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Satyadev Dubey – a legend of Mumbai’s Hindi Theatre

Stalwart of the stage

V Gangadhar

 

Well known actor, director and playwright Satyadev Dubey.

A tribute to Satyadev Dubey, whose contribution to Mumbai’s Hindi theatre has been immense.

 

Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre looked no different to the layman or visitor. Crowds thronged the Irish Coffee counter, gazed at exhibits in the Book shop, gawked at celebrities, while serious young men and women discussed plays. .

But for the regular Prithvi Theatre-goer, there was something missing. The man with unruly hair, who, sipping tea with cigarette in hand , expounded on the mysteries of theatre to an admiring crowd that had many of who were trained by him and even performed with him. He is Pandit Satyadev Dubey, the 75-year-old doyen of Hindi theatre in Mumbai.

For decades the actor, director and playwright was a permanent fixture at Prithvi till his health began to fail some two years ago.

Dubey suffered a seizure at Prithvi last September, was hospitalised and later slipped into coma.

Friends, followers of the theatre and volunteers were ready to take care of him but there are no indications that he will ever return to his favourite haunt, the Prithvi.

He hasn’t staged a new play since 2008 and was only occasionally seen at his popular theatre workshops. ‘Khuda Ke Liye Mat Dekhna’, a semi-autographical play was his last production and the same year Prithvi honoured him by dedicating its annual festival to him.

Yes, things were changing at Prithvi. What with Dubey’s absence and now Sanjana Kapoor, who was managing the theatre for several years, quitting to start a new unit, Junoon. Her brother, Kunal Kapoor, will take over.

Dubey was a constant factor at Sanjana’s Prithvi, which tolerated all his eccentricities because he gave it so much in return.

As important as his productions were his informal get-togethers, where he held court, talking to theatre-lovers.

My friendship with him began in the early 1980s when I was reviewing theatre for a Mumbai daily.

Initially, he snapped at me, questioned my knowledge of theatre and made critical comments on many of his contemporaries. No wonder, he was labelled the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Mumbai stage, but no one could challenge the work he has done or his overall contribution.

Unconventional and bold

As Ashok Vajpeyi, editor of the book, ‘Satyadev Dubey: A fifty-year Journey through Theatre,’ explains, “He was a stalwart of Indian theatre at a time when modern urban theatre was in the process of establishing itself. Dubey was known for his unconventional choices, bold handling of material, discovery of Indian regional theatre and a close connection with the language he worked in.”

I watched several of his earlier plays at the pokey, little Chhabildas auditorium at Dadar, which often overflowed with people. Prithvi was a godsend to the likes of Dubey.

Dubey came to Bombay in 1952 to graduate in English Literature and improve his cricketting skills! “I quickly learnt that I was not good enough for top level cricket,” he confessed.

Collegemate and future film director, Vijay Anand, introduced him to Bombay theatre, which was in a period of transition with the old, socially-committed theatre fading and the modern one waiting at the wings.

Dubey felt he should start a movement against the ‘tyranny’ of the glamorous English theatre, which had nothing in common with life, as we knew it. He did this by selecting plays, which were close to our way of living, yet looked beyond the obvious: For instance, the late Dharam Vir Bharati’s ‘Andha Yug’ and Badal Sircar’s ‘Evam Inderjit’.

Written as a radio play, no one, including the writer, had recognised ‘Yug’s’ potential as a stage play. But Dubey, with the help and co-operation of NSD director Ebrahim Alkazi, converted it into a modern classic.

Once the genius was kindled, there was no looking back. Though often described as arrogant, quarrelsome and whimsical, the theatre world stalwarts such as Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, producer-director Sunil Shanbag grew to admire him.

His greatest contribution was the discovery of Indian regional theatre, while staging plays by Badal Sircar, Mohan Raakesh, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Adya Rangacharya.

The most important feature according to Dubey, was the power of the spoken word. The language of the stage had to be different and he often worked his writers overtime to produce it, which lifted the level of his plays.

As his career advanced, Dubey changed his views about English plays and staged dramas such as ‘Antigone’. His theatre became truly international.

Did not seek grants

Dubey often lacked funds for his productions. There was very little sponsorship for Hindi theatre and he did not seek grants because it involved lots of delay and red tape.

He had brushes with the censors because of the bold themes of some of his plays, where abusive words were liberally used.

He once refused to edit out some 150 foul words (he felt they were needed for the theme) from Vijay Tendullar’s ‘Gidhade’.

After a battle of words, the play was staged with three cuts.

When Hindi theatre was stagnating, Dubey arrived and showed that there was a need to change with the times. This has to be a permanent process and that is why we all pray that Dubey will be back soon at his appointed place at Prithvi, holding court.

 

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