The experimental Marathi theatre that found its home in a private school-Chhabildas Lallubhai High School in Dadar Vachanalaya Marg, named after its founder Chhabildas is refered to as the Chabildas movement. It started with the forming of the theatre group Awishkar by actor-director couple of Arvind Deshpande and Sulabha Deshpande along with Arun Kakade. They charged Rs 50 as rent, the the ticket rates started at Rs 5 before eventually going up to Rs 50. During the mid-seventies, there were several active amateur groups in Bombay and most of them faced the financial crunch and in that context Chhabildas gave them their much-needed outlet and soon the movement flourished. At one time, veterans like Dr. Shreeram Lagoo, Amol Palekar and his wife Chitra, Om Puri and Sai Paranjpe, chose to perform there regularly.
Apart from Marathi productions, several Hindi experimental plays were also staged at Chhabildas. Girish Karnad’s Hayavadan was performed by Amol Palekar and Om Puri, while Badal Sircar’s Sari Raat was presented by Dubey. Chhabildas supported Hindi experimental theatre till it shifted to Prithvi Theatre ...............
We opened the space with (C. T.) Khanolkar’s Pratima (Image). The cast comprised Dr Lagoo, Amol Palekar, Deepa Lagoo (then Basrur) and Sulabha. When Jaidev (Hattangadi) came from the National School of Drama, he performed Changuna (the Marathi translation of Lorca’s Yerma). Dubeyji performed Hayavadana (Girish Karnad) with Amol (Palekar), Amrish (Puri), Sunila (Pradhan) and Bapu Kamerkar in the cast. We did Saari Raat. Dubeyji performed Aur Ek Garbo (Yet Another Garbo, a Hindi adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Marathi play). They also did Achha Ek Baar Aur (Okay, One More Time, a Hindi adaptation of Mohit Chhattopadhyay’s Bengali play). Bahuroopi performed Rajacha Khel (The King’s Play/ Game, a play by Vrindavan Dandavate), directed by Dilip Kolhatkar and Unmesh (Achyut Vaze’s group) did Chal Re Bhoplya Tunuk Tunuk (Come Little Pumpkin Hoppity-hop, a play by Achyut Vaze). These were the groups that performed in Chhabildas during the first year. Once people realized that they could do work of this sort there, the groups grew in number, and a strong current of new plays began.
On Thursday evenings, families watched the popular film-music show, Chhayageet. People living around Chhabildas would switch it on exactly at the time our shows started. We would have to shut all the windows to keep the sound out. This happened a number of times with Jaidev Hattangadi’s Changuna. Just as we had problems with our neighbours’ noisiness, rarely but occasionally, they too would complain about the noise we created with our activity. But they were mostly supportive. Sometimes someone would shout from across the street, ‘Enough of this now!’ But that was it. They never made trouble for us. They never made any official complaints to the school. We did a lot of plays in the beginning but gradually, very gradually, the number of shows decreased. Every movement has its ups and downs. Besides which, there were other reasons. First, the consistency and force with which new writing was done once, subsided. Second, as new opportunities beckoned, people went away and the groups disintegrated. But we always welcomed new groups. We made sure the place was open to whoever wanted to perform. We were criticized for this. People said, ‘Anything and everything everything goes at Chhabildas. There is no quality control.’ But we felt that new theatre people with no experience needed to be given that experience. How were they to grow otherwise? The high lasted for about four years. We hadn’t planned for success or failure. We had no idea Chhabildas would become so popular. But highs or lows, it was important to take both in one’s stride. And anyway, it wasn’t a bad thing that the movement petered out. That needs to happen to any movement for it to regain its force. I think we should take these lows in our stride and keep going. When we started Chhabildas, we saw it simply as an effort to create an opportunity for all those who wished to participate in the movement to come together. We had noticed that there was a lot of theatre activity happening in pockets all over the city. We felt this needed to be channelized. That is why we decided to open the space to all. But it was easier said than done. There were a lot of fights over dates. Everyone wanted the weekends. Those who got Thursdays would get very annoyed. On Thursday evenings, families watched the popular film-music show, Chhayageet. People living around Chhabildas would switch it on exactly at the time our shows started. We would have to shut all the windows to keep the sound out. This happened a number of times with Jaidev Hattangadi’s Changuna. Just as we had problems with our neighbours’ noisiness, rarely but occasionally, they too would complain about the noise we created with our activity. But they were mostly supportive. Sometimes someone would shout from across the street, ‘Enough of this now!’ But that was it. They never made trouble for us. They never made any official complaints to the school. We had discussed renovating the place a bit. We had thought we would redo the staircase. The toilets were absolutely horrible. Those could be repaired. We offered to make all the changes, spending from our pockets. The proposal was put before the school committee. But the problem was that the committee had a three-year term. As long as there were teachers and members on it who valued and supported our activity, there was good communication between us. But some new members created trouble for us. Once, a teacher complained at the school’s general body meeting that Chhabildas had become a hotspot for prostitution and drinking. The biggest problem was that we had a contract that needed to be renewed every year before April. The threat of it not being renewed hung over us every April. As the management became less and less interested in supporting us, they made it more and more difficult for us to work there. Eventually, in 1992, they told us they wanted to develop the space commercially and we should vacate it within a month. But yes, they did let us use the space for eighteen long years, for which we must be grateful. It must also be admitted that audience numbers had reduced greatly over the years. I remember some shows which had just ten or twelve people in the audience. Television and other sources of entertainment were perhaps partly responsible. But the quality of the newer plays had also dropped. Prithvi Theatre had started. A lot of experimentation had begun on the commercial stage too by then. A number of actors, writers and directors from the experimental theatre had moved to commercial theatre and were exercising a certain discipline there, changing the ways of working there. They were trying to deliver productions of a certain quality. So the audience must have found that attractive and moved there. Because so many artists from here moved there, a sort of vacuum was created here.
- The Scenes we Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai by Shanta Gokhale