Prinseps

LUXURY. ART. DESIGN.


Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute

Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute (BDMI) was a center for innumerable artists of diverse fields and practices. An institute with the same structure and bohemian style has never been established again, giving rise to various experiments, collaborations, and discussions. The impact of the atmosphere created at the BDMI has touched the practice of artists visiting the space for various reasons.

The following chapters bear dialogues and synergies that occurred at BDMI. It will shed light on life at BDMI. We get different perspectives on the same tale narrated by various individuals. The effort of collecting dialogues and incidents from many biographies, autobiographies, interviews, and books that have recorded the life and time at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute gives the readers an insight into the impact of the Institute in the Indian art scene.

                                                                                               Image courtesy Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016

In 1952, they converted the huge bungalow of Bhulabhai Desai into BDMI, making it probably the first art center in India. Artists like Husain, Madhav Satwalekar, Dashrath Patel, Baburao Sadwelkar, and artists like Raza, P. Mansaram, Laxman Pai who returned to India for a brief time would hire studios at the institute. Ambalal Sitara practiced her music here while dancers like Sitara Devi, Rohini Bhate, and Kutti Krishnan had their dance classes at the Bhulabhai. Prafulla called Gaitonde  ‘Gai’ and he called her ‘bubbly’ for her facial features and long braided hair. Gaitonde leased a studio because of Prafulla at BDMI. Bhulabhai marked a joyful occasion in the professional and personal world of Gaitonde. [1]

Gaitonde said “Artists need to be in contact with other professions, music, theatre, books. You can’t stop thinking. You have to go out of your way to listen to music. A writer must know what a painting is, what music is… both Indian as well as world… a dancer must know about theatre… and so on.” [2]

Gaitonde got the privilege of handling large canvases at the institute. His studio had a spacious room with a window that illuminated it with light. Krishan Khanna mentions that Gaitonde did drawings on a mile-long roll. Had the roll not ended, Gai would have carried on. He told Khanna in one of his letters that he had done a substantial amount of work on larger canvases. He felt a great sense of freedom in handling the large canvas as it allowed him to deal with space. [3]

Prafulla had brought rollers used for printmaking from Paris. And when Gaitonde tried the roller technique to apply color on the canvas with such an exceptional ability, the results overwhelmed the art world. Later he found someone at Girgaum to make the rollers for him, so he would not have to invest in the expensive imported quality rollers. B. Vithal and B. Prabha also rented studios at the Bhulabhai Institute. [4]

Laxman Shrestha spent a lot of time with Gaitonde at the BDMI, sitting silently next to him and watching the ocean for hours. Gaitonde longed for solitude at the chawl he lived in, and there was an abundance of it at BDMI. Kolte suggests that the horizon captivated Gaitonde’s imagination. Gaitonde swayed another young artist, Nasreen Mohamedi, who also took a studio for a brief period at the institute. [5]

One day after the session Gaitonde turned to Shrestha and said “You know Laxman why I like you? You know the value of silence." [6]

Gaitonde’s father was determined about Gaitonde not being an artist, so he would throw all his paintings out. Gaitonde then asked Prafulla who had a studio at BDMI if he could keep his paintings there. She obliged, and they shared the studio. He was her professor at J.J. School of Arts. [7]

One time when Gaitonde came to the Institute, he discovered that his studio was open and swarming with American tourists. Batliwala was taking out Gaitonde's paintings and displaying them. So Gaitonde said, “This is my studio, why are you here? I don’t want you to touch my paintings. They are my paintings. I don’t want to show them. Why are you showing them?" To which Batliwala replied, “Look, this is an institute. Here, if someone asks, we show paintings. And you are in my institute, so you can’t tell me what to do.” So the next day, Gaitonde brought a lock and put it on his door. When Batliwala saw this, he said that he would not remove his lock. He removed the hinges of the door instead and continued to bring people in. Gaitonde had no alternative place to work, so he went through this. But after some time, he stopped keeping his paintings there. [8]

Many such significant life experiences leading to the development of Gaitonde as an artist took root at this institute in Bombay.


References

[1] Tribute Prafulla Dhanukar, Suhas Bahulkar, Translated by Deepak Ghare, India Contemporary Art Journal, Volume 12, May 2014.
[2] A Slice of History, Prerna K, October 2018.
[3] Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016
[4] Tribute Prafulla Dhanukar, Suhas Bahulkar, Translated by Deepak Ghare, India Contemporary Art Journal, Volume 12, May 2014 & Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016.
[5] Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016
[6] Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016
[7] The Scenes We Made–An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.
[8] The Scenes We Made–An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.


“I went to Paris in 1950, there was no Bhulabhai Institute. When I came back in 1952 or 1953, it was there. I heard it from my brother. It was on Warren Road. He said it was a fantastic place, so we both went there.” - Akbar Padamsee

Padamsee discovered the institute from his brother Nicky when he returned from Paris. Nicky Padamsee gushed about the space, and they both visited. Soli Batliwala was a cultural officer in Switzerland who had worked with Madhuriben’s husband, so she had entrusted him with the working of the institute. [1]

With Soli’s guidance, she contacted the artists, comprising theatre communities. The most noted entities among them were Alkazi, Husain, Gaitonde, and Jatin Das. They had their studios there. "They offered me a studio. But I lived next door, so there was no point in me blocking a studio, I had my studio within a ten-minute walk from the Institute. I used to live in a building called Tahir Mansion at the corner of Nepean Sea Road. I walked to the Institute every evening and spent time there." Tyeb Mehta’s wife, Sakina, had started a bookshop with books ranging from dance and music to theatre which were described as extraordinary. (2)

                                                          

Image courtesy Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016


Husain had got Bal Chhabda to BDMI. He became close friends with Gaitonde, who often remarked “Bal is a Pal”. Gaitonde was also a witness at Bal’s wedding. Bal started the Gallery 59 after the year of its founding. [3]

Chhabda grabbed the brush and was public enough about painting to set up an art gallery at the institute. The inaugural exhibition exhibited works by V. S. Gaitonde, M. F. Husain, Akbar Padamsee, S. H. Raza, Ram Kumar, and Krishen Khanna. Khanna sent his paintings from Madras, where he was employed at Grindlays Bank. He later flew to Bombay and rushed straight from the airport to the gallery with Chhabda and Husain, who fetched him, eager to disembark the work of displaying the works. Raza had estimated his works at a few hundred rupees. Husain decided that he would play Raza at his own game and appraise his works at five rupees each.

