The Play’s the Thing: How a cult magazine helped shape modern Hindi theatre

In Hindi theatre between 1965 and the mid-’80s, Natrang’s brand of high-brow theatre journalism was a harbinger of modernism. Last month, it published its 100th issue.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Updated: December 18, 2016 12:05 pm
All the world's a stage: Natrang's current editor Rashmi Vajpayi. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna) All the world’s a stage: Natrang’s current editor Rashmi Vajpayi. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

In 1972, a group of young, restless theatre artistes in Gwalior decided to rebel through a play that was avant-garde, non-realistic and contemporary. Hatya Ek Aakar Ki depicted the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi through symbols. The protagonists had no names, the stage had no set. Even the gun was missing.

Purshottam Agrawal, writer and former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, was 17 when he played a character in the play. “I was not formally trained in theatre but I was an avid reader of Natrang. The magazine carried many articles on experimental theatre. Anyone who thought of himself as a theatreperson would read Natrang,” he says.

In Hindi theatre between 1965 and the mid-’80s, Natrang’s brand of high-brow theatre journalism was a harbinger of modernism. Last month, it published its 100th issue. The magazine’s original office was a table in the bedroom of editor Nemichand Jain, a poet and former member of IPTA, in Jangpura. Today, the Natrang Pratisthan is an archive based out of a small flat in Kaushambi in Delhi. Shelves full of journals, brochures, posters, books and files line the walls; most of this material is being digitally archived. The current editors Nemichand’s daughter Rashmi Vajpayi and Ashok Vajpayi.

Nemichand, who died in 2005, used a typewriter, the postal service and a wide network of theatre practitioners to inform the Hindi heartland about theatre movements from across the country and the world. Copies of the magazine still go out to Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi as well as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. In the earliest years, an annual subscription cost Rs 100. Almost a thousand copies were being posted to subscribers during the magazine’s heyday; today the number is around 500.

Nemichand, the son of a timber merchant from Agra, was more comfortable with literature than business. He was itching to leave home and, to get him to stay, his father built him a large bungalow in Baruasagar near Jhansi. “He wanted to get away. I think he felt suffocated. He came to Sujanpur in Madhya Pradesh with my mother and began to work as a teacher for a salary of Rs 40,” says Rashmi. Nemichand and his wife, Rekha, went to Kolkata to become a part of the IPTA. He developed a close friendship with the legendary Sombhu Mitra and translated and acted in a play directed by him.

In 1947, the couple shifted to Allahabad where Nemichand’s father opened a bookshop for him. The Adhunik Pustak Bhandar would become an iconic adda for Hindi literatteurs. “He was such an enthusiastic reader of books that he would call people and tell them what to read and where to buy it if the book wasn’t available with him. He would send them to other bookshops so his shop ran in losses and he had to leave for Delhi,” says Kirti Jain, theatre director and Nemichand’s daughter. A friend told him about an opening at the newly-formed Sangeet Natak Akademi, which he joined.

When Sangeet Natak Akademi organised a national seminar on theatre in 1956, Nemichand felt the need for a pan-Indian theatre magazine. “This was the first time that somebody in Bombay got to know of what was happening in Kolkata or somebody in Madras found out what was happening in Srinagar. People in amateur theatre got to know what was happening in commercial theatre,” says Kirti.

Rashmi Vajpayi's father, Nemichand Jain was the founder of the magazine. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna) Rashmi Vajpayi’s father, Nemichand Jain was the founder of the magazine. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

The theme of Natrang’s first issue in 1965 was Sanskrit theatre. Among the contributors were Kapila Vatsyayan, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Shanta Gandhi, Habib Tanvir Ebrahim Alkazi and Shyamanand Jalan. Natrang became a window into the “theatrescape” of India. Young people from small towns sent photographs and information about their plays for the ‘Theatre Diary’. Scholars associated with Sangeet Natak Akademi contributed reviews. Leading playwrights of the time, such as Mohan Rakesh and Girish Karnad, shared their social concerns through essays. In every edition, theatre lovers could read scripts of cutting-edge plays such as Badal Sircar’s Baaki Itihaas and Bhasa’s Urubhang. In its pages, Natrang facilitated a multi-level conversation.

“For 30-35 years, Natrang had a great influence on Hindi theatre,” says Parvez Akhtar, a Patna-based theatre director and winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. He used to borrow a copy from his theatre director, Satish Anand, to read about BV Karanth, MK Raina, Alkazi and Uttara Baokar among others. “It was in this magazine that I first heard of the National School of Drama,” he adds.

Stalwarts discussed how they were challenging the conventions of the stage. In the first edition, Habib Tanvir wrote an honest account of his dilemma with scenography. “How could I make sure that Charudutt never leaves our sight, yet we see him in his house one moment, on the street the next and in Vasantasena’s house after that? At last, I realised that I could borrow the device of a round platform from folk theatre. All interior scenes were on the platform, all public areas were outside it,” he wrote. One of the magazine’s abiding contributions was developing a language for theatre criticism. “There were many critics who discussed the written word but Natrang paid attention to stagecraft, light, costumes and design principles,” says Akhtar.

There are many collectors of Natrang issues. Theatre director Anil Patang’s library in his house in Begusarai, Bihar, has past issues of the magazine — with pride of place to the edition in which his play, Bakri, is reviewed. When Vasudha Dalmia, Professor Emerita of the Berkeley University, was working on her dissertation on the transference of Brecht’s plays to the Hindi stage, she “bought up all the back issues of Natrang and worked carefully through them”. “I found the kind of discourse I was seeking, the knowledge of the traditional as well as openness for the new, a breadth of vision, of knowledge, as well as depth,” she says.

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