The former director of National School of Drama, who received META’s Lifetime Achievement Award recently, on why theatre will survive the onslaught of OTT, and more

Ram Gopal Bajaj, the 84-year-old theatre veteran, continues to get congratulatory calls for the Lifetime Achievement Award that he received a few weeks ago in New Delhi at the 19th META (Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards) festival. That’s an acknowledgment for a life devoted to theatre — a much-needed recognition that often eludes theatre practitioners in the country.

The apogee of Bajaj’s career predates META and is a testimony to the unparalleled reserves of dedication that theatre professionals in this country (and elsewhere in the world) possess to continue pursuing their craft and passion, with support remaining a trickle compared to other media that tell stories by enacting them. The oldest performing art of humankind has faced threats of extinction with every new turn of technology, but has survived, indeed, with a bit of evolution and a bit of obduracy to stay true to its soul. The latest threat — personalised entertainment on a personalised device — is not likely to make any difference in its trajectory, feels Bajaj.

“There was the same threat when television came into our midst, but theatre has survived,” says Bajaj. “But it can do with a little more support from society. We need a lot more initiatives like META, and not just in metropolitan cities but in many more cities. Today, infrastructure is coming up in India all around… some of it could be done for theatre too,” says Bajaj, one of India’s best known theatre directors and actors, who has primarily worked in Hindi, but not excluding other Indian languages. He served as the director of the National School of Drama (NSD) from 1995-2001 and is renowned for starting two of its most famous festivals, the Bharat Rang Mahotsav and the children’s festival, Jashn-e-Bachpan.

Such a long journey

While Bajaj remains a well-known name in the world of Hindi theatre, younger audiences may need some introduction. Born in 1940 in Darbhanga (Bihar), he was pursuing a master’s in Hindi literature from Patna University when he got selected for the NSD and shifted to Delhi. An alumnus of the class of 1965, where Mohan Maharishi — who would earn eminence as a theatre director — was his batchmate, Bajaj obtained his diploma with specialization in acting.

He taught drama at Modern School in New Delhi briefly, where he produced 50 children’s plays between 1969 and 1973. Alongside, he continued to act in plays many of which have attained iconic status since. These include legendary productions such as Suno Janmejaya, Hayavadana, Begum Ka Takiya, Ghasiram Kotwal, Andha Yug, Tughlaq and King Lear, among others. One of his earliest stage appearances was as a Brahmin in Shanta Gandhi-directed Madhyam Vyaayog in 1967, based on the eponymous 3rd century CE play by Bhasa, one of the earliest Sanskrit playwrights of India, predating Kalidasa. The same year, he appeared in another iconic play, essaying the role of Shwetang in Mohan Rakesh’s creation, Lehron Ka Rajhans, directed by his NSD senior Om Shivpuri.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of India’s national theatre festival, the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, which was started by Bajaj during his stint as the director of the NSD.

In the 1972 production of Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadan, directed by another legend BV Karanth, Bajaj played the character of Devdutt, among his better-known portrayals on stage. Another memorable play that Bajaj is associated with is Vijay Tendulkar’s political satire Ghasiram Kotwal, in which he played both the protagonist and the antagonist, becoming the only artiste to do so. In the 1973 edition, directed by Rajinder Nath, Bajaj played Ghasiram Kotwal, while in the 1992 edition by the same director, he played Nana Phadnavis.

Soon, Bajaj became more involved with direction, and some of the plays that he directed too have attained cult status. These include Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak and Quaid-e-Hayat (both written by Surendra Verma), Muktdhara (written by Rabindranath Tagore), Skand Gupta (by Jai Shankar Prasad), Ashadh Ka Ek Din (by Mohan Rakesh), Andha Yug (by Dharamvir Bharati), Suryastak (written in Oriya by JP Das, translated into Hindi by Kanti Deb), Laila Majnun (written by Ismail Choonara), Dimag-e-Hasti Dil Ki Basti Hai Kahan Hai Kahan (written by Mahendra Bhalla), among several others. His translation of Girish Karnad’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Kannada play Taledanda into Hindi as Rakta Kalyan remains notable; Bajaj has translated about 15 plays from various languages into Hindi.

More recently, Bajaj directed the Assamese adaptation of his hit production, Andha Yug, in 2006 which was staged in Guwahati with complete local collaboration led by Assamese theatre legends Baharul Islam and wife Bhagirathi of Seagull Theatre Academy. Those not familiar with theatre but occasionally watch Hindi films would also recognise him through his steady presence on the big screen. Two of his last prominent roles were in Jolly LLB 2 (2017) and web series The Verdict – State vs Nanavati (2019). What has made every character that Bajaj has played in his long career stand out — whether on stage or on screen, whether historical, mythological, or real-life essays such as Rizvi Sahab in Jolly LLB 2 — is the intense emotion with which he has imbued them, essaying each character with a depth that remains an inspiration for all practising artistes.

