Theatre doyenne Vijaya Mehta ends seven-year-hiatus

Sunday, 9 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Saturday, 8 February 2014 - 10:54pm IST | Agency: DNA
Octogenarian theatre stalwart Vijaya Mehta's return to her 'first love' after over seven years has led to much excitement among her students. Many well-established students like Nana Patekar, Neena Kulkarni, Vikram Gokhale and others will participate in her theatre workshop. dna’s Yogesh Pawar caught up with Mehta for an interview. Excerpts:

You’re returning to Ravindra Natya Mandir where you once trained and worked with the biggest names in theatre.
There is so much nostalgia as I return to this space for this Pancham Nishad workshop from February 11-14th . Every nook and corner of this place has so many associations. (Sighs) Some people are no more but their work and influence lingers.

The workshop will have absolute freshers. Expectations are sky high.
(Laughs) Yes some participants are as young as my grandchildren. Expectations are good as it helps set high benchmarks. This is as much a learning curve for me... an opportunity to dust my craft, polish it further and pick up new skills. You know it also reminds me of some of my own workshops with the likes of Peter Brooks.

Peter Brooks, of the Mahabharata fame?
Yes, him... I used to be obsessed with a passion for images. If I’ve replaced it with sophistication in simplicity I have Peter Brooks to thank. I incorporated his words 'Every second has to tick,' in my style.

You know he had this workshop at Bhopal and Satyadev (Dube), Brooks' wife Natasha and me were in one group. He asked us to present a skit just mewing like cats. Satyadev was okay with it and Natasha too caught on but I was petrified. I told Brooks, “I can’t do this. All the participants know me as an established actor-director and will laugh.” From then on, I got the toughest tasks and the harshest criticism from him but it helped me grow.

Considering your passion for theatre, why’d it take you more than seven years to come back?
My responsibilities kept me busy, first heading National School of Drama for four years and then National Centre for the Performing Arts for 16 years. Even when I revived Purush at Nana Patekar behest with Ayesha Jhulka in 2000, I was spreading myself too thin.

You’ve had the privilege of training with legend Ebrahim Alkazi.
After being suddenly cast as Desdemona in a college play I did an intense course with Alkazi which exposed me to the grammar of theatre. It helped me gain a serious perspective on the medium.

How much did your family background help you reach where you are?
My family believed girls needed education. My parents were radical Theosophists steeped in the Varkari tradtion. My father was Annie Besant’s secretary. M N Roy, the Indian nationalist revolutionary was a relative. In the thick of the Independence struggle, Gandhiji was a great influence in our Baroda home. Widowed when I was six, my mother, raised us single-handedly. In fact just running the home kept her so busy that there was no time to wallow in grief over her fate. In fact, she learned to read and write.
But that was a time when the air in Maharashtra was thick with values of Dhondu Keshav Karve who continued Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule’s work of promoting gender equality. My generation of women were created in this climate. So if you say my background helped me, of course it did.

Was it helpful as you began the Rangayan movement.
Theatre had got stuck in the mytho-historical musicals and there were many us like Arvind Deshpande, Shriram Lagoo, Bhaskar Chandavarkar and Vijay Tendulkar who were restless to do something different. This was how we formed Rangayan.

It wasn’t only theatre, painters M F Husain, Akbar Padamsee and Gaitonde painted in their studios while Ravi Shankar rehearsed with his group Kinnar. Sachin Shankar worked on his ballet in a room and sculptor Piloo Pochkhanwala worked in a shed nearby. It was a tiny space. We had little money, but the desire to do pathbreaking stuff drove us. I still remember doing the rounds with Kishori (Amonkar), interacting with artistes.

And yet it folded up. Many blame you.
Those who do, may have some benefit of hindsight I don't. How could I be responsible? I got re-married to Faroque Mehta. When he went to Germany, I went with him. I think Rangayan folded up because its time was finished.

With actors Nalini Jaywant and Shobhna Samarth as aunts, Nutan and Tanuja as cousins and Durga Khote as mother-in-law from your first marriage, why didn't you join mainstream cinema?
I’d seen glamour up close at home and never felt attracted. Instinctively I knew this wasn’t what I want to do. I was already influenced by JP(Jai Prakash Narayan) who I worked with since my teens. When I made films much later, parallel cinema made by Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal attracted me. I see my films as an extension of my theatre.

Even as you have created works ahead of your time you've never negated the traditional?
Why should anybody do that? Of course there is a lot that is wrong with us as a culture but there is so much that is beautiful and far superior to its counterparts across the world. Why can't I pick up the best and marry it with what I find good in my journeys?

That was what I set out doing with Bhaskar Chandavarkar and other like-minded theatre persons s when we took up ritualistic Sanskrit theatre. It wasn't easy. I had to stay in Kerala and study Koodiyattam under Madhav Chakyar. I was able to then bring that Sanskritic idiom into modern theatre. It was fun trying this fusion in Mudra Rakshasa, Shakuntala and other Girish Karnad plays.

Your ideas on women's rights also takes a similar view..
You know I was in the US studying the landscape of American theatre at the peak of their feminist movement. The sit-ins, demonstrations and processions enthused me but I found it appalling that women wore men’s clothes. I asked the women why they wanted to disfigure themselves? Does equality mean looking like men? I had seen much stronger women back home. They may not have gone to fancy universities to study feminism, but when they wanted they infused change, even radically, within tradition with their sheer inner strength.

You’ve said in the past that your transition from stage to films as an actor was difficult.
(Laughs) Yes when I did Kalyug in 1981 I was struck by how much I overacted in the beginning. Understanding how to downplay expressions and keep them real for close-ups was tough since I came from theatre.

Some of your critics call you “elitist?”
(Chuckles) I thought that was only Tendulkar being jocular. Seriously, as for those who hold my upbringing, my training or my ease with both English and Marathi against me I’ve no rancour but it baffles.

You’ve worked with Fritz Benewitz for several years. Also your Ionesco and Brecht productions set new trends. Aren’t they too dissimilar?
But that’s how you challenge yourself. You'd laugh if I tell you about this international workshop at Oxford, where Americans and Africans found their own ways of producing Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi.I thought, let me try tamasha. People were astonished! Then I realised I wanted to find a modern vehicle for folk conventions. Later, research led to Brecht. At Rangayan, we introduced a foreign classic each year. Nissim Ezekiel suggestedChairs (Ionesco). We called it Na-natya.

What were the German actors like?
It was great learning. You know their numerous questions can get on your nerves. But even if they raise an eye-brow, it gets layered with so much meaning.

Does your 23-year-old series Lifeline seem far far ahead of the current saas-bahu reign on tv?
You know you are not the first one to say this. The people who work on these serials tell me they've tight deadlines and shoot an episode a day. But we also did that. Only we didn’t turn up one day and decide to shoot, the preparation went on for months before. You can’t hide laziness behind a TRP argument.

Will you return to tv or cinema again?
I keep getting feelers. Now that I have the time, if the right subject comes along, why not? But my first love is theatre and that is what will always draw me.

How far has your Marathi autobiography Zimma’s translation progressed?
Its not a straight translation. I am rewriting it completely. Given how finicky I am about getting the nuances of the language right, it looks like it’ll take a while.


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