My journey ‘between 22 yards’ with The Statesman and my superboss CR Irani continued. As the Bombay branch manager of the newspaper, I was responsible for generating advertising from the entire western India region. Gujarat was a potential market and I used to make an annual visit there. It was also one of the major centres of our plays. The Indian National Theatre (INT) used to stage an annual month-long festival of their plays, both from its Gujarati and Parsi wings. There was a healthy rivalry between us. Some years they scored, other times we triumphed.
Once my Statesman superboss expressed a desire to visit Ahmedabad to meet up with some highly placed government officials as well as corporate honchos. Using my theatre contacts I set up meetings as per his desire. We were promptly received with a warm welcome. I would introduce Irani as our MD. Once introductions were over and tea was ordered, the conversation would shift to the last play of mine they saw and how much they had enjoyed it. The Statesman took a back seat, much to my embarrassment.
At the end of several meetings Irani told me: Burjor, no one knows you as The Statesman’s employee; people only know you as a theatre personality”. I told him, “Sir, this is the power of the entertainment world. They know I work for The Statesman and would go out of their way to include the daily on their advertisement media schedules, but at these meetings, a tête-à-tête with a leading theatre actor is what they would like to cherish and enjoy”. I don’t think my explanation convinced Irani. This time I didn’t have a doosra up my sleeve and had to concede this match to him. I dreaded the outcome, but, fortunately, much to my relief, I wasn’t transferred.
My journey with The Statesman continued for 18 long years. We belonged to a different era.
Today’s whiz kids want to move on every three years, or even less. They, perhaps, look down on loyalty and consider long years of service at an institution an excuse for incompetence. The Statesman gave me space. I could pursue my passion alongside my career. At no stage did I allow The Statesman to suffer for my theatre. On the contrary, my theatre activities opened up contacts at the highest levels of the corporate world, which benefited the publication.
After some years of chasing my dream, I launched my own theatre company — Burjor Patel Productions — and added English plays to my repertoire.
Sangit Kala Kendra, the cultural wing of the Birla Group, would select one of my English plays every year for their members. Aditya Birla would always be there and he would come backstage at the end of the performance and greet us. I kept up my contact with him. The Birlas and Tatas were the two most respected business houses then. It so happened that when the father figure of the Birla empire, GD Birla, passed away, there were some adverse comments on him in one of the articles published in The Statesman. All Birla companies stopped their advertisements with The Statesman. Irani was perturbed. We tendered an apology in the paper but it didn’t help.
I used my contact with Aditya Birla and appealed to him that it was an inadvertent comment from one of our journalists and that the newspaper never intended to demean the huge contribution of GD Birla. Aditya was sympathetic and instructed all his companies to withdraw the ban. Though there was no special thank-you note from Irani, I was sure it must have reminded him of my words during his visit to Gujarat on the love and respect a theatre personality enjoys. I certainly won this match. That is life. You win some, you lose some!
The author is a well-known stage personality