Lucknow Theatre: DRAMEBAZ PAR EXCELLENCE
Padmashri Raj Bisaria, 80, must be drowned in thunderous applause over and over again. Why? For being the most beloved dramebaz in Lucknow. This professor of English literature has introduced audiences here to modern drama practised by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Raj Kapoor and Konstantin Stanislavsky.
Lucknowites always had a passion for theatre but in post-independent India they were a backward-looking people still entrenched in the city’s glamorous if decadent Nawabi past. And the arts that flourished in that past were dying.
Lucknow’s arts aficionadoes were unable to imagine a modern, progressive, intellectual Lucknow. It was Bisaria, affectionately known as Raj Saheb, who brought to them contemporary theatre and an understanding of how to appreciate it.
When the British colonised all of South Asia after 1857, they attempted to do away with the fiefdoms in various parts of the subcontinent. Sadly, the decline of feudal systems and the attempt to thrust European values on the populace also led to a stagnation of the fine arts patronised, encouraged and funded by these fiefdoms in cities like Lucknow.
And by the time the British departed in 1947, Lucknow’s deeply neglected reputation as the ‘Paris of the East’ —a hub of poetry, dance and music — began to fade further. Reduced to a near-ghost town, this skeleton of a city barely survived and it did so on nostalgia.
When Raj Saheb wanted to show Lucknow’s denizens what they were doing to themselves, he chose the medium of theatre to do so. He showed them that theatre is a dynamic art and not a decadent one. It is an intellectual pursuit, as essential as breathing. It is one of the most creative ways to explore humanity.
Raj Saheb himself is like the hero of a drama: tall, dark and very charismatic. Like the proverbial pied piper he is always seen followed by hordes of young men and women. The young men try to imitate the way he walks and his habit of rakishly flicking away the curtain of hair that falls over his forehead. Female fans can’t get enough of his rich baritone.
He first attracted students to the stage when he founded the University Theatre Group in 1962. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, he founded the Theatre Arts Workshop (TAW) in 1966 to start a more professional movement in the dramatic arts that also involved providing formal training
Soon the actor, director and theatre educator had convinced the state to start an academy of dramatic arts and the Bhartendu Natya Academy was founded in 1975. The Academy is considered second only to New Delhi’s National School of Drama. Raj Saheb’s students are scattered all over the country and many of them are an indispensable part of the Mumbai
Raj Saheb also travelled widely— studying theatre in the UK and US —but always returned to Lucknow to share his experiences with actors and audiences here. This was a striking departure for a city that had been witness to brain drain for decades.
Stanislavsky, who had a profound influence on 20th-century theatre, impressed Raj Saheb as well. The English professor adapted Stanislavsky’s method school of acting and he still reads and re-reads the Russian actor-director’s books, My Life in Art, An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.
He also continues to observe and study diverse forms of folk art as practised in the Uttar Pradesh countryside. He and his students of theatre worked closely with the late Gulab Bai, the last of the great Nautanki artistes to also own a performing company.
Raj Saheb’s dream has been to raise Lucknow’s dramatic arts to a professional level so that stage actors, directors, producers and writers are able to make a living from theatre in the city without being forced to migrate to Mumbai.
And having recently bagged the Tagore National Fellowship for Cultural Research, he’s on his way to realising this dream.