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How a Pune theatre director is commenting on the COVID-19 migrant crisis through a play on the Mumbai mills

"Why have I turned to it again today as the world battles and medical and social crisis? This is because the play is, unfortunately, just as relevant now as it was 25 years ago,” says theatre director and playwright Aniruddha Khutwad.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
Updated: February 15, 2021 7:03:39 pm
Adhantar poster

As the migrant crisis played out across the country during the lockdown, theatre director and playwright Aniruddha Khutwad found himself observing familiar scenes. He had met the protagonists, who came from villages to the cities and belonged to both and neither, in his plays such as Virasat. He had explored the role of the family in an individual’s life in Raisins in the Sun and several other productions and studied the part played by women in society. So, when the Repertory Company of the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi decided to usher 2021 with a new play by Khutwad, the Pune-based director chose a stark sociopolitical work from the Marathi canon, Adhantar, to fit the times.

“Written in 1993, Adhantar is about the impact of the closure of the cloth mills of Mumbai on the lives of the families who depended on it for their livelihood. I first watched it as a Marathi commercial theatre presented by the playwright Jayant Pawar in 1997. I directed the play in Marathi in 2009 and, again, in 2014 at NSD, both times as academic productions. Why have I turned to it again today as the world battles and medical and social crisis? This is because the play is, unfortunately, just as relevant now as it was 25 years ago,” he says over the phone from Delhi. The play has been translated to Hindi by Kailash Sengar.

The script revolves around a lower-middle-class family of the 1980s and ‘90s from the chawls of Mumbai’s Girangaon and Lalbaug Parel. Aai is the mother to three sons and a daughter as well as the widow of a mill worker. The eldest son, Baba, has a college degree, dreams of being an author and considers getting a salaried job beneath his dignity. The second son, Mohan, did have a job once but is now applying to offices and meeting with failure every time. Naru, the youngest and uneducated, is a Bhai and a part of the Mumbai underworld. The daughter, Manju, feels suffocated — by her job, her home and the society that forced her to abort after a premarital pregnancy. All of them are confined in a small room with an open toilet in a corner and a single light bulb suspended from the roof.

“When the mills closed, 1.50 lakh families found themselves on the street with no food, money or employment. The aspect of COVID-19 that moved me the most was that labourers were let go overnight. While those with permanent jobs stood a chance of fighting back, the wage worker or employees on contract had nowhere to turn. Employment figures were not looking good even before the pandemic but, after the lockdown was announced, labourers had no option but to leave for their villages in large numbers. We need to take urgent measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 but the government should have looked after the lower strata as well,” says Khutwad, an alumnus of NSD.

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The performers in the play were unfamiliar with the politics or history of the Mumbai mills so Khutwad began the process of creating the play by using a small room, instead of a hall, for rehearsals. In this confined space, the actors internalised the pressures of being locked in with others without privacy through endless days. They evolved rituals and marked out spaces for themselves and the protagonists they play — a corner with a bookshelf for one brother; a loft over the bathroom which is always dark and smelly for another; the tiny balcony for the daughter because she has no space inside the room.

“We did not look at the characters as good or evil, but as people doing what they must to survive. Society is as responsible for a person’s fate as that person themselves. As we worked on the play, discussing the mill culture and watching the sensitive documentary, titled Narayan Gangaram Surve, a veteran poet of Marathi literature who was a mill labourer himself, we began to see the play as events close to ourselves rather than something that happened long ago,” says Khutwad.

The play unfolds in a room that set designer Rajesh Singh, with Khutwad, represents as a two-walled triangular structure to ensure audiences feel the walls closing in on the protagonists. The soundscape by Sourav Poddar represents the daily mix of traffic, mill sirens and local conversations while Motilal Khare moved around Old Delhi to find props that recalled a different decade in Marathi culture in the mills. Nalini Joshi, on costumes, worked with the cultural symbols surrounding the nine-yard sari that is worn by women in Maharashtra.

“Ever since I read this play, it shook me from inside. I have no direct blood relation with the people of Girangaon, but there was a wave of empathy for them. I began to study the issue and its far-reaching effects. This is what the artistes in the play want to convey through Adhantar. We must understand the oppressed and stand with them,” says Khutwad.

The play is being held at the National School of Drama in Delhi till today, 6.30 pm.

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