Remembering Chetan Datar: Decade after his death, Ek Madhav Baug playwright remains a giant of Marathi theatre

As a theatre stalwart, he wore many hats – dramatist, playwright, actor, director and mentor. But not many outside of the world of theatre know too much about the man who was Chetan Datar.

Datar was a child of Mumbai, one of three brothers. Drawn to theatre in his early days, Datar got the chance to work under prominent ethnomusicologist Ashok Ranade during his stint at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). His primary responsibility was to archive play productions for NCPA’s records and its magazine. Due to him working in close tandem with Ranade, the duo was able to chronicle personal oral histories and worked well as a team with other theatre artistes such as Sucharita Apte, Waman Kendre and Arun Naik.

A man of rare talent, besides writing for the stage, Datar was one of those playwrights who also enjoyed acting on it. But the phase in his life which turned things around for him was a workshop with theatre guru Satyadev Dubey. As a result of that workshop, Datar wrote his first play called Savlya, a monologue sequence centered around five women in a family, which chiseled him into writing full-length plays and seriously taking on the mantle of a playwright.

Datar’s friend and playwright Ramu Ramanathan recalls Datar’s discipline during their early workshop days, “Around the year 1998, a lot of us participants from all over India were taken for a Grips theatre workshop at Whitefield in (then) Bangalore. And I remember that all of us were having fun and so was Chetan. But even in all that masti he would find the time and sit under a tree, cross-legged, copiously making notes from German and English translations. He had already done two readings in the workshop and by the end of the workshop, he had a working draft whereas the rest of us had some vague idea for a play. His first draft was good, and the play eventually became Main Bhi Superman. He was very hardworking and that I think that is the true testimony to what he was”.

Datar’s partnership with Dubey was another turning point in his life. Dubey groomed him for the theatre and made him the go-to person when it came to mounting productions. It helped Datar, who went on to become a core member of Marathi experimental theatre group Awishkar. The group had been a thriving space for the Chhabildas Movement and Datar was touted as a rising star on whose shoulders the future of Awishkar seemed secure.

 Remembering Chetan Datar: Decade after his death, Ek Madhav Baug playwright remains a giant of Marathi theatre

Image courtesy Awishkar Theatre Group.

Director Sunil Shanbag reminisces of his first experience of working with Datar, “I first met Chetan when he began working with Dubey. He was very young and Dubey had told him to shadow me. Later I got to know him as a writer, then our relationship was very different. We watched each other’s work and we did a couple of major collaborations. One was when he translated Cotton 56, Polyester 84 into Hindi from what Ramu Ramanathan had written in English. A couple of years later he did an adaptation of [Bertolt] Brecht’s Three Penny Opera for me in Hindi, titled Mastana Rampuri Urf Chhappan Chhuri."

Of how it was to work with Datar, Shanbaug adds, “It was always very exciting as a collaborator. We used to have discussions and he would come up with stuff which was far beyond what we had discussed. He was always able to add his own layers which is exciting because our discussions were always basic at first and then he would add his own touch to make it unique.”

Datar’s life was cut short after a prolonged battle with acute colitis, and he passed away on 2 August 2008, at the age of 44. His death came as a shock to most of his colleagues and theatre persons who were associated with him. Datar’s death was akin to a loss of an institution for many theatrewallahs and the loss affected Awishkar profoundly. The pace and ease with which Awishkar would mount productions slowed significantly, as members were suddenly bereft of the force which held them together.

While talking about Datar’s death, his close friend Ramu’s tone becomes wistful, “We definitely lost a voice of sanity. Of the second generation of theatre artistes in Awishkar, I’d say he was the last of the Mohicans. And while Marathi theatre is very vast and there’s too much going on, be it shows, groups or festivals, but there was a small oasis within which Chetan was operating and his death had a huge impact on that.”

Due to his know-how from having been at the National School of Drama and the NCPA, Datar had realised the need to build a bridge between Marathi prayogik (experimental) theatre and the rest of world theatre. And having been a researcher and worked in the theatre archives, Datar had understood the need to go beyond the insular nature of Marathi theatre and work outside it. One critical way Datar saw to go beyond Marathi theatre was through translation. Datar’s work of translating plays of German, English and other languages into Hindi and Marathi helped him bring to theatre newer and different perspectives from all parts of India and the world.

On Datar’s vision to bridge different worlds of theatre, Shanbag explains, “It is quite critical work in India where we have multiple languages. Translators become the bridge between languages. This is how we read and understand what is happening in other parts of the country and Chetan understood that accurately.”

Through his various plays such as Savlya (a series of monologues in a family of five women), Zulwa (on the Dev-dasi system), Ek Madhav Baug (a one-woman play about a mother coming to terms with her son’s homosexuality), Jungle Mai Mangal (a political farce twist on Midsummer’s Night Dreams) and productions including Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Haravley Pratibimb and a dance-drama Giribala (based on Tagore’s story by the same name), Datar’s legacy remains. But his strongest contribution is perhaps the young people who he inspired during the workshops he conducted or those who worked with him. Datar’s numerous students continue their various roles in theatre and are a living reminder of his work.

Danseuse Sanjukta Wagh is one such theatre artist who had worked with Datar. When asked about her experience, she recalls, “Chetan was the window into the world of theatre for me. On my first meeting with him, we spoke for four hours on commercial theatre, experimental theatre, his process, working with actors and other directors. It was like a beautiful bird’s eye view or an initiation for me. Chetan had the kind of precision with a script and he knew how to take an actor through it. I worked with him during Giribala. I remember before our performance at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) in Delhi, I saw him giving last-minute instructions to an actor which obviously made me anxious but as I watched the play unfold on stage later, it was mesmerising to see all the instructions come to life through her. And there were hundreds of little instructions he had given! This is one of my most moving memories of Chetan, having worked with him.”

While speaking about what Datar has left behind, she further adds, “I think his greatest legacy is no doubt his plays but also the actors he left behind. Including the sensibilities he left behind in the people he touched and he taught.”

“Today, sometimes when I direct my plays, and I feel as if a text is not coming through, I often find answers by asking myself — what would Chetan do?” Wagh concludes.

Artists as multi-talented as Datar don’t come along often and his passing was an unfortunate loss for Maharashtra’s theatre scene. But as Datar’s colleagues and students continue their work in theatre, from time to time, perhaps they too ask themselves the same question as Wagh.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2018 15:31:08 IST