On one rainy evening of August 1983, when Mumbai faced the monsoon downpour, around 50 theatre enthusiasts braved the local train disruptions to be in time for the iconic Marathi children's play, Durga Zhali Gauri — a tale of a misbehaving princess who wakes up to the charm of hard work.
After a bit of a wait, when the audience was wondering why the doors of Dadar's Chabildas theatre weren't opening, a mild mannered smiling saree-clad lady came to the fore and apologised to each and every member of the audience about the inability to stage the children's production mounted by her Chandrashala group (part of the larger Awishkar founded by Deshpande and her late husband Arvind). She said the child artistes hadn't reached and some who had, were drenched. "Kahi ali nahi, kahi oli ahet..."
That was Sulabha Deshpande. True to her name, easy, straight and ready to reach out to an audience at any hour. Her untiring abiding love for experimental theatre and her energy as a natural actor in the mainstream space will be missed by Mumbaikars.
The founder of experimental theatre groups like Awishkar and Rangayan is no more. The affable performer, who died at the age of nearly 80 on Saturday after a prolonged illness, was the younger generation's immediate (Sulu Mavshi) connect with a league of theatrepersons who gave a rich theatre tradition to Maharashtra. She did and thrived on resource-poor theatre in a pre-liberalised India where pooling of personal savings for mounting a play (which may attract a niche viewership) was a matter of pride.
Those who have witnessed her stage role as the victimised Benarebai in Vijay Tendulkar's Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (mounted first in 1967 in Mumbai's Ravindra Natyagruha) know the potent possibilities of a courtroom drama. She became synonymous as Benarebai, etched permanently in Mumbai's consciousness — her Benare successfully hit out at a male-dominated social order where an unwed mother was only a subject of ridicule.
Deshpande may have acted in 70-odd Bollywood films (the latest being English Vinglish), some of which are memorable (Bhumika, Arth), but she will be most missed for the time, backstage support and resources she devoted to Mumbai's experimental theatre and her belief in live stage as a valid form of expression.