Marathi theatre’s grand old man

Arun Kakade,the man behind Awishkar Theatre Group,talks about his 60 glorious years in theatre and experimenting with the medium

Written by AMRUTA LAKHE | Published: August 12, 2013 4:42 am

During the rehearsal of the play Dream Society at Yashwantrao Chavan Natyagruha,Arun Kakade sits in the front row,watching the performance,and following the actors’ movements. Once it’s over,he darts onto the stage,discussing the performances with the actors. His swift and energetic movements seem to defy his age. At 82,Kakade — better known as Kakade kaka — continues to be the backbone of Awishkar Theatre Group.

Kakade’s contribution of over 60 years to Marathi theatre was honoured at the opening of the fourth edition of the Marathi experimental film festival,Pratibimb,on August 2 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts,where noted Marathi actor Vikram Gokhale felicitated him. Calling him a selfless,dedicated man,Gokhale pointed out that Kakade,through Awishkar,has been the pioneer of Marathi experimental theatre. “Kaka was the real star of every production,but always kept a low profile,” he said.

Kakade,however,views his work as an extension of his being. The stalwart’s earliest association with theatre dates back to his days in Wadia College,Pune. Struggling to fund his own education,he was working as a student manager in college under Marathi writer-actor Bhalba Kelkar,one of the founders of Pune’s Progressive Dramatic Society. Here,he watched his first play. “The audience was ready to listen to anything one had to say and I was fascinated by the medium and its endless possibilities,” recalls Kakade,who first came to Mumbai in 1956 and worked for almost 15 years under veteran theatre actor-director Vijaya Mehta as part of the group Rangayan.

In 1970,the lack of a figurehead caused the group to disband. Unwilling to watch the legacy of Marathi theatre fade away,Kakade then collaborated with Arvind Deshpande and Sulabha Deshpande to start Awishkar; Rangayan’s artistes joined his group.

Kakade was a performer first,but when the need arose,he came forward without a moment’s hesitation. Playwright Ramu Ramanathan points out that if the administrative work— taking permissions,booking halls and getting an audience to watch the play — is taken care of,it allows writers and directors to concentrate on the creatives. “Most theatre groups in India fold up for the lack of that one person who will fulfill that responsibility,” he says,adding that Kakade took up that job and created an environment for Awishkar’s artistes to focus on their work.

An independent group,Awishkar wasn’t answerable to anyone and could afford to take risks. Their debut show Tughlaq had over 75 artistes,grand sets and costumes,a first for Marathi theatre. Another milestone was the eight-and-a-half-hour show of the Wada Chirebandi trilogy. On the downside,when the group couldn’t afford to perform in large halls,Kakade took the bold decision of moving to a ramshackle room in Dadar’s Chhabildas Lallubhai High School in 1974,which eventually turned into the centre of an experimental theatre movement.

The small stage at Chhabildas provided a 360 degree view and had no curtain. In contrast to the grand shows of the time,Awishkar invited the audience to sit on the floor,at a hand’s distance from the actors. Kakade recounts,“It was intimate theatre. For the first time,people explored writing,direction and acting,and questioned the old format. It allowed artistes creative freedom and the hall became synonymous with experimentation in theatre. At one time,the group had actors such as Shreeram Lagoo,Amol Palekar,Om Puri and Sai Paranjpe performing regularly.

Even during the Emergency,when both theatre and cinema experienced a clampdown,Awishkar continued to question the government through its plays such as Juloos and Antigone. Kakade absorbed the pressure,not allowing the authorities to stifle the artistes’ voice.

Kakade,who won the Akademi award in 2012 for his contribution to theatre,has continued the legacy even after Awishkar moved to its current location at Mahim Municipal School after a fall out with the Chhabildas administration in 1992. In its 43-year run,Awishkar has had over 200 successful productions,including Chitragoshti,Baya Daar Ughad and Durga Zhali Gauri (which ran for 29 years). Even today,the group encourages young writers and directors. Kakade sees merit in every play — be it a small production at a school or one being staged at a venue such as the NCPA.

“I have worked with six generations; I know when to let people make their own mistakes and learn. Besides,if they do go wrong,Kakade kaka is always there,” he says.

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