On an uncomfortably sultry day in Mumbai in July last year, I found myself squeezed into a corner of what then seemed to me to be a room that had been hit by a violent, but well-mannered storm – variously-sized boxes tucked under the bed and on top of cupboards, several diligently organized folders in precarious piles, bulky files jutting anachronistically out of almirahs, stacks of old notebooks, two buzzing computers and three theatre people, all brimming with personal stories and inherited memories from more than half a decade ago. This was my first real introduction to the Hindustani Theatre and the dynamic doyenne at its helm, Begum Qudsia Zaidi. Preparations were on in full-swing for Begum Zaidi’s centenary celebrations, and Shaili was passing around bits and fragments of paper, regaling us with the adventures of the Hindustani Theatre over cups of tea and biscuit. Perhaps it was the caffeine, or the afternoon delirium, or my overzealous curiosity (or the heady combination of all three), but everything we found in that room seemed completely riveting. Old letters (Begum Zaidi knew Helene Weigel?!), planning documents (the Hindustani Theatre wanted stage managers to be paid higher than actors and directors?!), food bills (in those days you could pay for meals in paise?!) – every scrap of paper we stumbled upon added something more to the Hindustani Theatre’s story, which Shaili and her team were piecing together bit-by-bit, trying to build a coherent narrative that would tie it all together. One of the greatest treasures that lay among those heaps was a file containing carefully preserved copies of a journal published by Hindustani Theatre for a brief period in the 1960s.
Simply titled Hindustani Theatre, this “monthly journal of the arts” ran fairly regularly for nearly a year. Even to someone like me, who knew close to nothing about Begum Zaidi and her theatre troupe, it was evident that this periodical was especially extraordinary. If nothing else it was quite likely the first publication of its kind in India, seeing how it was published in 1963, at least two years before any other major theatre-centric magazines, such as Sangeet Natak and Natarang in 1965, Enact in 1967, began cropping up. I had many questions: some got answers, some lay hanging in the air. What could be the motivation behind starting a theatre journal? Who was its intended readership? What was the relationship between this printed artifact and the Hindustani Theatres performance repertoire?
Five months after that initial encounter, I had the chance to resurrect some of these questions. The journals had been scanned and meticulously catalogued by Shaili and Shreyans. The routine frustrations of technology notwithstanding, I could now leisurely peruse through Hindustani Theatre issues at my own pace, despite being in a different country and time zone. This triggered yet another question: how accessible was the journal to its targeted readers? Where was it sold and how widely was it distributed? Armed with these interrogations I re-opened the journals, bent on unearthing some sub-textual information buried within these pages. Going into this project with the spirit of a private investigator, I quickly discovered that my client was rather intractable and reserved! For one thing, none of the issues contain any kind of editorial or manifesto that declare the scope and ambition of the journal and introduce the reader to this new publication. Right from it first issue – the ‘Bertolt Brecht Number’ – the journal just dives into the job at hand without preamble, which perhaps says much more about the Hindustani Theatre ethos than an editorial possibly could. It would seem that the theatre group remained consciously cautious of any self-fuss and publicity in its journal. Even though the first ‘number’ is dedicated exclusively to Brecht, Hindustani Theatre’s own vibrant artistic investment in Brecht, through its landmark production Sufaid Kundali, the first translation of Brecht into Urdu, and its Brecht Exhibition find limited mention, and that too often inconspicuously (for instance, the latter is only alluded to in a telegram sent to the Hindustani Theatre by Helene Weigel, artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble, published in this issue). If the journal is any indication, the Hindustani Theatre’s vision seemed to extend beyond simply getting spectators for their plays and events. The larger aim, rather, seems to have been to cultivate a theatre-literate audience that would be receptive and committed to the arts at large. The process rather than the product of theatre-making is the focus, with several articles detailing the minutiae of diverse aspects of theatre, ranging from the construction and use of masks to various kinds of acting methods. The many accessible, yet critical, reviews of ongoing plays, the numerous photographs and songs that accompanied many of the articles, the decision to include content in two languages (English and true to its name – Hindustani), together suggest that the idea was not just to get people to come watch plays, but to build an audience that could think about theatre in a new, involved way. Hindustani Theatre even had an ‘Audience Member’ programme, where by paying ten rupees (imagine!) you could watch any six plays and get a yearly subscription to the journal.
Although the lengths and formats of the different issues fluctuate radically, there is some method to the madness. Each ‘number’ of the journal is dedicated to a particular topic, which can sometimes be a specific figure such like Brecht, or on occasion something decidedly more abstract, such as “Words – Theatre’s Source.” With this motley mix of subjects Hindustani Theatre managed to touch upon concerns that ultimately became hot topics for discussion among the who’s who of the theatre circles, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Consider, for example, the love-hate relationship between indignant theatre groups and indifferent state institutions, specifically the Sangeet Natak Akademi and everyone’s favourite punching-bag, the National School of Drama. The Hindustani Theatre journal’s ‘National School of Drama number’ was perhaps one of the earliest attempts to publicly critically question the contribution of the NSD to the theatrical landscape of the country. The lead article of this issue raises the vital, and perhaps still relevant, concern that NSD graduates don’t have many career opportunities after completing their course, bringing the point home through somewhat sensational sub-headlines (“ ‘What is our future’ – they ask,” “over their head hangs the sword,” and my personal favourite – “the School’s students who enact tragedies now face one”). Interestingly, almost two decades after , Enact, a long-running theatre magazine edited by Rajinder Paul, published an ‘NSD number’ almost identical in spirit to the Hindustani Theatre one, though substantially longer and more detailed – presumably by this time the NSD had a lot more to show for itself, and had undoubtedly provoked even greater grievances.
Yet another hornet’s nest stirred up prophetically by Hindustani Theatre was about the relevance of ‘folk’ traditions in modern theatre practice, discussed at length by the theatre pundits of the time, Suresh Awasthi and Nemichandra Jain, in the last surviving issue of the journal. Dedicated to ‘Natutanki – A Dying Art,’ this number initiated what was to later become a subject of intense spirited debate in the years to come, especially during the apogee of the ‘Theatre of Roots’ movement of the 1970s.
There is no doubt that the Hindustani Theatre publication is remarkable for its all-encompassing cosmopolitan and almost prescient vision. Yet, the most engrossing and endearing parts of the journal are those that offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Hindustani Theatre itself: Niaz Haider’s ruminations on dramatic language, excerpts from his translation of classical Sanskrit plays, songs from Sufaid Kundali reproduced in their entirety, photographs, even corrections marked in pencil by an invisible hand on some of the journal drafts – these conjure up a world that was all but lost to us, a world that we have now been trying to reconstruct over cups of tea, through stories, memories, letters, pictures, journals and of course, blogposts!
Hindustani Theatre – a monthly journal of the arts
1. Jan-Feb 1963 Vol.I Nos.1 & 2 – Bertolt Brecht – a special number
2. Mar 1963 Vol.I No.3 – National School of Drama – a review
3. Apr-May 1963 Vol.I Nos.4 & 5 – Words – Theatre’s source
4. Jun-Aug 1963 Vol.I Nos. 6, 7, 8 – Nautanki – A dying art
5. Sept-Oct 1963 Vol.I Nos. 9 & 10 – Mudrarakshas – a prakaran
6. Nov-Dec 1963 Vol.I Nos. 11 & 12 – Shakespeare and Hindi