At Bharat Natya Mandir (BNM), some things have not changed for 125 years. Every time a disaster strikes Maharashtra, such as the recent floods, the heads of the theatre take out their earnings and donate a part of it to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. It is one of the few halls in India that has social work as a founding principle. As BNM celebrates 125 years, Trustee Ravindra Khare, who is also an actor and director, speaks to Dipanita Nath. Excerpts from the conversation:
In 1894, when Dattatray Atmaram Phatak or Dadasaheb and his theatre-loving friends set up the organisation, it was a radical act in social and cultural terms as people from good families did not go on stage. How did BNM evolve from there?
There was another prevalent practice — that children who were bad at studies or every sort of work, were either left at circuses or with a natak company. Families thought that the child would, at least, get a square meal every day this way. Dadasaheb and other students of Pune were smart at studies. A few of them said, ‘Why this discrimination? We can be good in academics as well as in theatre.’ Thus, the first Marathi amateur institute started and it was called Students Social Club. This was the colonial era and the name reflected the British ethos. When these children graduated and started working, and were no longer students, the name was changed to Social Club Mandal. We still follow the earlier mandate of the theatre of social work — earn a living outside and come to the theatre only for social work. We do not take any salary from the theatre.
How have changes in Pune, in terms of landscape and demography, over the years impacted your functioning?
The theatre started in Budhwar Peth and shows were held at the old Vishrambag Wada before we shifted to our present venue at Sadashiv Peth. This place used to be a tennis court with a raised, stage-like platform. During the day, there used to be tennis games and, at night, theatre. The audience would sit in the court on folding chairs. Slowly, the landlord came to realise that theatre was earning more than tennis. In 1960, he offered it to us for sale. When this theatre was constructed at Sadashiv Peth, there was no shop around.
There was easy movement of people as well as vehicles of theatre groups. You could park anywhere on the road. Now, the population has swollen in the area, which has become a buzzing commercial and residential hub. We have to redevelop the theatre according to parking, for which we have to seek permission from the government. Since we have to stick to our principles of social service, we will have to raise money by seeking donations from people.
You are also a local resident, staying a brief walk away from the theatre. Has that made you a better actor?
I have been on stage since I was seven years old. Every year, I was fortunate to be cast in a play in school. My theatre skills have become stronger since childhood, watching the greats of the stage at Bharat Natya Mandir. I used to live nearby, at Shaniwar Peth, and later moved to the neighbourhood of Sadashiv Peth. The neighbourhood was, and remains, culturally rich and home to icons of literature and the arts.
Bharat Natya Mandir is a regular at Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM), the international theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi. Tell us about your new projects?
We will be taking the classic Mrchchhakatika to BRM in February 2020. Apart from that, we have seen a demand from people for plays that haven’t been performed in the last 70-80 years. We are reviving those. One such play is Shikka Katyar, which was written in 1917 and did very well till 1940-50s. It is a political story of the conflict between Shahuji Maharaj, the son of Shambhaji Maharaj, and Tara Rani over the throne of the Maratha empire.
As Bharat Natya Mandir enters the next phase of its life, how are you feeling?
I have a feeling of great responsibility. An old and historic legacy rests on our shoulders and we have to carry it forward till the day we die. We have to take care of Bharat Natya Mandir the way our ancestors have done for 125 years. We feel happy but also tense.