by Deepa Punjani*
Big theatre festivals are often written about, but there are little theatre festivals which, in their own distinct way, become hubs of creativity, enterprise and, sometimes, excellence. One such little festival in India is the Vinod Doshi Memorial Theatre Festival that takes place in Pune city. Ashok Kulkarni, the man in charge of the festival, who has had an interesting journey in journalism and in theatre, lets us on to this niche Pan-Indian festival that has become a staple feature with its local audiences and those who travel to watch and participate in it each year in the month of February.
You have long managed and curated the Vinod Doshi Memorial Theatre Festival. Over the years what can you broadly say of your experience?
Let me start by introducing the person in whose name the festival is commemorated. Vinod Doshi was the Chairman of Premier Automobiles Limited (today known as Premier Ltd). He was one of the leaders of the Indian business world. He combined the hectic demands of that role with his passion for the arts, particularly theatre. Doshi passed away in October 2008. Since then, the Vinod and Saryu Foundation, in association with Premier Ltd, has been celebrating his passion for theatre by sponsoring an annual five-day festival of plays in Pune at a nominal ticket tariff. We just had the glorious tenth edition of the festival in February this year.
Nerves, produced and choreographed by the director Surjit Nongmeikapam
I have been curating the festival since its inception with the support and guidance of theatre persons and veterans, such as Girish Karnad, Shanta Gokhale, Sunil Shanbag, Satish Alekar, Mohit Takalkar, Ashish Mehta and many others. They have significantly contributed to the festival’s success.
The ten-year journey of the festival has been interesting and fascinating too. There have been many ups and downs. You see, in the initial period, the response from the audience was not encouraging. This, I think, was because, in the first three years or so, we generally invited theatre groups from Maharashtra to perform experimental plays in Hindi and Marathi. Of course, we ensured that one or two of the selected plays premiered at the festival. But the rest of them were ones that had already been performed and probably watched by the audience in Pune earlier.
Moreover, since we selected plays only from Maharashtra, and that too in only two languages, the choice was limited. This, naturally, had an adverse impact on the quality of the plays. It is also possible that the audience responds guardedly to any new experiment initially. All in all, the audience response in the first three years left much to be desired.
Naturally, the situation was worrying and we had several rounds of discussions with our theatre friends and sponsors. It was agreed that the selection of plays should be at an all India level and that the plays need not only be in Hindi and Marathi. As a result, the perspective of the festival changed and we started getting plays from other States and in different languages. We took a calculated risk. The Pune audience, we were warned, would not be interested in plays other than in Marathi and Hindi. Not even English, they said. These were justifiable apprehensions because Yeshwantrao Chavan auditorium, all along the years, where we hold our festival, used to have plays only in Hindi and Marathi. The auditorium rarely staged plays in other languages. But we stuck to our decision and started to invite plays in different languages. I am glad we did that. The audience welcomed it.
Looking back, I feel that the audience was starved of good and different theatre. Language just did not matter. This is amply proved by the fact that we have a regular audience of about 550-600 for every play and, at times, the full house of 800. For an experimental theatre, an audience of 600 without much canvassing is very heartwarming.
From the feedback my theatre friends and myself have received, we feel that the festival has created its own audience, which looks forward to this annual event in Pune. This is also evident from the fact that we sell about 175 season tickets within the first three days of the opening of the ticket counter. I believe we have succeeded in evolving an immensely popular and eclectic theatre festival in Pune.
When you are looking at choosing plays for the festival, what are the foremost things you have in mind?
In selecting the plays for the festival we stick to the following guidelines:
- The play has not previously been performed in Pune.
- The play is not likely to be staged in Pune in the near future. The reason for this being that the Pune audience should get an opportunity to watch plays which are not likely to be performed in Pune but are significant ones.
- Try and ensure that the five play-mix consists of different forms of theatre, say a non-verbal one, or a classical folk form such as Yakshagana, or even a modern dance form.
- We also try and get plays in different languages. So far we have had plays in Kannada, Gujarati, Tamil, Punjabi, Marathi, Hindi and English.
- Of the five plays, one is in Marathi generally, and that is necessarily a commissioned piece.
We have been following these guidelines religiously over the last five years or so and have given theatre of different forms and languages to our audience.
We do not invite applications for performances. However, we do get requests from theatre groups. We also request our theatre friends from different parts of the country to suggest plays for the festival. If the plays are being performed in Mumbai or in Bengaluru (Bangalore), one of us tries to make a trip and watch the play. Usually, we take three opinions before we select the play for the festival.