Khanna uttered, “Well, at that price, I will buy the lot and paint over them!” 

The irony was that these were the very canvases Khanna had left behind in Bombay on his transfer to Madras, and Husain had painted over them! But nobody minded in those days.

Rudy Von Leyden inaugurated the exhibition and was successfully received. Thanks to Chhabda’s contacts in the film world, a fresh group of people were introduced into the world of Modern Indian Art. Mulk Raj Anand ventured the opinion that Basohli miniatures inspired Raza’s works. This view, Krishen Khanna denied to where he not only demolished Anand’s interpretation but impressed the distinguished filmmaker, scriptwriter, and journalist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, with his argument, who later disseminated his review of the show the following day. [4]

The end of Gallery 59 at BDMI was a tragic event, Bal Chhabda got the entire hall at the institute to establish his gallery from Solibhai. He invested money for appropriate lighting and screens to make it into a gallery space. One morning Bal Chhabda saw dancers practicing in the gallery space and told Soli Batlivala that performers were not allowed to rehearse in the gallery space. Soli Batlivala’s reason was that nobody was using the hall, so he permitted the dancers to practice. When the same thing took place the next day, Bal Chhabda was furious and came early one morning with his helper and smashed the lights and tore the screens he had installed. Batlivala was astounded and inquired if goondas (thugs) had come and done this. He was told, "Sab hi aye the. Bal Chhabda sahab. Unhone sab tod diya" (Bal Sahabda sahib came and broke everything).

When Batlivala inquired from Bal Chhabda the reason behind this ghastly act, Bal said that he cannot have dancers in his gallery space, he has destroyed everything he paid for and has damaged nothing of the institutes. Batlivala asked him to leave and started using the space for other purposes. [5]

The incident caused Gallery 59 to move out of the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, Husain, Padamsee and other artists were upset with Soli Batliwala. When they talked to Madhuriben, she refused to speak to Soli and told it was his decision on how he wishes to run the Institute. (6)

References

[1] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.
[2] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.
[3] Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016
[4] Sonata of Solitude Vasudeo Shantu Gaitonde, Meera Menezes, 2016
[5] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.
[6] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.

Image courtesy: Tribute Prafulla Dhanukar, Suhas Bahulkar, Translated by Deepak Ghare, India Contemporary Art Journal, Volume 12, May 2014

Prafulla Dahanukar was born as Prafulla Joshi in Goa and raised in Mumbai. She studied Fine Arts at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and graduated with a Gold Medal in 1955. In her final year of college, she saw the work of a student who had come from rural India. The boy had done his painting in powerful strokes and bright colors. Prafulla was fascinated and called her friends Palande, Mhatre, and others to see his work. She told them, “See how excellent this small boy in half pants works.” That small boy was Sambhaji Kadam. Sitara Devi, Rohini Bhate, Kutti Krishnan held their dance classes at the institute. Prafulla with her sweet nature soon became an integral part of this charged and vibrant atmosphere. They kept the studios open, with no restrictions on movement.

In 1952, they converted the spacious bungalow of Bhulabhai Desai into The Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute. It was a boon for artists and performers coming from various creative fields. It was the first Art Center in India. Apart from painters and sculptors, there were facilities for artistes in diverse fields such as music, dance, and theater. When it was difficult in Mumbai to have one’s studio, artists could avail of a small studio here at a nominal rent of one rupee per day. Prafulla got a studio here in 1958 when she returned from Paris. M. F. Husain, Madhav Satwalekar, Dashrath Patel, and Baburao Sadwelkar had their studios with a few more sculptors. S.H. Raza would take a temporary studio there when he visited India.

In the earlier days, Palshikar and Gaitonde’s use of distortion mingled with the Indian miniature style influenced Prafulla’s work. After her Diploma, Prafulla strived hard to prove herself in the art world. Her first exhibition was based on the Raga and Raginis of Hindustani music in 1956. Her artwork was well-received and she also sold some of her paintings. Then she went to Paris and took lessons in Printmaking at Atelier 17. Her black and white achromatic landscapes during this period proved indicative of her future path as a woman artist.

Gaitonde then began visiting Paris and hired a studio because of Prafulla. While Gaitonde used his printmaking rollers from Paris for his abstract work, she used rollers to create abstract landscapes. She soon established this as her style. Those days at Bhulabhai Institute were wonderful. Around 1966, Gaitonde received the Rockefeller Fellowship and went to the U.S. The experiment at The Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute ended after they demolished the bungalow. Gaitonde had sketched Prafulla during this period. [1]


Image courtesy: Tribute Prafulla Dahanukar, Suhas Bahulkar, Translated by Deepak Ghare, India Contemporary Art Journal, Volume 12, May 2014

Days at Bhulabhai, as stated by Prafulla Dahanukar:

There was a grand hall on the ground floor with three or four rooms flanking it. Quite a few artists had rooms there. Ravi Shankar had the first one. The Theatre Unit office was downstairs, but they would rehearse on the terrace. There was a long passage on the terrace. That’s where the artists’ studios were. They never locked the doors of the studios. Nothing was ever stolen from the premises. M. F. Husain’s studio was next to mine. Bal Chhabda used to visit him often. Tyeb (Mehta) also had a studio, but he and Akbar Padamsee came later. Rajesh Khanna visited the Institute. I attended his wedding. He recognized me. I asked him how.

Rajesh Khanna said, “You’ve forgotten. I was Jatin Khanna to you. We used to have tea with you. We didn’t have money, so you used to give us tea."

He used to do minor roles, servants, and things like that, in IPTA plays. Sanjeev Kumar also used to be there with IPTA and A. K. Hangal. I recall these three. I first met Satyadev Dubey there. He was working with Alkazi then. We became dear friends. He came and stayed with me a year before he died. I’d even designed costumes for one play he rehearsed at Bhulabhai, Ashadh Ka Ek Din. They staged it at Tejpal Auditorium, in the sixties.

Ravi Shankar opened his Kinnara School there to teach sitar. He produced a program called Melody and Rhythm, which he staged all over the country. Shiv Kumar Sharma used to play the tabla and accompanied Ravi Shankar. Sharma was a seventeen-year-old stripling then and often told me that, I’m the only person in Bombay who knows that he used to be a tabla player.

Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini, Sonal Pakvasa (Mansingh) used to come with their gurus and practice there. Gaitonde would visit my studio. He asked me if he could keep his work in my studio. I said why just keep? You can work in my studio, no problem. Gaitonde was not only my teacher but was also my friend. Gaitonde used to come in the morning at eight o’clock and work till two o’clock. I used to go in at twelve and stay till eight or nine or ten. When he left the studio, he’d go to see a film. He spent most afternoons watching films.

Downstairs there was Piloo Pochkhanawala and Davierwala. They were both very well-known sculptors. Beside them was Mhatre who worked in enamel. Also B. Vitthal the sculptor. There was also a German photographer I’ve forgotten his name. He used to teach photography, how to develop pictures and all that. There was the film-maker Rathod who used to show us his documentaries. Shyam Benegal would shoot there.

The yoga guru Iyengar used to come on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Fifty or sixty outsiders would come to the Institute to learn from him. They gave the stage over to the theatre people in the evening. It was all very well organized. It charged the atmosphere from morning till night.

I had a bad habit. I sang when I painted. When I stepped back to see what I had done, I would stop singing.

Husain used to shout across, Chup kyon ho gayi Prafulla? Gati raho, gati raho, hamein bhi inspiration mil raha hai (Why have you stopped singing Prafulla? Keep singing, keep singing. It is inspiring me).

Image courtesy: Tribute Prafulla Dhanukar, Suhas Bahulkar, Translated by Deepak Ghare, India Contemporary Art Journal, Volume 12, May 2014

Wooden partitions separated the studios. You could hear everything people were saying. When we had nothing to do, we used to go downstairs to watch rehearsals and listen to music. The Kinnara people were my friends, all Ravi Shankar’s secretaries, Penny Easterbrook and Kamala Chakravarty. Secretary meant a girlfriend. They lived with him. His school ran from about 1962 to 1966.

P. L. Deshpande rehearsed two plays at Bhulabhai, Varyavarchi Varaat (Procession in the Air), and Tujhe Ahe Tujapashi. I had a singing role in the first play and of a society lady in the second. He would come for rehearsals in the evening and go away. The third play he rehearsed there was Sundar Mee Honar (I Will Be Beautiful) in which his wife Sunita played the lead. She was the actual force in his life. She put him together. Otherwise, he would have merely been one of those entertainers. Bhulabhai closed in 1969. The family sold the land to a builder. (2)

References

[1] Tribute Prafulla Dhanukar, Suhas Bahulkar, Translated by Deepak Ghare, India Contemporary Art Journal, Volume 12, May 2014
[2] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.

Ravi Shankar’s world-renowned music school Kinnara started at rented quarters at Breach Candy School on Bhulabhai Desai Road. He couldn’t find an investor for the school and had no finances to procure real estate for the school. This was a pleasant seafront location near to his Malabar Hill residence, but it was a long way south of the suburbs Ravi had envisaged.

Ravi wrote to Kamala. "But now I feel positive about the whole thing. This responsibility is the only thing that would hold me and sober me up. The effing around (aimlessly) days are over!" 

His ambitious objectives for Kinnara seem to have intensified his perceptual tendency to doubt himself.

Kinnara’s ceremonial inauguration took place at 6 p.m. on 17 July 1962, chosen because it was Guru Purnima, the day when students pay homage to their gurus. They made puja offerings first to Ganesh and then to a portrait of Allauddin Khan. Tat Baba was present too. The school initially offered classes in sitar, flute, tabla, pakhawaj, and vocal music for learners aged from eight to fourteen and also for advanced students. Screen reported that they were overwhelmed with applications. Sitar was tutored by Ravi’s pupils: Shamim Ahmed, Kartick Kumar, Shambhu Das, and Amiya Dasgupta. Tulsi Das Sharma, tabla by Taranath Rao and Ravi Bellare (the twin brother of Shashi) took vocal classes and flute by G. Sachdev. Kamala was a joint honorary secretary and the chief administrator. Ravi took the title of the director. Another member of the team was Penny Estabrook, who had returned to India to learn the sitar on a Ford Foundation grant.

After a few months at Breach Candy School, Kinnara moved down the street to new rented premises on the first floor of the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute. Desai’s former aide, Soli Batliwala, a passionate supporter of the arts described by Ravi as ‘one of the most unusual people I have ever come across’ ran the space. He had divided the old mansion into studio spaces offered at a peppercorn rent to dozens of fine artists, consisting of two painters who were to become modern greats, M. F. Husain and Vasudeo Gaitonde. This was also where artist collector Bal Chhabda founded Gallery 59, one of the city’s earliest private galleries. Ebrahim Alkazi ran the School of Dramatic Art and staged plays on the terrace. Dancers, musicians, and actors - among them Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini, Sonal Mansingh, and Sachin Shankar - rehearsed in the house or on its spacious lawn. Shyam Benegal recalls attending a workshop there led by Martha GrahamI never dreamt there was so much to do in running a school", Ravi wrote to Isadora Bennett.

On top of Kinnara’s regular classes, functions and recitals, and organizing the move. His energies were taken up by a new production of Melody and Rhythm, staged at Bombay’s Birla Theatre on four nights in mid-November. Based on the 1958 Delhi show, with even more performers. Among the orchestra of fifty-one and choir of forty-two were rising names such as Shivkumar Sharma, Shankar Ghosh, and Shobha Gurtu, Shubho, and most of Kinnara’s teaching staff. Ravi was a composer, arranger, and conductor. Penny Estabrook conducted the choir, while Vijay Raghav Rao, now music director at Films Division, was the assistant conductor of the orchestra. Gaitonde acted as an art consultant.

A passion project for Vyjayanthimala, the reigning queen of Hindi and Tamil cinema, who was an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer- ‘a mesmerized dancer blessed with a gorgeous figure’, as Ravi noted. She choreographed the production and starred as the Dalit heroine who is inspired by Buddha’s disciple Ananda to see the injustice of her caste-based oppression. Rather than use Tagore’s original songs, she commissioned Ravi to record a new song-less soundtrack, considering him perfect for the job because of his expertise in both Carnatic and Hindustani music, as well as his familiarity, as a Bengali. with Tagore. They worked intimately together coordinating the music and dance, through rehearsals at Bhulabhai Memorial Institute and five recording sessions, in time for the opening at Bombay’s Birla Theatre on 22 December.

