Long before National School of Drama came into being, both English and vernacular theatre had started to flourish in the capital city. This aspect of Delhi’s theatre history has seldom been explored in the mainstream. Writer and theatre aficionado Kamlesh Kumar Kohli relives the exciting time.
I have always felt whenever theatre in Delhi is discussed, one hears views of people who either have no knowledge about Delhi theatre or came in too late to know the golden era of Delhi theatre. Unfortunately, there are also less-informed experts whose knowledge of Delhi theatre is confined to NSD. Let me try to explain the state of Delhi theatre for as long as I can remember – and do not forget that we refugees came into India only in 1947. So I remember the cultural scene from 50s. Delhi’s biggest cultural events were the annual Ramlila affairs at Chandni Chowk and the Urs – a week long occurrence – at the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. During the Navratras before Dussehra (auspicious days in the Hindu calendar), while the main Ramlila was at Chandni Chowk, almost every locality had a Mandali (troupe) performing Ramlila for ten days. These were either local amateurs or professional Nautanki (drama) groups touring the country. But modern theatre was happening only around Connaught Place. The theatre scene that I can look back to starts (in my memory) around 1957 when Shiela Bhatia staged her landmark Punjabi opera Heer Ranjha. A new art form for Delhi audiences, the opera was a hit. Shanno Khurana, the veteran vocalist of Hindustani classical music, was responsible for composing over seventy compositions for the Opera and was the leading lady playing Heer. Vinod Nagpal was the Ranjha. There were artists like Sneh Lata Sanyal, wife of the painter B.C. Sanyal, and numerous others who were involved in the production, which was revived in 1964 and then again in 1968. In 1957, Delhi’s first professional theatre, Hindustani Theatre, was formed by Begum Qudsia Zaidi along with Begum Pataudi. Hindustani Theatre was formed to do regular theatre and have a professional company. In 1957, Hindustani Theatre did its first production of Khalid Ki Khala (by Begum Qudsia Zaidi), an adaptation of Charlies’ Aunt. The play was directed by Shiv Sharma and Monica Misra (later Monica Tanvir, wife of Habib Tanvir). In 1958, Hindustani Theatre presented its first Sanskrit classic Mrichhkatikam (Sand vehicle) directed by Habib Tanvir. Habib had just returned from the West and he experimented a lot. Besides a huge team of talented actors, it was the first time that Habib Tanvir tried out a set of Chhatisgarhi folk artists in his production. The other actors who participated, as far as my memory serves me right, were Kusum Bahl (Kusum Haider now), Rekha Revri (wife of veteran journalist Inder Malhotra), Sham Bahadur, Shyam Arora, Rajinder Nath, BP Saxena. Hindustani Theatre went on to do other classics like Shakuntala and Amrapali. These plays had Monica Misra as the director, Narinder Sharma as the choreographer and MS Sathyu too. There were artists like Irshad Panjatan, Madhukar, Yunus Parvez, Gopi Kakkar, Kewal Kapur, Mahmud Quraishi, BP Saxena, Harjeet, Vijay Rahi, Veena Gaur, Sartaj Mehra, Veena Sethi, Mahindrani, IrfanAskari, Uma Sharma, Sarwat Sanjar, Surinder Kochar, Ashok Sarin, Archana Mohan (who became popular as Kalpana in Bollywood playing Shammi Kapoor’s leading lady in Professor). There were singers like Asha Valentine (later Asha Askari) who was so melodious that Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s Ramlila had most of songs sung by her. There were choreographers like Zohra Sehgal, Joy Michael and Narinder Sharma. Music directors like Pt. Amar Nath (disciple of Ustad Amir Khan Sahib) and Jyotinder Moitra (popularly known as Batuk Da), who composed music for film directors like Ritwik Ghatak. Noted makeup artists like Ashok Srivastva were there too. The legendary poet Niaz Haider was the most important member of Hidnustani Theatre who translated numerous plays and wrote songs. Shama Zaidi returned from Berliner Ensemble (Bertolt Brecht’s Theatre in Berlin) and joined to do plays like Sufaid Kundali (Brecht’s Caucasion Chalk Circle) and Mudra Rakshas. Music Director Mohan Upreti also joined in for Mudra Rakshas. The list of Hindustani Theatre artists is rather large. But there was much meaningful theatre happening in other groups too. Shiela Bhatia’s Delhi Art Theatre was one of the most active groups producing excellent operas in Punjabi with Delhi artistes like Shanno Khurana, Madanbala Sindu, Sarita Vohra, Mahinder Chopra, Vinod Nagpal, Sudesh Mahan, BK Kapoor, Madhukar, Malvika Nakra, Sneh Lata Sanyal, Amba Sanyal and numerous others. IL Das of the still active Little Theatre Group was producing regular theatre and used to bring out a newsletter covering theatre activities. There was RG Anand’s Indraprastha Theatre that was producing operas and plays. Poets like Fikar Taunsvi and Prem Jullundri involved with RG Anand who gave excellent operas like Sassi Punnu, Naiyya Mori and plays like Darbar-e-Akbari. Artists like Arun Bali and BK Kapoor were promoted by RG Anand. He was also responsible for introducing uniquely talented artists like Madanbala Sindhu. Away from all this so called highbrow stuff was a middle class theatre director, writer and producer who used to draw packed houses with his realistic theatre with social themes. The contribution of Ramesh Mehta and his group Three Arts Club will be written in golden letters whenever an authentic history of Delhi theatre is written. IPTA Delhi was very active performing regularly its ideologically apt plays. Committed artistes like OP Dhingra, Paresh Das, Gurnam Soni come to my mind. There were other big names attached to IPTA but I am talking of the artistes. Around 1964, Hugh and Joy Michael started a group named Yatrik that performed on weekends at Mahadev Road, where Films Division have their screening hall now. Yatrik did some commendable work. They originally produced plays in English but had to start doing Hindi plays also subsequently. Plays like Five Finger Exercise with Raghu Sudan come to mind. There were actors like Nigam Prakash, Robin Jind, Kusum Bahl, Salima Reza, Sushma Seth, Sudesh Sayal, Rati Bartholmeow and numerous others. T.P.Jain, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Dinesh Thakur were also involved with Yatrik’s productions. Around 1966 (or 1967), Abhiyan came into being with 30 founder members. The group was run by Rajinder Nath as others gradually drifted away. It had in the beginning Shyam Arora, TP Jain, KK Kohli, OP Kohli, Surinder Kocher and Ashok Sarin. Abhiyan started with determination to do Indian plays rather than adaptations and Rajinder Nath did tremendous work in this area. It was also the period when theatre had critics like Charles Fabri (a Hungarian writing for The Statesman), J D Singh (writing for The Times of India), Gopal Sharman (of Akshara Theatre). These critics were held in awe and esteem by the artistes. The reviews appeared regularly and usually on the following day of a performance. There were experts to do stage lighting. Michael Overman was one. There was S. Mukherjee at AIFACS. Chaman Lal (now of Modern Stage Lighting) and Dhawan were other names in the field. Apart from these theatre groups, there were visiting groups from other states. Prithvi Theatre of veteran Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Bohrupee of Sombu Mitra and Tripti Mitra with their excellent productions used to draw packed houses. Utpal Dutt used to bring his theatre. Bengali plays like Tashar Desh, Rakta Karbi, Raja, Setuand and Oedipus impressed Delhiites and they remember Tripti and Sombhu Mitra with respect. And let’s not forget, the British High Commission, which used to have an amateur dramatic club putting up regular high-quality English plays that catered to Delhi’s elite