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Was Chhabildas an Experimental Theatre Movement ?

Old Chhabildas High School, Image Source: Sahapedia

Being a Theatre Practitioner, I was always proud of the fact that my grandmother Jyoti Kandalgaonkar, was a student a school that carries a part of Theatre History - Chhabildas School. Of course! She was already a long past alumini when the Experimental Theatre Movement started in it's early 1970's by then known as Chhabildas boys' High School, Mumbai. The pioneers Sulabha Deshpande, Arvind Deshpande and Arun Kakde (Kakde Kaka) started their group of Experimental Theatre in Marathi named Awishkar and made Chhabildas a thriving space for young and enthusiastic artists to create some of the best works ever created and adapted in the history of Marathi Theatre.

Sulabha Deshpande was the most important pillar of creating Chhabildas as a platform that witnessed the Golden Era of Experimental Theatre in Marathi. She directed the verse play Pratima, with which the Chhabildas space was inaugurated. But perhaps, her most experimental work was the Marathi adaptation of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s one-woman play Request Concert, which she evolved and performed at Chhabildas in collaboration with directors Rustom Bharucha and Manuel Lutgenhorst.

" A large rectangular room on the second floor of the building with a very high ceiling and sloping tiled roof. The corridor outside overlooked the crowded street below, far end of the hall was a stage - laughably small. Behind the stage was a large room (Backstage?) and a toilet (very basic and no running water)" as Kakde Kaka remembers his first impression that wasn't very possitive but would have never imagined that between 1974-1992 this Alternate Space for experimental theatre would create some of the finest actors, directors and writers in the industry.

Image Source: Sahapedia

It was a greater task for Awishkar to give the space it's shape and form, it was close to Dadar Railway Station which was in a way a good deal but noises from the adajacent chawls, crowded streets and yelling hawkers, were enough obstacles that had to be dealt with during the performances. Even with all these brimming issues, there were several thetre groups gave the space a different dimension, Bahuroopi's production of Badal Sircar's classic, Juloos directed by Amol Palekar had audience in the round. Satyadev Dubey used short film footage projected back on screen in Baby written by Vijay Tendulkar. Jayadev Hattangady's Changuna, Achyut Deshingkar's Point Blank, and Dilip Kulkarni's Ani Mhanoon Kunihi constantly experimented with new staging techniques that required minimal costs and sets.There were then upcoming and new playwrights like Shafaat Khan that experimented on the context of absurd plays like Mumbaiche Kaavle and Kisse. Apart from the team of regular actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Shalini Pradhan, Rohini Oka and Amrish Puri that performed at Chhabildas, leading actors from films and the commercial stage like Amol Palekar and Dr Shreeram Lagu also turned to Chhabildas "for personal fulfilment and artistic satisfaction".

"Watching the spirit with Dubeyji of course and other people who came to chhabildas worked, was also eye openning and somewhere I think my resolve to continue doing theatre, irrespective of what conditions I was met with certainly Chhabildas is irresponsible for that as well as sharpen my communicative instincts as an actor"says Naseeruddin Shah in an interview with Delhi Theatre Guide.

Image Source: Mumbai Mirror

Apart from young theatre groups experimenting with their content Awishkar also held Theatre in Education workshops for children and trained young adults. I was thrilled enough to know that my mother Deepa Pavaskar had been trained for few sessions in the intial stage of the establishment for children by Awiskar, known as the Chandrashala, this children's theatre wing of Awishkar directed plays like Baba Harvale Ahet, Raja Ranila Ghaam Hava and Pandit Pandit Tujhi Akkal Shendit and notably the Sangeet Natak , Durga jhali Gauri (Durga Became Gauri) in 1982, a dance drama with a cast of seventy children. Bollywood actors like Nana Patekar and Urmila Matondkar were students of Chandrashala.

But the question lies unanswered, Was Chhabildas an Experimental Theatre Movement in History. Some would not agree with it and some might give you persistent tales during the brimming age of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai. But they would definitely agree that it had a different vibe and aura that caught it's attention from amateur's to professionals. Due to rise in Television, inaugural of Tata's exuberant NCPA Theatre and the rising audience at Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre had an impact on the drop in the footfall of Chhabildas audience. Adding to it's situation the new school management committee declined the lease to Awishkar. The nucleus and the Mecca of the experimental Theatre Movement of Maharashtra, leading to two decades of Theatre Movement had finally faded away.

Nevertheless, Awishkar still exists in their new home at Mahim Municipal School where thriving and new theatre experiments are still encouraged and warmly welcomed.


Naseerunddin Shah's, Delhi Theatre Guide Interview

India Today Article by Asha Kasbekar

Sahapedia for Images

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Mumbai Mirror Article by Shanta Gokhale

Mumbai Mirror Article by Sunil Shanbag

Grandmother, Jyoti Kandalgaonkar

Mother, Deepa Pavaskar

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1 Comment

Written with depth and understanding. Beautiful!

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