Rustom, Jabuli and Sorab - a play based on the popular and dramatic tale of the Shah Nama - was staged at the Grant Road Theatre of Bombay on the mellow Saturday night of 29 October 1853. This performance is considered the beginning of Gujarati theatre. Even at that time, Bhavai, the traditional Gujarati folk theatre, was as unrelated to mainstream Gujarati theatre as it is today. No significant attempt has ever been made to present the sixty surviving veshas of Bhavai in their original form.
For city audiences, the Bhavai has always been a theatrical curio while its traditional rural audiences have turned to other media for entertainment. In 1953, when the centenary of Gujarati theatre was celebrated, the leading Gujarati poet, Umashankar Joshi, was compelled to make a scathing observation. "This is a wedding procession without the groom." Gujarati theatre did not have the original plays needed to have an identity of its own.
The face of Gujarati theatre has remained relatively unchanged even after forty years. The "new" theatre is not all that new any more. Only because there have been no drastically different trends recently does this theatre continue to be termed "new". There have been fewer attempts at experimentation in Gujarati as compared to Marathi, Bengali and Hindi theatres (not to mention the rest of the world) because there is no consistent alternative movement along with the mainstream theatre.
The performers who start out anxious to do something different lose no time in joining the mainstream at the first opportunity. The writers and directors associated with such movements do not happen to be so closely associated with theatre that they can be relied upon to continue to provide challenging plays.
Be it mainstream or alternative, the source of new talent has traditionally been drama competitions. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Bombay) and the former Bombay State Competitions held between 1950 and 1960 provided the majority of the works, which have kept the vitality throbbing in professional Gujarati theatre. For instance, the competition held in 1953 marked the entry of Pravin Joshi, Kanti Madia and Vijay Dutt.
Similarly, intercollegiate competitions organized by the Indian National Theatre in 1975-78 marked the entry of talents like Mahendra Joshi, Paresh Raval, Mukesh Raval, Siddharth Randeria, Homi Wadia, Sameer Khakhar, Nikita Shah, Sujata Mehta, Daisy Rani and Latesh Shah, who are the presently established younger generation of theatre professionals.
Competitions held in the late eighties and early nineties have produced Prakash Kapadia and Mihir Bhuta (writers), Rajesh Joshi (director), Piyush-Taufik (music directors) and Manoj Joshi, Tushar Joshi, Jamnadas Majithia, Bakul Thakkar, Shefali Shetty and Sejal Shah (performers) who went on to prove their abilities on the professional stage. And this is true not just for Bombay.
One-act play competitions held at Yuvak Mahotsavs of Ahmedabad have provided talent in similar way. But in Gujarat, in addition to these competitions, theatre education available in Ahmedabad and Vadodara is an equal source of fresh talent.
Although Ahmedabad is the capital of Gujarat, Bombay has always been its theate capital. Typically, a Bombay play performs about half of its total shows across Gujarat. So even in Gujarat there is a predominant Bombay theatre culture. On the other hand, the rare local productions in Gujarat are hardly ever able to tour other centres of Gujarat, let alone Bombay, unless for some competition. If one were to discount the few institutions of Gujarat active in alternative theatre, there are hardly any noteworthy productions of the professional theatre that originate in Gujarat.
The continued activity of alternative theatre groups in Gujarati appears remote in the foreseeable future. Though there are half a dozen such groups in Ahmedabad now, their standard continues to be consistently low. This is not to say that this poverty has anything to do with their economic restraints. Not only are the sets, lights and other technical departments poor, but also the standard of direction and acting is also quite low. It is relevant to note that there is no institution or government body that can attract talent to alternative theatre.
While government academies are indifferent to this matter, there are no talented artists on the Gujarati stage who are willing to face strife in order to chase a vision of alternative theatre for artistic satisfaction. Whether we like it or not, the 'Bania' image of the Gujaratis applies to Gujarati theate as much as it applies to Gujarati society.
*The above article appeared in a newsletter titled "Theatre 4 U" that was distributed during the Prithvi Festival of 1997. Some inputs in this article are courtesy RASA