Chandalika was a major theatrical production, with a dozen dancers, lighting by Tapas Sen, and set design by M. R. Achrekar, art director to Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. President Radhakrishnan attended the premiere, while Nehru brought the king and queen of Belgium to see the show.

“The most praiseworthy aspect of the dance drama was Raviji’s unsurpassable music" Vyjayanthimala wrote in her autobiography.

 

Image courtesy New York Times

Bhulabhai Memorial Institute building was to be demolished and replaced. After a 26-story residential apartment block, Akash Ganga was completed on the site in 1970, M. F. Husain held Soli Batlivala responsible for terminating a great cultural center by agreeing to the sale of the land. Although Ravi purchased two sixth-floor apartments in the tower, he never moved in. Ravi Shankar continued to operate from the NCPA auditorium in the Akash Ganga building and perform thereafter at the Nariman Point where NCPA stands now.

Reference

[1] Indian Sun - The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, Oliver Craske.

Ebrahim Alkazi as pictured in 2007. (Alkazi Collection of Photography)

Alkazi’s father was a Saudi Arabian businessman. As a child, his education at home was in Arabic reading the Quran and at school, he was studying in English in Pune. He later went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. While he was in London, Gallery Leicester held an exhibition of his drawings and paintings. He had been offered work in London but he refused and came back to Bombay.

Alkazi returned to Bombay in December 1952 and moved to Delhi in 1961. He first held an exhibition of drawings and paintings in Bombay like the one he had in London. He joined the Theatre Group and widened its mandate to encourage all forms of art.

He got close to the progressives, even the ones who were in London and Paris. He held their exhibitions from time to time throughout the 50s and 60s in Bombay. He went on to collaborate with them at every opportunity that he got. [1]

The reigning figure of Indian drama in those days was George Bernard Shaw, who realism had now begun to be seen as stale and wearisome. It was known the Shaw's style was modern theatre, Alkazi said no to that. He looked at Europe keeping England aside. He was especially interested in the portrayal of the female actors in their playwrights.  

The Theatre Group was established by Alyque Padamsee, who also received his education from RADA. Alkazi was the President of the Theatre Group. People used to show up for rehearsals after their work and many amateurs were also a part of the group. Anyone who had done a play before could join the group. Things were not being run very professionally and eventually, Alkazi quit the Theatre Group and established his Theatre Unit at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute.

He called everyone at Alyque Padamsee’s terrace, where the Theatre Group held their rehearsals and made an announcement. "I am going to talk and give you some news. There can be only one leader. That means, if you want good work consistently, there must be a single leader. I don’t think there should be other directions in the Theatre Group. I should be the only director. I have been to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Either I will take over the Theatre Group or form a new unit, the Theatre Unit. And people are not free to join. I will select people."  Then there was an extensive debate and one young fellow rose and spoke. “Elk, you’re talking about theatre as though it is religion. We are here to enjoy life. This is all a facade." 

Alkazi went red in the face. He said, ‘You call it a facade? This is my life! I have devoted my entire life to theatre and you’re calling it a facade?” 

Alyque Padamsee

Alkazi also conducted workshops besides theatre, in which they taught the theatre folk to dance. I remember Kathakali being tutored. I did that and was the worst dancer you’d ever see. He’d do three-month workshops and it would be every day. We learned the discipline of theatre from him. I love the theatre; I live for the theatre, but not overtly solemnly. I thought the theatre was to enjoy in rehearsal. If you’re performing a serious part you perform it sincerely, you come off, you may have a drink, crack a joke with companions, and have a good time. It’s not religion!

But Alkazi felt it was a religion... and in the church, you don’t laugh. (2)

In 1954, Alkazi, Roshen, and Nissim resigned from Theatre Group amid breeding discontent among actor members over Alkazi introduction of wide-ranging projects such as art exhibitions and the art magazine that went beyond the group's initial mandate of staging theatre productions. Alkazi was the one who bought the BDMI into the limelight of the Bombay art world, there is no doubt about that!

Alkazi and the Progressives

Alkazi resisted to narrow his vision and got a space for it at the BDMI, which he knew was the ideal location for his multifaceted projects. Here he could concentrate on theatrical productions enveloped by all sorts of practicing artists like Vajifdar sisters who rehearsed dancing there and yoga sessions by Pannikar amongst others.

Besides the course for his School of Dramatic Arts, Alkazi regularly organized small exhibitions at BDMI, like the "Drawings and Paintings of M. F. Husain" (based on Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali), and novel art events like the experimental presentation (with music and text) of M. F. Husain's painting The Voice by Rudi Von Leyden.

He invited Husain to design the sets for a rather large, complex production of T. S. Eliot's poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral. He and Husain had an instant connection.

Alkazi made unique use of the BDMI's tiny rooftop theater for a production of Murder in the Cathedral, this time inviting Adi Davierwala, the sculptor, to design the sets. This was followed by Molière's That Scoundrel Scapin, with masks created by Gaitonde, and unforgettably powerful production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex with a brochure designed by Akbar.

Ebrahim Alkazi portrays Oedipus in Oedipus Re, which he also directed for the Theatre United 1955. (Alkazi Collection of photography)

There was barely any demand to buy works of these painters in India. Their art was neither pretty nor likable. Besides Walter Langhammer, Emanuel Schlesinger, and Rudi von Leyden (the war emigres from Europe who had settled in Bombay), together with Mulk Raj Anand and Kekoo Gandhy, Alkazi was among the very few who promoted the Progressives during this period. By getting them written about, tribulations they were going through to remain committed to their chosen profession. Souza, their mentor, had remained back in London trying to make a living as a painter.

"It is a sad commentary on the cultural situation in our country and the level of art criticism. Our most creative talents in the field of art, music, and literature have had to turn to other countries through frustration and lack of recognition in their homeland. Just a few years ago three of our most eminent painters, namely Padamsee, Raza, and Souza, were almost hounded out of the country, not only through lack of appreciation but also through ignorant and inept attacks by the public and the press. These same painters have not only won recognition for contemporary Indian art abroad but have also carried away awards in international competitions." [3]

Kusum Haider (née Behl)

Alkazi was an exceptional educator. In retrospect, I consider, however excellent a director he was, he was an even better educator. If you were his student, it could simply be an unforgettable experience, because all that learning provoked you to seek more knowledge and skill. I still use the same exercises in my coaching as he did. From all that he trained me, I can say that, because of him, I developed an eye for the visual arts. Being in a production of his was an immense learning experience that has benefited me to pass on to others. I grasped that all arts have a meeting point. Music, art, sets, movement, all develop a cohesive entity. This experience expanded one’s boundaries and opened up the mind. He had also started his School of Dramatic Art at the BDMI.

