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All his life, Gopal Sharman was fascinated by the Ganga. In the river of stories, he traced currents that nurtured life, healed the body and carried away the dead. Last month, the playwright, who had won the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Tagore Award, the Delhi Natya Sangh Award and the Andhra Pradesh Natya Akademi Honour, among others, began work on a new script that would capture the myriad facets of the Ganga in a vessel of earthy humour. Sharman had written only a few pages when he took ill and passed away on June 16. He had celebrated his 80th birthday a few months ago.
Few theatre people, who came of age in the 1960s, had managed to be relevant in the present century or picked up new followers for their plays among millennials. Akshara, an intimate theatre that Sharman founded with his wife and fellow performer Jalabala Vaidya, is among the busiest in Delhi, with almost every evening featuring an in-house play or a visiting production. “The basis of an idea is the word and the smallest unit of a word is the letter or akshara,” says Vaidya, about the theatre whose intricate woodworks Sharman had crafted with his own hands.
The play that Sharman is most identified with is The Ramayana, a solo that is performed by Vaidya, which was created for the Royal Shakespeare Society’s World Theatre Season in London — the highest recognition that a play could get in the sixties. Unlike most retellings of the epic, Sharman’s Ramayana cast Rama and Sita in the shadow of the war, its violence impacting their lives and relationship. Vaidya says that Sharman would lie down on the floor in a darkened room and let his imagination run as he narrated, and she would write it all down. The Ramayana played on Broadway, the West End, the United Nations Headquarters, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Arts Centres from Fiji to Canada, among others. In India, it has had more than 2,000 shows and continues to be performed every year at Akshara.
The volume and variety of the plays that Sharman wrote and directed — from The Bhagwad Gita to In Goethe’s Magical World to Alice & Humpty Dumpty — often shadowed his natural ability as an actor and his career in films. One of Sharman’s earliest plays was called Larflarflarf that made fun of the politics of post-Independent India. His last appearance on stage was on April 13, 2016, when he played the part of the British Presiding Magistrate in the play An English Prison: Suresh Vaidya vs The British Government. Sharman had produced and co-anchored a popular television series of the 1980s, titled India Alive, as well as directed documentaries such as The Kashmir Story, Music Alive, The Sufi Way and My Life Is My Song.
Sharman trained in Hindustani classical music and one of his books is Filigree In Sound: Form and Content in Indian Music. He may have remained a writer and critic of the arts if Dr Radhakrishnan, then President of India, had not had a cataract operation. “He was asked to lie in bed and could not read,” recalls Vaidya. It was arranged for select pieces to be read out to him, creating the first dramatic reading of Sharman’s writings called The Full Circle. After an impressive performance in 1968, the piece travelled to Rome and Yugoslavia, among others, and Sharman never left the theatre again.