By Vikram Phukan
Shanta Gokhale has edited a new book on Satyadev Dubey which has brought together essays, interviews and reviews by playwrights, actors and theatre critics as well as a selection from Dubey’s own articles in the Mumbai press. In this interview, she talks about her experience putting together Satyadev Dubey — A Fifty Year Journey Through Theatre about one of Indian theatre’s living legends and the winner of the Padma Bhushan this year. He also wrote the screenplays for Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika, Ankur, Mandi and other films.
Did you have to directly engage with Dubeyji on this project? He is known to be almost resistant to being documented in any way.
No, I didn’t have to. I have known him for over 40 years and there has been a constant give and take. I have interviewed him for this book itself regarding the problem of his tinkering with playwrights’ texts. He has recently massacred Girish Karnad’s latest play The Wedding Album. He changed it completely — its focus, its narrative structure.
He’s generally been perfectly comfortable being interviewed by people. In fact, I waded through loads of interviews to find the three that best represented the different periods in his career. There was a time when he used to tell journalists who wanted to interview him that he should be paid for the interview. His argument was that if he was investing his time in being interviewed, he should be paid. That was one phase he went through.
With all this material at your disposal, and access to the man himself, did you ever consider doing a full-fledged biography of Dubeyji? Or would you consider this book to serve as a de facto biography?
Well, the book is, in a way, a biography of his work. This was an assignment that came to me; I was commissioned to curate the material that features in the book. Writing a biography involves probing into a person’s life and I am not equipped to handle such a thing. It’s not something I want to do at all.
One of the tragedies of theatre is that a director’s work doesn’t really live on after them… the plays remain, the text, but the not the vision with which they are transformed on stage. That is why this book is important. It gives us some idea of how he worked at his plays, what he was after, how he handled actors, stage sets, everything. In theatre, names hang around long after a person’s best work is over. People know of Dubey, of Badal Sarkar and Vijaya Mehta. However there may be many in the current generation of theatre practitioners who have never seen plays directed by them. In that context, documenting a director’s work puts the next generation in touch with what this person was about, what kind of work he did, how he approached his craft. Even if that is all it does, it’s still worth doing. For succeeding generations, this is history.
How do you think his legacy remains alive in theatre practice itself?
If you look at the way Dubey approached theatre, you will see that he believed in young people doing their own thing. He himself changed positions often enough. At one time he berated English theatre — I have selected his diatribe against it for the book. Because back then it was largely done by people from advertising agencies whose plays and the kind of English the actors spoke, showed a colonial hangover. In those days English was the Brahmin tongue and the Indian languages ‘sudra’ languages. But things changed and he changed with them. Later he started working in English himself, when he was conviced that it could now be considered an Indian language in its own right, without the baggage of the past. He never wanted to be stuck in a time warp nor to have young people sticking with him for too long.
There is an anecdote of Sunil Shanbag’s in the book about how he and others were pushed out of Dubey’s group to find their own feet. He has always chosen to work with fresh sets of young people. In his own words, young people have kept him alive. So, the legacy is not something that is fixed. It’s more about the passion of theatre, a constant doing, and being true to yourself at all costs.
During the process of putting together this book, has there been an incident that stands out?
Well, I was rather snowed under by the work, and worked in isolation mostly, so I guess there isn’t any choice anecdote as such. Except maybe, in my interactions with Dubey himself. In a conversation, if I want to get to a particular point, he would start to expound on the story of his life. As an interviewee, he never really sticks to the particular questions he’s asked, he has a tendency to ramble. So my job has been to pull him back, and this book has been carved out rather painfully from a huge ramble.
The book will be launched at Prithvi House in October.
The interview was originally featured on Stage Impressions.