Children and Theatre

While Bajaj dismisses the ‘theatre in distress’ narrative, he would like the general atmosphere in the country to become more conducive for the craft. He gives the example of Festival d’Avignon, which takes place every year in July in the French city of Avignon, primarily featuring theatre but also readings, exhibitions, films, and debates. “For a month, the entire city turns into a stage. Any time you get out of the hotel, you can watch a play somewhere as something or the other is being staged 24/7. The city is declared a special zone and people get paid leave to watch plays. We are building roads, airports, cities… can we not build a Natya Mandir, a Kala Mandir, where people can go and sing, dance, act, watch tamasha?” he asks. An important way of encouraging theatre, Bajaj feels, is incorporating it in primary education; it will not just engage children creatively and wean them away from tech overdose, but also groom them into more culturally attuned and aware adults, he feels.

As Nana in the play Ghasiram Kotwal, 1992, directed by Rajinder Nath. In an earlier rendition of the play by the same director in 1973, Bajaj had played Ghasiram. He is the only actor to have played both the protagonist and the antagonist in this iconic play.

“The Theatre in Education Company (T.I.E.) of NSD and the children’s theatre festival have proved that involving children in theatre at a tender age can work wonders. Such initiatives bring children from different regions of India together and when they spend time with each other learning and acting, an entire new world opens in front of them. They realise how small a window is when you have an entire sky to soak up,” shares the artiste.

Bajaj feels that sensitising children through theatre would go a long way in diminishing social inequalities as well. “Today, the world over man has become a very dangerous animal than he was ever before —COVID-19, the ongoing wars… the less said the better. Do we have a school where a Krishna and a Sudama can study together? The class attitude, which is ingrained in our lives, can be extinguished only by theatre. It is a permanent equaliser,” he adds.

In the middle of deliberating intensely on topics that are close to his heart, Bajaj makes light of his ‘speech’ as he calls this conversation, and says, “I’m enjoying the beautiful environs of Lonavala, where I now live with my son Riju (actor, director). There is no theatre scene in Lonavala but there is a group of a few ladies in the age group of 70s-90s, who invite me once in two-three months to play Rummy with them. I have lots of time to reflect on my several decades in theatre,” he says affably.

Bajaj’s Brainchild Turns 25

META’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Bajaj couldn’t have come at a more landmark moment in time — this year marks the 25th anniversary of India’s national theatre festival, the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, which was started by Bajaj during his stint as the director of the NSD. The story of how Bajaj visited offices of newspapers in New Delhi in 1999 to spread the word about the launch of the festival and distribute press releases is now part of theatre folklore. None would have anticipated then that BRM or Bharangam, as the festival has been popularly known ever since, would go on to become the world’s largest theatre festival. While the first edition showcased 60 plays across 20 days, the silver jubilee edition this year in February presented 150 plays from five countries.

In the play Lehron ke Rajhans, 1967, directed by Om Shiv Puri for NSD Repertory.

The festival has undergone structural transformations in the last 25 years of its existence but remains the most exciting and all-encompassing — besides the main festival in New Delhi, it also holds a satellite festival in different cities; this year’s satellite festival was held in 15 Indian cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Patna, Vijayawada, Bhubaneshwar, etc. It also now has a Bharat Jan Rang Mahotsav where street plays take place simultaneously across thousands of locations.

The Legacy of a Master

The incumbent director of NSD, Chittaranjan Tripathy, who began his theatre journey when Bajaj was a professor at the school, says that he is living proof of the biggest legacy of the renowned actor/ director. “I would say that Sir’s biggest strength is that he is able to spot potential and then puts his entire weight behind that individual. At any given point in time, he would have so many wonderful scripts with him. One day, he handed me the script of Taj Mahal Ka Tender and asked me to direct it. It was a fabulous script, but he wasn't shy in trusting a young person like me to direct it,” recalls Tripathy. Taj Mahal Ka Tender, a well-known play, has successfully entered its 26th year; it won for its writer Ajay Shukla both the prestigious awards, the Sahitya Kala Parishad Samman and the Mohan Rakesh Samman.

Tripathy recalls being a shy, nervous youngster at NSD when Bajaj transitioned from being a professor to the director of the institute. “He watched me in a musical and came up to me to tell me that he liked my work. I used to be so afraid of him until then. He asked me where I was from, and when I said Odisha, he said, ‘Why are people of Odisha so talented?’ He put me at ease instantly,” recalls Tripathy, who hails from Chandabali in Odisha and came to study at NSD in 1993, after completing his master’s in Sociology from the University of Hyderabad. Tripathy is a prolific director and actor himself in both Hindi and Oriya theatre, and has a busy schedule on the screen as well; OTT watchers would remember him as Tandon, the IAS officer in the Abhishek Bachchan film, Dasvi (2022), among other roles in Hindi and Oriya cinema.

Tripathy says that there are very few directors who go out of their way to promote young actors/ directors, a quality which sets Bajaj apart from the rest. That’s a sentiment that Bajaj’s son, Riju, also an actor and director, affirms. “Many script writers continue to leave their work with my father for his opinion, and he is always ready to share the best ones with promising directors,” says Riju Bajaj. Ram Gopal Bajaj shares that playwriting is not effete. “All that is needed is the right sensibility to do those plays. Only if humanity would start thinking more, would introspect a little more — especially in this fast-paced world where technology is omnipresent — creativity would take wings,” he declares.

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