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50 years, 50 plays

For years, Padma Bhushan awardee Satyadev Dubey has been equally loved and hated, as he ruffled feathers and sponged on friends to keep his passion for theatre alive. The book Satyadev Dubey: A Fifty-year Journey Through Theatre traces the timeline of his career, which corresponds with the progress of Indian experimental theatre

On September 20, Pandit Satyadev Dubey was rushed to hospital after he suffered a severe epileptic attack. The seizure struck while he was hanging out at his favourite haunt, the caf � at Juhu's Prithvi Theatre. The 75-year-old theatre veteran is recovering, we are reassured.


Rebel with a cause: A book on Satyadev Dubey has hit bookstores,
and it holds articles and interviews with theatre folk who worked with
the celebrated director


Meanwhile, Satyadev Dubey: A Fifty-year Journey Through Theatre, which consists of articles, reviews and interviews on and by Dubey, has quietly made its way to bookstands. The book chronicles Dubey's life as well as the growth of Indian experimental theatre.

The two after all, are intertwined. Dubey worked with playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Evam Inderjit, Dharamvir Bharati, Mohan Rakesh and  Girish Karnad. He encouraged, through brickbats, actors like the late Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah and Sonali Kulkarni. Theatre directors from the late Chetan Datar to Sunil Shanbag and the young Irawati Karnik trained under him. The list is endless.

In a freewheeling chat, Shanta Gokhale, editor of the book, tells us how Dubey's life fills the 300 pages of the book.


The late Amrish Puri in a scene from Girish Karnad's Hayavadana, which
was directed by Dubey in 1970. Karnad says in the book, "Satyadev Dubey
was the first theatre person to tell me he would produce my play,
although it was in Kannada."


How did the book come together?
Nearly three years ago, Rashmi Vajpeyi (publisher) asked if I would edit a book documenting Dubey's work. At the time, I had other projects on hand, and I said, later maybe. Luckily they weren't in a hurry. Frankly, it was the first time that I was editing a book of this kind. So I had to decide what the structure would be and what kind of material should go into it. I looked through all the material available at the National Center for Performing Arts library -- they have two entire files on Dubey -- and combed through everything I could lay my hands on, even if it was just a few lines on him. I had my experience of seen Dubey's work, dating back to the 1960s, to fall back on. I realised that his theatre fell into phases.


Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak-Shah in a scene from George
Bernard Shaw's Village Wooing. This is one of the few English plays
directed by Dubey in 1986. Shah revived the play earlier this year,
under his theatre group Motley.


That's how the book has been structured?
That's how I decided to keep it. There was already a narrative that I did not need to interfere with -- when he moved spaces (from Walchand Terrace in Tardeo to Chabildas School Hall at Dadar, and later, Prithvi Theatre, Juhu) where another kind of work evolved. I just had to put it together and choose the material that best described what was happening during that phase of Dubey's theatre. Of course, the big problem I faced was that most of the material I found was in Marathi, some of it in Hindi. The book had to be written in English. Nearly 70 per cent of the material included in the book is a translation.

Isn't that representative of the fact that Dubey worked in different languages for a large part of his career?
Yes. Why else would Marathi critics and journalists want to write about this man if he was only doing Hindi theatre? He affected Marathi theatre. He is an honorary Maharashtrian! Apart from that, the English press was oriented towards the personality and carried very little critical writing. But there was a critic called Iqbal Masud, whose piece we have included.


Suhas Joshi, Dubey and Naseeruddin Shah during a rehearsal of
Pratibimb, written by Mahesh Elkunchwar and directed by Dubey in 1987


Is there much to learn from Dubey, the teacher?
You can't! He won't teach you, and he is not how you'd want to be. He's driven by some kind of devil inside him, which won't let him rest. He said as much in workshops he held -- that theatre is something you can't teach. The book, however, contains a substantial report of how he had codified his training method.

Dubey has always worked in the experimental space. Unlike other theatre practitioners from his era, he never cared for the commercial aspects of theatre. Tell us about the economics of Dubey's theatre.
Here's a man who did one play a year, and sometimes, went upto two or three productions. But, in 50 years, he made 50 plays! How did he manage, we wondered. There's an interesting anecdote in the book, when one of his plays made money and that made him uncomfortable. He wondered what he was going to do with the money. He wondered if it was going to corrupt his work!


