'Dinesh Thakur would sell tickets at traffic signals'

Oct 01, 2016, 15:14 IST | Suprita Mitter

As theatre group Ank completes 40 years, Preeta Mathur relives late husband Dinesh Thakur’s vision and dedication to theatre

With Ketaki Dave in Sapne
With Ketaki Dave in Sapne

This weekend, theatre group Ank will associate with Dr Shankar Shesh Foundation in a memorial festival to celebrate late Dinesh Thakur and Dr Shankar Shesh.

Jis Lahore Nahi Dekhya
Jis Lahore Nahi Dekhya

The group will perform two plays: Hai Mera Dil is a light comedy that gave Prithvi Theatre its first houseful show in 1978, and Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki, a Hindi version of Vijay Tendulkar’s Pahije Jateeche by Dr Vasant Deo, is a comedy that takes on casteism and is a tongue-in-cheek comment on an education system that churns out ‘educated illiterates’.

Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki
Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki

Since its formation in 1976 till date, Ank has come a long way. Preeta Mathur, who currently helms the group, shares some memories from its illustrious history.

With wife Preeta in Hamesha
With wife Preeta in Hamesha

Back in time
“In 1975, Dineshji (Thakur) came to Mumbai, from Delhi, to work in a Basu Bhattacharya film called Anubhav. At that time IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) had a strong presence in Mumbai and other metros; it was the communist voice. Satyadev Dubey was also doing good work but there was little organised theatre in Mumbai,” shares Mathur.

Ank staged its first play Baki Itihas on October 1, 1976, at a Durga Puja pandal in Bandra. The play was written by popular playwright Badal Sarkar. “Marathi and Gujarati theatre were well-established here by then and had a loyal audience. The coming of Prithvi Theatre in 1978 gave Hindi theatre an address. Jennifer Kapoor was a strong influence and she wanted Prithvi to stage mainly Hindi plays. At times, there were about 15 people on stage, and just five in the audience. Sometimes, members of the Kapoor family would come to watch plays too,” says Mathur.

About five years later, Hindi theatre group Ekjute was formed, followed by Yatri and other groups. Mathur adds that since Thakur’s film Rajnigandha was a hit, people recognised him and would come to watch him. “Theatre remained his first love. He sold tickets for the plays at traffic signals too,” says Mathur. It was Thakur who realised that good, intense plays like Baki Itihas won’t get an audience. So they did a few light comedies like Hai Mera Dil, a play that has been staged 1,226 times.

Thakur was also known for his habit of telling actors that he wanted changes in the day’s performance, minutes before the third bell. “We were used to this trait but new actors found it very difficult. On one occasion during the performance of the Hindi version of the Greek play Antigone, he asked one of the new actors to do an improv piece. The actor got so tense that he refused to enter the stage. I had to finally go and drag him out,” says Mathur.

Ank has performed several of Vijay Tendulkar's plays in Hindi, translated from Marathi. The group also performed works of some of the greatest Indians playwrights of the ’80s including Girish Karnad, Badal Sarkar and Mohan Rakesh.

Version 2.0
Mathur joined Ank in 1991 after working with IPTA for a few years. “When Dineshji fell ill in 2008, post his bypass surgery, I took over the running of the group. The fact that we would continue to stage his work and take it forward gave him great joy. It was a challenge for me,” she says, adding that, “We also had new influences with changing times. It was important for actors to have space and try out other aspects like writing and directing play. A popular play, Beewion Ka Madarsa, was directed by Atul Mathur, one of our actors.”

In Bhopal, the group recently performed their old and new productions in collaboration with a young theatre group, Vihaan. They plan to continue working with young theatre groups across the country. “Many young people contact us to join the group. You need to do a workshop with us to join.

I believe that anything to do with art manages to remain relevant even when approached at a different time; it becomes part of your history or future,” says Mathur.

Obstacle course
From lack and availability of suitable venues and actors, this theatre group is coping with a number of challenges. “Earlier, we had a venue but no actors. Today, getting a venue is a hassle as many groups are vying for space. There are many small alternate venues springing up but since our production scale is usually big, the lack of space sometimes kills the magic,” shares Mathur. She adds that they haven’t found much substance in new actors. “Earlier, most aspiring theatre actors from both small and big cities read stories, novels, and plays. They don’t anymore and hence there is a lack of imagination,” she adds.

Apart from working on festivals with young local theatre groups, Ank is currently working on two new productions in the coming year, of which one is a play written by Mathur.

Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki
On: October 1, 7 pm
At: Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.

Hai Mera Dil
On: October 2, 7 pm
At: Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
Call: 22824567

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