Satyadev Dubey

There was an Irani shop outside Alkazi’s house and occasionally Alkazi would accompany us, but he constantly reminded us and stated, "Don’t waste your time. You must read. You know how much we have read." He had done RADA for three years along with his wife. He was perfectly equipped. We were given scenes to perform and I would ever be in the director’s shoe. But later Alkazi reprimanded me because I was trying to improve the actors’ English. I wanted them to speak like me and I was told that was not how English was spoken. Thereafter I established that English could be spoken in many ways as long as the pronunciation was correct. In the Indian context, we don’t have to speak like the English, like Bapsy Sabavala and all those people.

I had a bad ear for music, but Alkazi used music vastly in his productions. He would listen to different kinds of music. Now every time I listen to any music, I wonder how can I use it in a play. It has become second nature to me. Shenoy would become a teacher and replace Alkazi every time Alkazi went abroad. Shenoy later took charge of the Hindi theatre in the Theatre Unit, he eventually started Filmalay Acting School.  

Shyam Benegal

Alkazi was a man of many parts. He was virtually a Renaissance man. He wrote poetry. I befriended him because I used to versify a bit myself. So, he invited me to his place, I recited my poems to him. He later gave me a critical analysis. This was in 1956, the first time I visited Bombay.

Alkazi was an absolute perfectionist. He was a disciplinarian, and he handled his theatre with an enormous amount of control. So, it was consistently a controlled performance, done in exceptionally wonderful taste. He was until he stopped doing plays, a remarkable theatre producer. Alkazi was one of the pioneering generations of this country for modern theatre. For someone like me, a person who had come from the outside and was in his early twenties, it was all overwhelming. I felt like I was in heaven! It was such a fabulous learning opportunity and experience.

Girish Karnad

Alkazi’s contribution to our knowledge of theatre was enormous. From where I came, the tradition I had experienced was of natak companies performing in proscenium theatres.

Alkazi opened the theatre to us. Particularly his productions like Miss Julie, Antigone, and Eurydice. It was not just how he managed the space. There were all kinds of things that baffled me about these plays. For example, in Miss Julie, there was a scene where Jean is listening and Miss Julie is giving a long sentimental speech. She is crying, and he is staring at her and some sentimental music is going on. She stops crying. Jean takes out a box of matches, puts a cigarette in his mouth, and strikes a matchstick, ‘Chhhck’. At that exact moment, the music stopped, and the lights came on! The mood suddenly changed. I was thunderstruck.

'Antigone' by Jean Anouilh. Director: E. Alkazi. Kusum Haider as Antigone and M. Chitnis as Creon. Theatre Unit, Bombay, 1955. (Alkazi FOUNDATION FOR ARTS)

Alkazi’s plays triggered an impulse that took me back into my background. It didn’t take me out. One great thing that I learned from Eurydice and Antigone also, was that this was what you could do with your myths! Suddenly, I realized what was wrong with our pauranik plays, our mythological plays. Although I couldn’t have phrased it that well I knew that one problem with the pauranik plays was that they all dripped with bhakti. And the whole point of bhakti ultimately is that salvation comes from god. So, no tragedy is possible.

"I think Alkazi's contribution to our work was not where it took us, but what it took us away from." (4)

Ebrahim Alkazi later headed the National School of Drama for 15 epoch-making years, teaching the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, and Rohini Hattangadi; who brought modern Western classics to the Indian stage and professionalized theatre; he established the Art Heritage gallery with wife Roshen in New Delhi; and who left behind a trove of art, photography, and books, now looked after by the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.

While at the NSD, Alkazi staged some of the most significant plays of the times: from Indian playwrights like Mohan Rakesh and Girish Karnad to Sanskrit classics like Kalidasa and Shudraka, from Greek tragedies to Shakespearean dramas and 20th-century European playwrights like Bertolt Brecht.(5)

Elk as his friends called him has made an enormous contribution to modern post-independence India for the arts of all forms.

References

[1] The Progressive Revolution MODERN ART FOR A NEW INDIA, Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Toon, Asia Society Museum, New York, 2018.

[2] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.

[3] The Progressive Revolution MODERN ART FOR A NEW INDIA, Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Toon, Asia Society Museum, New York, 2018.

[4] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.

[5] Alkazi: A guiding light of theatre in India, Zara Murao & Vanessa Viegas, Hindustan Times, Aug 09, 2020


Image courtesy: Remembering Soli Mama, Meher Marfatia, May 12, 2019, Mid-Day.

The youthful patriot supporting the Quit India struggle heard the police knock on the door of his Parel home. Though no stranger to prison. Alarmed by his mother Bachoobai, he took off from a rear door and jumped on the tiled roof. Unable to share his son and wife’s sympathies, red-faced before the officers were Dr. Shiavax Batlivala, a physician and Mayor of Bombay under the British.

Soli Shiavax Batlivala, diehard Congressman turned a communist, handled his obligations as cultural czar at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, Soli Batliwala, propagated the dynamism and kindness of the family of Bhulabhai Desai, whose vision transformed the road of freshly independent India engaged with the arts. 

Madhuriben, who assigned Batlivala charge as trustee-manager to run this unique hub, unlike any previous model. The estate comprised two bungalows set at an angle. Madhuriben lived in road-fronting Hasman, now the Dubash residence. Another ground-plus-one Art Deco structure was the institute, vibrant with activity. 

Batlivala’s nieces, Zarine Khambatta and Freny Olbrich speak about him, Mama met leaders like Gandhiji, Nehru, and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, guests at Hasman on their visits to the city” says Khambatta. Olbrich writes from Scotland: “A man of unflinching integrity, Soli Mama left the Congress because after Independence it conflicted with ideals he would not abandon.”