The late Chetan Datar and Gitanjali Rao, who is now an award-winning
filmmaker, in a scene from Chhoti Chhoti Batein (1993) directed by
Dubey. Datar, a passionate writer, translator and director known for his
experimental productions, was one of Dubey's proteg �s


He never applied for funding. There wasn't much available, anyway, but he didn't want to fill forms and keep accounts. He lived like a free man. He didn't wish to be accountable to anyone. Even if there was just one person sitting in the audience, he'd still go ahead and perform the play with the same commitment and passion. He once said that he was quite shameless. He sponged on his friends. If the pinch became unbearable, I always have friends who were doing well, he had said.

He is always welcome in the homes of people who know him.
Absolutely. Not just the theatre community, but even people like (the late) Vinod Doshi (chairman of Premier Automobiles) and Saryu Doshi helped him out. They gave him space at Walchand Terrace (where he, and other playwrights like Girish Karnad and Vijay Tendulkar held rehearsals and interacted). That also represents a time when people believed that art was important and had to be supported.


Akash Khurana in a scene from one of Dubey's last plays as writer-
director, Khuda Ke Liye Mat Dekhna (2008).

pics courtesy/ Sunil Shanbag, Awishkar, Prithvi Theatre, 
Natrang Pratishthan, Natyashodh Sansthan


What Dubey started at Walchand Terrace and Chhabildas School Hall lives on in the works of his students. The book mentions his students -- the late Chetan Datar and Sunil Shanbag. Naseeruddin Shah quotes him in every interview. Akash Khurana sought shelter in his house. Even today, youngsters are influenced by him.
He is constantly in touch with young people. There is a small story that Sunil (Shanbag) has contributed, which is interesting because it shows that Dubey, unlike a lot of directors, did not have the ego that compels them to hold onto people who learnt from them and stamp them. He would get uncomfortable with this power. Sunil's piece talks about this.

Suddenly, out of the blue, Dubey would say, 'go, do your own thing now'. He would literally push you out. That's how Sunil came to set up Arpana, his own theatre group. That's a very important thing, you see. It is Dubey's way of keeping his own ideas fresh, because if you are working with the same group, you become trapped. When you work with youngsters, you keep discovering new things, as you teach.

Usually, Dubey is seen looking grumpy after watching a play or a rehearsal. Recently though, after a show of Shanbag's Stories In A Song, he looked happy. He seems to react to the energy he senses inside the auditorium.
He loves it! There is a generosity of spirit and a commitment to the truth of theatre. He is also biased towards certain kinds of theatre, and if he sees something good within that framework, he is thrilled. He will go around recommending the work to everybody around him. He does this with films as well. It's the capacity to be excited about other people's works that shows he is not an egoistic person.



That's why the theatre community, regardless of language constraints, respects him.

That's right. But, the book also talks about the way he humiliated actors. There is a piece by Supriya Vinod in which she talks about her days with Dubey and how various actors were dealing with his insistence on humiliating the actor. Those who saw a way of dealing with it learnt a lot. Those who couldn't, felt shattered, and left. So he hasn't received universal love from everybody, which is an aspect that Supriya talks about.

He was never out there to be loved.
He has never gone out of his way to be interviewed by journalists. For him, it's important that his friends come from the theatre-loving community. He wasn't out there to be loved, but it must be said that he loved it when people hated him. He seemed to thrive on that because it told him something about himself that was important to him -- that he wasn't bowing or scraping before people, that he was doing what he believed in, and if people didn't like him, it wasn't his concern.

It's vital to note that people whom he hurt deeply find it easy to forgive him. There was a huge party after he received the Padma Bhushan... so many people came together for him. Ultimately, what makes you forget ill feeling is that this man is not a fake. He is so genuine that even when he is angry with you, you know that he is being driven by some idea, which is very important to him.

Satyadev Dubey: A 50 Year Journey Through Theatre, commissioned by Natarang Pratishthan, published by Niyogi Books, Rs 495. Available at select bookstores

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