Contemporary Theatre in Delhi – A Peek into the Old and the New

The popularity of Punjabi opera style theatre in Delhi in the 1950s and 1960s skyrocketed with the productions of the Delhi Art Theatre, which though became inactive with the demise of its founder, thespian Sheela Bhatia, in 2008.
Natarang Pratishthan, a city-based archive and resource centre for Indian theatre, has now embarked on an ambitious project to bring alive the memories and underline the contribution of some of the signImage 2ificant theatre groups in Delhi, including the Delhi Art Theatre.
The archiving process is being aided by the Raza Foundation, also a city-based body set up by the late modern art painter S H Raza who died last year.
Kickstarting the process is ‘Rang Smaran’, a two-day event that began at the Sahitya Akademi here on Tuesday (Mar 28) with members of the Delhi Art Theatre sharing anecdotes and talking about how they got involved in the formation of the iconic theatre group.
“The idea is to record an oral history for posterity and undertake a documentation of the old theatre groups of Delhi. Post-independence was really an exciting period with many emerging theatre groups but unfortunately there is no physical record of it. Our aim is to capture those moments and memories for the younger generation,” says Kirti Jain, theatre director.
Jain is the daughter of the late Nemichand Jain, a poet and theatre person who founded ‘Natrang’, which is the oldest surviving theatre journal in the country. Previous editions of the journal, along with brochures, posters, books and media clippings from the personal collection of Nemichand, have been digitally archived.
The organisation has been archiving the works of theatre groups and personalities of the country and through its ‘Rang Samvad series’ that organizes dialogues with theatre personalities for some time now.
“The archiving is a mammoth exercise and while over 75 per cent of material like books, magazines and press clippings have been sourced from Nemichand’s personal collection, we are also contacting different people to contribute. It is a big relief to have the assistance of the Raza Foundation in creating this valuable record,” Kirti points out.
Interestingly, after arriving in the capital from Lahore, Sheila Bhatia, a mathematics school teacher, started Delhi Art Theatre here in 1951 and subsequently produced plays in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Hindustani.
Among her plays, ‘Heer Ranjha’, Ghalib Kaun Tha’ and ‘Dard Ayega Date Paon’ were quite popular and drew celebrated names like Kaifi Azmi and Begum Akthar. Even the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was among those who came to watch the performances.
“Shiela ji was brought up in a family where there was a tradition of singing folk songs and she introduced that into theatre here. It would be correct to say that she gave birth to the idea of opera theatre of India,” said Amba Sanyal, whose mother Swarnalata Sanyal was among the founding members of Delhi Art Theatre.
A short video clip featuring Shiela narrating the origin of the theatre group and recounting various anecdotes relating to it was also screened. Madan Bala Sidhu, Vinod Nagpal and Malavika Khanna were among others who shared tidbits of their association with the group.
Members of Yatrik, another theatre group headed by Joy Michael, the doyenne of Indian theatre that has been active for over 50 years and come out with over 280 productions, also took a trip down the memory lane at yesterday’s event.
Sushma Seth, Bhaskar Ghose, Sunit Tandon and Avijit Dutt took turns to relive their experiences with the 1964-founded repertory, which stages bilingual performances of theatre, music and dance in Delhi.
Stalwarts of Indian theatre, such as Ebrahim Alkazi, Alyque Padamsee, Roshan Seth, Barry John and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, have been associated with Yatrik. Some of its famed productions include ‘Azar-ka-Khwab’, ‘I Am Not Sheikh Chilli’, ‘9 Jakhoo Hill’, ‘Pushkin’s Last Poem’, and ‘Comedy at the End of the World’.
At the Sahitya Akademi, a small exhibition of the photos, brochures and playlists giving a glimpse of the journey these groups have taken, is also on show.

Members of Abhiyan, which is still active in theatre as well as those from Dishantar, once a premier theatre group of the city, are slated to speak.

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