The country was cut off from its history of art — in Bombay, the Opera House and Laxmi Bagh in Girgaon laid the groundwork for such awareness. That underwent a disconnect under the British rule. But Solibhai walked the talk, ensuring the Bhulabhai represented classicism and modernism in the Indian arts. [1]

Following are the statements of various artists who describe their interaction with Soli Bhai. Some believe to owe him their career and some resent him to the bone. However, one cannot on any account claim that he did not play the catalyst role in building the Indian Modern Art scene. His contributions have been left undiscovered. He is the unacknowledged hero of the Modern Indian art world.

Vijaya Mehta

"When that creative nest, giving us such freedom and joy, could no longer survive, I got two gifts from Solibhai. First, he housed Rangayan's records in the basement until they found a home. The second was three pieces from his office: a grandfather clock, wooden sculpture, and this desk which was Bhulabhai's very own." [2]

Anonymous

‘Soli Batlivala dedicated his attention to building up the art movement in Bombay, through helming the works at BDMI. Not only were the studios rented to the artists at Re.1/-, but every Saturday Solibhai would host a dinner in the gardens appealing to a few leading industrialists and art connoisseurs to share a meal with the artists. After the supper, it was obligatory for the patrons to visit the artist’s studios one-by-one until they bought at least one work of art. The next day, this money would pay off the cumulative dues of the artists with the Irani café round the corner and their dhobi bills. If there was an excess, they would all together take taxis to go see a matinee show, in air-conditioned comfort, at Regal Cinema.’ [3]


Gerson Da Cunha

Soli Batliwala was, in many ways, the power below and behind the Bhulabhai. It was because of Soli that the place ran at all. Everything like the income-expenditure business, the dealings with the staff or with the authorities, was handled by Soli. I don't think Madhuri would have been at all interested in that aspect of it. He was also a very close adviser of Madhuri's. So, he was an important influence on a lot of policy decisions. I think a lot of the success of the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute and what it was able to achieve came from Soli's nudging in that direction.

The great thing about Bhulabhai was that it produced a confluence of many arts. There were sculptors there, painters, poets, theatre people. It was therefore a wonderful fusion of minds. I don't think any of us realized the impact that the Bhulabhai Desai had on all of us. I don't think any of us can quite estimate the value of those exchanges. It is a matter of huge regret to many of us that the Institute came down and that ugly building took its place.

But Soli was as responsible for the closure of the Institute as he had been for running it for so many years. He must have looked at the future and thought this place cannot go on the way it is with no real revenue stream, so best sell it when there is a decent price that one can get. I think he was of that view. I may be entirely wrong.

But there came a moment when indeed the concept of the Bhulabhai was at variance with the environment. I mean that times had changed costs had grown. There were competitive calls from other venues of theatre. So, the financial problems may have been a thought. I don't think that they overtook the Bhulabhai at the times I remember. But any good manager looks at the future all the time and how long really could an organization like that survive? I realize that it was run on the funds of the memorial trust but that kind of funding cannot go on forever.

Akbar Padamsee

Soli destroyed the Institute. We used to go there because all the artists were there but we did not like Batliwala or what he was doing.  When we complained to Madhuri Desai, she just said, "He's running the Institute. What can I do? I can't interfere. " He was the cultural officer in Switzerland, while Madhuriben's husband was appointed there as an ambassador.

There was a boy from a tribal area called Raman Patel. He had come in as a peon. When he saw all the artists working he said, "Hum bhi bana sakte hain'"( we too can sculpt). So, he brought a big block of wood, mango-tree wood, because it is soft, and carved it. It was a magnificent carving. All the artists got enthusiastic, saying, 'We treated him like a peon but he's a sculptor."

When he had done a sufficient amount of work, we felt that he should have a show at the Jehangir Art Gallery. So, the show was held. But there was an untoward incident that happened. It is very clearly imprinted upon my mind. Batliwala did not like it. Batliwala said, "He's a peon. Why are you making him into an artist?" So, to put him in his place, when we all came back from the show, he told him, "Chalo sab jagah pe jhadu maar do" (Come on, sweep the whole place). This was to remind him that he was a servant and not an artist.

But Raman had no problem. He swept the place. He was then asked to make tea. He made tea. But we felt very bad. It was his opening and this was the treatment he was being given.

When Jehangir Art Gallery opened, he took up a place there too. He wanted to spread outside the Bhulabhai Institute. He wanted to become the main patron of the art world.

M F Husain

Husain like other fine art artists believed that Soli Batliwala was the reason why BDMI shut down.

“ All good things must pass. The Centre was an estate under siege. The Centre’s ower Madhuriben cajoled her Machiavellian manager Batliwala (whose heart was an empty bottle anyway) to auction the premises. For a fancy sum, the flourishing Centre was buried under the monolith of residential apartments.” [4]

Prafulla Dahanukar

Solibhai helped a sculptor called Raman to go to Norway where he became a big artist. Raman worked as a peon in the Institute. He used to do wood sculptures. When Solibhai became secretary of the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1961, he helped Raman get an exhibition there. He also introduced him to the consul of Norway. They gave him the scholarship to study there. He went away and stayed on. When he came back, he divorced his wife. Solibhai helped him in that also. Solibhai was a bachelor. He died about twenty years ago.

Alyque Padamsee discloses in his interview, he had no issue with Soli. 'He was a bit of a manipulator and could be sometimes devious, but he was not a terrible guy.' 

Kusum Haider mentions how Soli Bhai helped them by presenting a hundred rupees for the production of The Father. Meena Naik, the memory of Soli bhai is of wandering around in a white pajama, dagli and spectacles, going around watching rehearsals. [5]

The same incident is narrated very differently by Akbar Padamsee and Prafulla Dahanukar. The clarity of his personality and deeds are ambiguous since there is not much of a record regarding his life. Soli Batliwala has been a forgotten name in the art scene of India.

References

[1] Remembering Soli Mama, Meher Marfatia, May 12, 2019, Mid-Day.

[2] Remembering Soli Mama, Meher Marfatia, May 12, 2019, Mid-Day.

[3] Reverse Swing: From Made up Art History to Art History in the Making, by Sadanand Menon, November 17th, 2019.

[4] Where Art Thou, M F Husain, and Khalid Mohamed.

[5] The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre In Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.

Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute had aided all forms of arts, theatre, dance, painters, sculptors, puppeteers, yoga, musicians, and more... Soli Batliwala handled the restricted space efficiently. A web of activities took place and in the center was the institute. An entire breed of modern artists was established and nurtured at the center was the institute. In this last part, we shall bring forward every other artist, personality, and stories connected to the space, further demanding to establish the gigantic waves created by the institute that not only washed up on home shores but likewise on foreign shores.

