A little over 25 years ago, when Sushama Deshpande conceptualised and wrote Vhay, Mee Savitribai, she was not sure anyone would be willing to place a bet on it. It was a solo act, where Deshpande was to play the legendary reformist Savitribai Phule. Nervous, she took the script to Arun Kakade, known to most as Kakade Kaka, at Awishkar. Not only did he give her space at Chabbildas but allowed her to perform the play for free. “That day marked the beginning of my journey with both the play and Kakade Kaka, both of which have since continued,” recounted Deshpande. Today, when she heard of Kakade’s demise, Deshpande felt that in losing him, she has lost her father. “Every time I wrote something, I would take it to him first,” says the 64-year-old thespian.
Known to everyone in Mumbai’s theatre scene as the man who encouraged and promoted young, new talent, Kakade died in his Santa Cruz residence on Wednesday. He was 88.
Born in Solapur, Kakade’s association with theatre brought him to Mumbai in 1956 via Pune. While he started out as an actor, it’s not a role he stayed with. Nor was he a producer or director. Yet, he served the stage for over six decades, as the man behind the scenes of some of the most renowned and successful works of theatre in the country.
In 1971, he joined hands with Vijaya Mehta and Arvind Deshpande to start the theatre group Rangayan. In the following 14 years, the group would produce plays by playwrights such as Vijay Tendulkar and PL Deshpande among other names.
However, it was Awishkar, started by Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande along with Kakade in 1971, which really changed the way we know theatre today. The group started and nurtured the tradition of experimental theatre and at the heart of it was Dadar’s Chabbildas School. It broke away from the proscenium style, opening up the hall at Chabbildas, with limited capacity, to stage plays that no commercial venues would have otherwise entertained. Tendulkar’s Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s eight-and-a-half-hour Wada Chirebandi trilogy, Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, among several others.
While Kakade remained a man largely behind the scenes as the experimental theatre scene evolved, no one denies his contribution to the stage. Thespian Jabbar Patel, who directed Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal, remembers Kakade as the pillar behind the movement. “Being the manager of a commercial theatre group is easy because you provide them with the props and costumes they need, get the actors to sit in a bus and have them tour with the play. But to manage experimental plays with budget limitations without asking the creators to curb their creativity is not merely a skill but an art. Kakade Kaka could have taken this skill and gone to any commercial group and made money but he chose to nurture the spirit of experimental theatre. At one point, Awishkar became a brand, it stood for top class theatre content, which managed to reach people. And behind it all was the one-man army called Kakade Kaka,” Patel said.
Kakade’s journey with Awishkar continued well after the group’s prime. After Chabbildas closed as a venue, Kakade found a school in Mahim where the group continues its journey even today. In 2014, he was the president of the All India Marathi Natya Sammelan. Even in his 80s, he would go to office everyday, plan programmes and workshops for the youth and children. His contribution won him the lifetime achievement at Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in 2017. “Come what may, rain, ill-health, personal loss, he rarely ever missed a show,” adds Chandrakant Patil, who directed Elkunchwar’s Wada trilogy. “Following a heart attack, he spent a large part of the last three weeks in the hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness. Yet, whenever he would be in his senses, he would talk about theatre. He had been planning a big celebration to mark 50 years of Awishkar in 2021. That was on his mind till the moment he breathed his last.”