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I, the Salt Doll

By Vandana Mishra

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Sangeet Natak as a form was beginning to seem old and tired even to its loyal audiences. Those five-to-six hour extravaganzas seemed boring and baggy. Jowly men playing women’s roles were also becoming unacceptable. Times were changing and cinema was accelerating those changes. It was felt that plays should be short and meaningful and tightly scripted. Or so the new ideas went. And in this movement were educated writer-actors such as Anant Kanekar, Nandu Khote, Keshavrao Date, K Narayan Kale and Parshwanath Altekar. But its leader, its sutradhar, was Mama Warerkar. With the revolutionary idea that women should play women’s roles on the stage, Parshwanath Altekar, Nandu Khote and Sundar Nayampalli started an independent company called Radio Stars in 1931 and presented its first play, Baby.

We met every day to study at Deodhar Mahavidyalaya in the big hall. In the middle of the hall, two tables were placed. One small table was placed crosswise. It was at this table that Altekar sat. The students sat at the big tables to listen to the lectures. He would talk about the fundamental principles of theatre. This was our theory section. What does a play mean? What are we saying in the play? If the job of the actor is to convey to the audience the words that the writer has put down, what should the actor bear in mind when doing so? The written play and the production are two completely different things. How does this happen? What does a rehearsal mean? What is the importance of the spoken word? Altekar would talk about all this to us. For the first two or three months, I didn’t understand much. I couldn’t even pronounce Stanislavsky. But I paid careful attention to what Altekar and Mama Warerkar said and tried to make sure that if I did not understand something, I asked.

‘I cannot tell you what good acting is or how you should act. You will have to figure that out for yourself. I can only tell you what constitutes a good performance and create in you the desire to be a good actor. That is the limit of my aim,’ Altekar Dada would say. And it is true. ‘Acting is something you have to learn on your own. It is a solitary process. When many solitary processes come together and connect with each other, you can say that it is time to raise the curtain and ring the third bell,’ he would say. There were large photographs of the actors of yore that were supposed to correspond with the rasas: surprise, fear, anger, love. We were not supposed to make faces that corresponded to these emotions and let it go at that. They had to be felt, we were told, at some deep level in the mind and then converted into action and emotion. Surprise can be shown in a variety of ways. So can love. On stage an actor must be aware of her body language, her make-up, she must think out everything that contributes to her performance. On stage, she must be able to use her body imaginatively and economically.

Many of these things meant little to me when we were studying in that big hall but suddenly, when I was on the stage, stories he had told us or things he had said would become clear. Altekar paid a great deal of attention to our voices. He tried to make sure that we learned breath control and made us work on our pronunciation. Mama Warerkar wrote us tongue twisters that I still remember to this day. My voice was thin and high-pitched. Altekar cured me of this with his voice culture classes. Like a musician gets up in the early morning and practises the lower octave, so also the tongue-twisters and voice culture classes helped us develop our voices. It is important to note that Altekar was one of the first to realize how important an actor’s voice was and that she should focus on it. I had only studied up to the seventh standard. The credit for my pronunciation being clear and my voice having improved in range and depth must go to Altekar.

If the stage or the cinema are worlds that leave most people looking like they have been in a coalpit, Altekar’s reputation was spotless. It is said that when an actress tried to seduce him, he had her thrown out of the play. His principles were simple. Concentrate on what your goal is. Live simply. Sacrifice. Wear yourself out in the pursuit of your dreams. And Mama Warerkar, at heart, was a feminist. He believed that women should be educated and progress in every field. I would call him the first feminist I met. He believed that women should act in plays. The age of female impersonators was over, according to him, and theatre had to change with the times. Mama’s encouragement brought a whole host of women to the stage: Sindhu Gadgil, Gulab Kenkre, Kanchanmala Shirodkar, Girijabai Kelkar.

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