 Girish Karnad “The climax of The Cold War, the USA and the USSR to impress the Third World with their culture and abundance. The result of this was visiting orchestras, ballets, dance performances, exhibitions were taking place giving exposure to pupils who would turn into the future of arts in India. A single visit to Martha Graham’s rehearsals, organized by Alkazi for the members of Theatre Unit, altered Satyadev Dubey’s entire understanding of choreography. Martha Graham, the most prominent personality of modern dance, conducted a workshop at BDMI attended by Shyam Benegal.”

Vijaya Mehta in her autobiography mentions BDMI as a magical place. Her laboratory theatre Rangayan started working at Bhulabhai in the 1960s. “The school children used to dance to Kiran Shantaram and Shashank Lalchand’s rock band. Everybody including Ravi Shankar would gather to watch the fun.” Even when the Akash Ganga building came in its place, a room with an attached terrace had been placed away for Rangayan on the first floor. The second floor had an office, library, and NCPA founded by Mr. Jamshed Bhabha, Little Theatre at NCPA, Nariman Point is a replica.

Anandam film society held regular screenings of Indian and foreign films and published a journal, Montage. The Little Magazine movement for new and protest poetry came in full force. BDMI became a space for new and experimental art, theatre, music, cinema, and poetry. Its end was the end of an extensive part of Bombay’s vibrant cultural scene.

When Girish Karnad first turned up at Bhulabhai Satyadev Dubey was doing three one-act plays on the terrace. Alaknanda Samarth’s recollection of BDMI is of a space in which ‘safety and lack of anxiety’ turned into the prominent emotion. She joined Alkazi’s Theatre Unit on an assurance to her parents that they would look after her and they would chaperone her.

Kusum Haider speaks of the times at the institute as a glorious age with all the arts coming together, with individuals immersed in a sincere quest for artistic expression. People were remarkably modest and self-effacing, with no ego issues. There was a genuine innocence. Art, music, dance, and theatre intermingled as nowhere else that I have experienced. There were scarcely any clashes or gossip.

My deep passion in contemporary Indian art today is because of my relationship with artists and interaction with people like (M. F.) Husain, Tyeb (Mehta), and Gaitonde who left a permanent impression on me. There were other people at Alkazi school. Cedric and Rohini Santos and the da Cunha's were all supporters of the Theatre Unit.

There were senior actors like Bomi Kapadia, Nergis Cowasji. Pheroza Cooper. Hilla Cooper, Usha Amin, Kersi Katrak, Zul Vellani. Minoo Choi. Mina Chitnis. Zohra Sehgal, Derek Bond-an Englishman, Zarine Engineer, Alaknanda Samarth. Satyadev Dubey and many others. They performed some plays at the institute, which could accommodate about one hundred people in the main room downstairs.

The audience would be full of intellectuals of Bombay like Karl Khandalawala and Mulk Raj Anand. Rudy Von Leyden was an eminent personality. At sixteen, for me, it was the most relevant period of my existence. I felt I was part of a movement that had received a direction, and everything in the arts could simply follow from that initial awakening.

The Institute had been right at the center of the city’s cultural history, starting a new chapter for the arts in India, exploring and advocating a plethora of experiments. The world was Bhulabhai’s stage. It was a place that started a cultural explosion, and like lightning, it lit fires everywhere in India. It was an era of excitement and innovation. 

Alyque Padamsee

Image courtsey: Business Today


Hima Devi was a magnificent dancer and a huge name in dance. Later, she moved into the theatre and trained a lot of actors, especially in English. She was a stickler for enunciation.

She would constantly add. "Don’t suffer from lazy lips."

There was a lot of intermingling, and that was the beauty of the Bhulabhai Institute. It was a place where artists of different languages in theatre, of different schools of painting, poetry came together. Nissim Ezekiel was there.

Everywhere there would be workshops going on, even dance workshops. I recall even Akbar and Husain organized some informal workshops of sorts. Not the kind where you’d have to sign here and pay there but the sort where you said, ‘Okay let’s meet tomorrow evening and talk about art.’ There was constantly a kind of unusually pleasant banter going on there. Conversations, rivalries, controversies...that was the beauty of Bhulabhai.

Akbar, who is now this grand old statesman and spokesperson for the art world, had done a painting for which the police (they registered a lawsuit against Akbar Padamsee for his painting The Couple) arrested him. It was a particularly prominent case with progressive artists. We were truly a rebellious crowd. I did a play that got banned. It was Pratap Sharma, A Touch of Brightness. We got invited to the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London. It was the first Commonwealth Arts Festival, and we were the sole Indian group invited. After battling a long legal battle for seven years, they withdrew the ban. However, we could not perform at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London.

We called the space Scandal Point; I don’t know why.

Satyadev Dubey

Image courtsey: LiveMint


The Bhulabhai Institute. I have heard Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahib sing over there: ‘Ka karoon sajni aye na balam.' The lawns were also where Vijaya Mehta and P. D. Shenoy had a conversation and Shenoy persuaded her to go back to Marathi theatre, which she did, and became perhaps its first star. Every actress seemed to copy Vijaya.

Shyam Benegal

 

Image courtesy: The Hindu

I will never forget the first time I came to the Bhulabhai Desai Institute. There’s a significant reason for that. It was at the height of the battle for the city of Mumbai to be incorporated in Maharashtra, the Samyukta Maharashtra agitation. This was in 1956. Several policemen were firing at various spots in Bombay, especially at Flora Fountain and Colaba. I can never forget that because mine was the last train to come into the terminal at VT (Victoria Terminus) station. I had arrived from Hyderabad, where I used to live. I was a college student.

I was interested in dance and music and other things that I had only read about. One person who appeared to me to be a very exciting figure of the time was the doyenne of modern dance, Martha Graham. I had come specifically to watch her perform in Mumbai. I remember being very impressed by Bhulabhai. It was quite an extraordinary place. There was a lawn below and next to that there were cubicles where most of the eminent artists of the second half of the twentieth century had their studios.

Besides the artists who worked at Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, all the people visited for lectures and discussions and so on. We haven’t had a repetition of that ever. Today, you can’t get artists together in one place like that. It was something extraordinary that happened to Bombay.