Which have been three of your most memorable productions over the years that the festival has staged? Why?
We have had several important and outstanding theatre productions in our festival. Speaking of three productions, in 2015, we had a group from Manipur, which presented an outstanding non-verbal production titled Nerves. It is a performance rooted in the expressions of the voiceless people from Manipur. It depicted the story of lives that have been exhausted by their existence in a conflict zone. It was very well produced and choreographed by the director Surjit Nongmeikapam.
Stories in a Song, directed by Sunil Shanbag, is another outstanding production that the festival has staged. The play, conceived and researched by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Padhan, blends music, dance, theatre and literature. It is a two-hour extravaganza that tells stories of Hindustani classical music forms such as kejri, thumri, dadra, khayal, interspersed with other more indigenous and even modern forms of music.
I also consider Gajab Kahani, directed by Mohit Takalkar and produced by Aasakta Kala Manch, as one of the landmark productions in the Vinod Doshi Memorial Theatre Festival. Gajab Kahani is based on the novel The Elephant’s Journey, originally written by the Nobel prize-winning Portuguese writer José Saramago. It tells the journey of an Indian elephant to the royal court in Vienna in 1551.
What is the biggest contribution you think the festival has made besides providing a platform for various theatre companies?
An important contribution of the Vinod Doshi Memorial Theatre Festival is the exposure that the festival provides to Pune audiences in terms of the different forms of theatre across languages. As the festival is not a one-time affair, it has made a significant impact. Unlike cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, where several theatre groups, both national and international, perform round the year, Pune does not often provide this opportunity. I think the festival has made a modest contribution in this direction.
The festival also introduced post show discussions with the director of the production, followed by audience interaction. Initially, we were skeptical of the outcome of this feature. By the time the shows ended, it would be 9.30 pm and we were not sure if the audience would stay back in large numbers for this interaction. But our apprehensions were unfounded. The interaction sessions have been well received.
What kind of changes, if any, you would like to make with the festival?
We would like to make the five-day festival period a kind of cultural week. During this period, we plan to have discussions with small groups in the mornings and, in the afternoons, maybe an art exhibition. Although we have been toying with this idea for some time, we have not been able to do anything, because of non-availability of convenient places. The auditorium itself does not have facilities for such activities and holding activities at different places may not logistically be possible.
Fortunately, a new complex consisting of an auditorium, discussion rooms, rehearsal space, an art gallery, projection room and many other facilities is likely to be available soon. We are looking forward to this day, and let’s hope that the festival becomes more broad-based and can include many more cultural activities in addition to theatre.
You are one of the trustees of the “Sahitya Rangbhoomi Pratisthan” that, among other things, offers Fellowships annually to talented young Indian people in theatre and in other art forms, including literature. The Fellowship presentation coincides with the festival. Tell us a little about the Trust and the book on Vijay Tendulkar, who is regarded widely as one of the foremost and celebrated Indian playwrights.
The “Sahitya Rangabhoomi Pratishthan” was established in 2003, with a focus to preserve and promote the arts and the artistes. A humble objective of the Trust was to make an attempt to ensure that veteran artistes, who had followed their muse, would not have to spend their old age in penury. Over the years, the Trust has undertaken various activities to achieve these objectives.
In the last 13 years, we have given 57 fellowships to young, talented artists in the field of theatre, literature and the other arts. The fellows selected are from different parts of India. Significantly, the fellowships have no preconditions and are given on the basis of the recipient’s contribution and dedication to their area of activity. We only expect creative risk-taking. The fellowship programme is generously supported by the Vinod and Saryu Foundation and several other individuals.
Another important activity undertaken by the Trust is the extension of substantial financial support towards hospitalisation of veteran artists in need.
Recently, the Trust supported and collaborated in the publication of two books, namely, The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre of Mumbai, edited by Shanta Gokhale, and Ajoon Tendulkar in Marathi, which is a critical appreciation of Vijay Tendulkar’s works. The latter has been edited by Rekha Sane Inamdar.
*Deepa Punjani is the editor of the website Mumbai Theatre Guide (www.mumbaitheatreguide.com), a prominent theatre portal in India with 70,000 plus followers. She is founder-representative of the Indian National Section of the IATC and serves on the IATC’s Executive Committee. Besides being an active theatre critic, she has been invited to advise theatre festivals; has been a jury/selection committee member, and has trained young theatre critics. Deepa has been an actress and an academic. Her M.Phil thesis (2004) focused on the lives of two select Indian women in theatre in the context of feminism and gender representation on the Indian stage. She has written on cinema and other topical events in the interest of democracy and social justice.