarly, we had platforms and blocks that were free to use. Because of this, people were constantly coming and going, hanging around, exchanging news and views. They didn’t always come up to the hall either, but gathered downstairs. So the place was constantly buzzing.

Could Chhabildas be called a theatre movement is a question that gets thrown around a lot by people who quibble with words. To my mind, it was a space that got young theatre people moving. In that sense it was a movement.

Excerpted with permission from The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, Speaking Tiger Books.

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