Nirvana returns to the stage
Satish Alekar's iconic play Mahanirvan, which ran for 35 years, to be staged with a new cast. The writer-director on its revival
The grim subject of death has been portrayed in many shades in literature. In his story Kafan, Premchand paints a gut-wrenching picture of the depravity of the human soul when destitution encounters death. And in 1974, when Satish Alekar channelled his experience of living near a crematorium into his script for Mahanirvan, what emerged was a black comedy that held up a mirror to society by questioning rites and rituals related to death. The peculiar mix of mirth and morbidity struck a chord with the audience and the play ran for over 35 years, until it was discontinued in 2010.
Earlier this year, the Pune-based playwright and director, hailed as one of the pillars of modern Marathi theatre, was approached by the National School of Drama to revive the play for Theatre Olympics. On receiving the same request from Pune's Vinod Doshi Festival, Alekar decided to do it, albeit with a new cast. Mahanirvan – The Dread Departure was performed in both the festivals, and will now be staged independently in Mumbai this Sunday.
A scene from the play as staged now
"Several members of the original cast had passed away including Anand Modak, who had composed the music, which is crucial to the play. When the news of the play's revival travelled, Pune's Naatak Company approached me. These are all young theatre artistes who are doing very well in commercial films and television, but have continued doing serious work in theatre," says Alekar, who then conducted intensive workshops with the new cast for four hours a day for 45 days.
A scene from the play in its earlier run
"The idea was to familiarise them with the sensibilities of the generation that grew up in post-Independence India, and to the Pune of the '70s, in which the play is set," he adds.
Did the script resonate with the young cast, we ask Alekar. "I posed the same question to the actors and you should, too," he suggests. So, we speak to Sayali Phatak, who plays the role of Rama, the grieving wife. She says, "The play is set in a Pune that's vastly different from the city we live in now. But death is so ultimate that you don't want to question anything around it. And that, to a great extent, hasn't changed."
Has Marathi theatre, though, changed over the decades? "Experimental plays in Marathi have always been commercially successful. [Vijay Tendulkar's] Ghashiram Kotwal and Mahanirvan almost shared the entire cast. When the former was mired in a controversy, the Progressive Dramatic Association, which had originally produced it, discontinued the play. So, Mohan Agashe, Jabbar Patel and I among others broke away to form Theatre Academy. Under this new banner, both the plays ran for several hundred shows," he answers, sharing a significant chapter of Marathi theatre history. But he gives the audience a fair share of the credit, too. "Look at how Chandrakant Kulkarni's Marathi Hamlet has been running houseful. People may have television and web series at their disposal, but they will never dessert theatre."
ON September 2, 6 pm
AT Tata Theatre, NCPA
ENTRY Rs 400 onwards (students can avail a 25 percent discount on display of ID card)
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