Theatrics of yore

A nostalgic trip down the memory lane for a perspective on how this art form evolved from drama-baazi to spectacular shows in iconic venues

By Author  |  Mohammad Ali Baig  |  Published: 16th Dec 2018  12:35 amUpdated: 15th Dec 2018  5:21 pm

Being born into theatre has its own travails. If you have grown up loving the touch of newly painted sets, the feel of crisply tailored costumes, the fragrance of freshly printed tickets as well as the grimness of the dark wings and grime of backstage, your approach to the craft becomes different. And your viewpoint of this performing art form turns panoramic, rather ‘cycloramic’.

As a child, I witnessed the germination, and as an adult the evolution. In the process, went through the catharsis and angst of loss too. Theatre for me always meant Baba, my father. It still does. That’s the reason I am addicted to the echoes of audience’s applause around the world. I try to search and re-search him in the highest echelons of theatre, be it the Globe and Edinburgh in Europe, Van Gogh Castle in France, the Versailles Centre in Canada, Kagithane in Turkey, Gaddafi Stadium in Pakistan or back home at each show of Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival.

There was a time when theatre in Hyderabad meant stand-up comedies. The same would be performed at Hyderabadi families’ Valima and Aqeeqa ceremonies as much at  Gandhi Bhavan auditorium. ‘Drama Walleh’ were not very respectable people (leave alone professionals) and ‘Dramas’, a legacy of bhaands.

Qadir Ali Baig sahab changed all that with his New Theatre Hyderabad from 1970 to 1984. He brought in serious, meaningful theatre not just at the iconic Ravindra Bharathi but at the monumental Golconda Fort and Chowmahalla Palace as well. That’s why it is considered the ‘Golden Era of Hindustani Theatre’ in the city.

Former chairman of National School of Drama (New Delhi), Prof Mohan Maharishi sums it rightly, “Post independence, Indian theatre has seen stalwarts identified with their own regions like Prithviraj Kapoor in Mumbai, Ebrahim Alkazi in Delhi, Badal Sarkar in Kolkatta and Qadir Ali Baig in Hyderabad.” He introduced the emerging progressive playwrights of that era: Kishan Chandar, Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Shambhu Mitra and several others to Hyderabad’s audiences. As veteran Prof. Bhaskar Shevalkar said, “His was total theatre, people bought a five-rupee ticket at fifty-rupees in black to watch Qadir Ali Baig’s theatre.”

Dramatic Circle Hyderabad, Rangadhara, Torn Curtains, Rasaranjani, Surabhi and other amateur theatre groups added to the city’s theatrescape. That was the time when people in Hyderabad preferred watching ‘Hum Log’ and ‘Buniyad’ on Doordarshan, the lone TV channel in those days. Even after being given ‘complimentaries’, they would ask if their conveyance to the auditorium would be taken care of.

That’s not actually because of any serious contempt towards theatre, but because the princely state of Hyderabad Deccan never had a history of serious theatre, while the States of Bengal, Maharashtra, Manipur and Assam have had used theatre even as a tool to fight for India’s freedom, prior to our county’s independence. Erstwhile Hyderabad always courted mushaairaas and ghazal mehfils, ‘Shaam-e-Ghazal’ as they would be popularly called. Guess, that went well in cohesiveness with Biryani and Double ka Meetha that was to follow, than wraps and canapés that would synergize theatre cuisine. Hence, it’s unfair to compare Hyderabad to other cities.

Today, it’s a changed scene. People dress up to the nines to come to watch theatre. Ladies in glittering diamonds and bejewelled watches, gentry with bespoke clothing flaunting their Bentleys and BMW’s, Dolce Gabbanas and Pradas as much as a Theatre Evening Invite or a Theatre Festival ticket queue up at the venue… just like what I saw at the Derbies at the Malakpet Race Course or at the Mahalakshmi in Mumbai as a child from our reserved box. It’s now cool to be at ‘the theatres’ and hip to be belonging to the art form. It’s really fulfilling when parents of teenage high-school students walk up to you, introduce their children and ask, “Sir, tell us how can my child grow up to become like you?”.

 Two decades ago, parents would cringe if their offspring was anywhere close to the stage, except at the school annual day function. We have indeed come a long way from Baba’s friends in Bombay and Delhi asking, “Kya Hyderabad mein theatre hoti hai Baig sahab ke baad”? to Hyderabad hosting the biggest privately-run-corporate-backed theatre festival in the country (without a venue of its own), and every city in the country wanting to be a part of it. No other city can boast of a theatre fest that sees a 2300-seater or an 1100-seater venue sold out at a thousand bucks for a serious, meaningful play.

The lull of the decade between 1994 to 2004 had left performers and audiences discouraged and disheartened so much so that when the state government decided to form a Foundation in Qadir Ali Baig sahab’s name on his 20thanniversary in 2004 to start the revival activity, people walked up to me and said, “Why are you flogging a dead horse?”. The same people now come backstage to thank us. Thank you Hyderabad for giving theatre its largest annual assembly of stage performers and unprecedented honours for a theatre repertory… from 450-year old magnificent Golconda Fort to the 600-year old hallowed Oxford… the shows must go on.