Gerson da Cunha

Image courtesy: Mid-day, Mumbai Dairy

Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute was a perfect rehearsal space. But most of the shows took place in separate places because there was not adequate space for pucca green rooms or an appropriate setting for a large enough audience. Just the audience that could be accommodated on the terrace was not adequate to cover costs.

Everybody was in any of the arts would have met each other at the Bhulabhai. I recall meeting P. L. Deshpande at Bhulabhai. He was a remarkable personality. The beautiful thing about Pu La Deshpande was that besides being a monumental personality in theatre, he was likewise a fine character. He was a warm individual who always talked to you like an equal, never talking down to you from his exceptional peak of theatrical accomplishment.

There was a great deal of coming and going. We used to say, “See you at the Bhulabhai." Today, I see space where you can perform, but I don’t see spaces where you can meet as we did at the Bhulabhai Institute.

Meena Naik

Image courtesy: The Hindu

There was a great hall on the ground floor and several small rooms above it on the first floor. They gave one of them to Madhavrao Master, the puppeteer. The place used to be chock full of puppets-stored away in boxes, hanging all over the place. He had even established a small puppet theatre there. I went there for my sister’s ballet rehearsals, I’d watch for a while and later drift off upstairs. Masterji would arrive at around three in the afternoon and would remain till about nine. There was another elderly man with him called Babuji Mistry. He was a woodworker who had been with the Prabhat Film Company before he retired. Masterji also had piles of books—all in English. Masterji didn’t know a word of English, but he would examine the pictures and instruct Babuji, who would make puppets accordingly. I would love to spend time with him and manipulating his puppets.

I learned everything about puppets and puppetry there, in that room in the Bhulabhai Institute. The artist Gaitonde used to work in a room next to Masterji’s and I had heard Ravi Shankar used to play in some other room. For one of Masterji’s shows, Ravi Shankar had composed the music because the production called for classical music. It had three sitting puppets—one playing the tabla, one the sitar, and one something else I can’t remember. I loved being in that place, overflowing with so much culture.

Vijaya Bai was directing Bai Khulabai, Vyankatesh Madgulkar’s adaptation of Jean Giraudoux The Madwoman of Chaillot for Rangayan. She was going to use masks in the play. I made the masks. The rehearsals for the play used to be at Bhulabhai. There was a terrace on the second floor—not small but not as large as the hall downstairs—where we used to rehearse till nine at night.


Ratna Pathak-Shah

Image courtesy: Khaleej Times

Things like poetry readings and speeches too used to materialize there, and I was a part of that too, although my memories of those things are fuzzy. There were poetry readings, dance programs, talks on painting and at some point, they held even some workshops there. It was theatre-related, so I landed up for that too. But what I have a powerful memory of is the space it was. It was very informal, with no genuine sense of distance between the performers and the audience. If I am not mistaken, there was a kind of stage. Bhulabhai was not a commercial venture. It focused on experimentation and understanding of theatre. A variety of performances took place there. None of the plays ran for a long time.
They were mostly one-off. Even the people who came there differed completely from the people who came for the Gujarati commercial theatre. The actors and directors were different. They were concerned with putting forward ideas rather than producing plays that ran for many shows and made a lot of money as the general movement was in Gujarati theatre.

.

Arun Kakade

Image courtesy: The Indian Express

Vijayabai knew Soli Batliwala. Because of him, we could work at the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute. They had given us a small space there. Also, there was a vast space at the back that was turned into a godown for us. We would put all our equipment there, all our sets, everything. We used the small rehearsal space; we got to use the terrace space, the lawn, and every available space for rehearsals.

In my opinion, it was the ideal center for the arts. All the arts had come together there. Gaitonde worked there. There were a couple of sculptors. Ravi Shankar practiced there. Vijay Raghav Rao was there. So we’d go watch them practice, rehearse. When we rehearsed, they would come and watch us. There was a lot of giving and take. Dubeyji was there. It was an important cultural center. When we did shows, Gaitonde and others would come and watch. We had to pay a nominal fee for the godown space, nothing else.

I think we worked at Bhulabhai for about seven to eight years. We did a lot of plays there. When we performed at Bhulabhai, there would be about forty to fifty people in the audience, not more. Most of them would be our sympathizer members. We didn’t have any money. So we told all our friends that we would bring them three new products every year for which they would have to pay a membership fee in advance. As a result, they encouraged us to turn out new work consistently. Slowly, a kitty formed. I think the membership was about Rs 15 for a year, and about Rs 25 for a family. This was more than enough money for us. This was around 1960.

We used as much as we could of the space at Bhulabhai. When we performed on the terrace, we used lights and everything. How terrace space had been visualized, the way we have used it in the space design for the play was brilliant.

I don’t remember other groups working at Bhulabhai. I only remember Rangayan and Theatre Unit. We had a limited, exclusive audience. Getting off at Grant Road station and walking to Bhulabhai wasn’t easy. So our audience was only those people who believed that watching the theatre of this sort was a must. In those days, South Bombay was the center of the theatre.

Image courtesy: Business Today

Girish Karnad ‘A residential tower had now replaced Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, which has attracted all forms of art to it and provided them space in the sixties. 1980, the NCPA had the potential to step into its place and use the enormous facilities to meet the needs of the local theatre. The opulent design of the auditorium seemed to mock the deprivations of Marathi and Gujarati theatre. Even today only the anglicized patronize the NCPA. The middle-class cringe at its opulence.’

 Source: The Scenes We Made – An Oral Experimental Theatre In Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, 2016.

One cannot talk enough about the Bhulabhai Institute and the effects of the space. Ravi Shankar becomes the face of Indian classical music on the international stage. Alkazi is invited all around the globe and trained the best Indian actors Indian and international audiences have seen perform. The Progressives continue to write history and are still breaking price records in India and abroad. Marathi theatre got important personalities and many Indian cinema actors also came from the roof of this institute. 

Madhuriben's vision and Soli Batliwala's execution had changed the language of the arts and gave a safe space for artists to experiment, collaborate and create without the constraints of finances, as it was not a commercial space. This may also be the reason why the space eventually had to shut down and the bungalow had to be auctioned. 

The documentation of this institute has not been vastly done, even though this has been birth place of many award winning artists in India and abroad. Today a space like the Bhulabhai Institute is required more than ever, keeping in mind the finances and need for experimentation, collaboration, and the confluence of new ideas.    

 

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