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Play-ing it up, country style

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Vidarbha has stayed in the news for its seemingly unending agrarian crisis but in its eastern pocket the situation is different altogether, thanks to a 150-year-old theatre revolution which lasts for about five months a year. Every year, hundreds of villages in Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Bhandara and Gondia districts host several staged plays between Diwali and late March.

Zadipatti Rang Bhoomi (theatre of the jungle) - is a theatre carnival that not only helps the ryots of this region de-stress but also ensures them an additional income.

Vidarbha's best kept secret so far, the festival is a Rs 25-30 crore business in the forest-rich hinterland. Renowned artistes from Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and other cities make it a point to perform at this annual jamboree where the audience is more lively and responsive than anywhere else.

Wadsa, a non-descript town in Naxaliteridden Gadchiroli district, is the epicentre of this jungle-based theatre, which takes off only after 10 pm and goes on till the wee hours of the morning. Braving the chill, villagers - children and adults - throng the venue in large numbers;on some days as many as 10 plays are staged and, surprisingly enough, many of these run to a full house.

Nearly 350 groups - primarily local and some from outside - stage at least 3, 000 shows collectively but this part-time venture provides direct or indirect employment to thousands of poor people including artists, transporters, sound operators and, of course, those setting up temporary food stalls. Importantly, neither the government nor the private sector contributes a single rupee towards the costs.

It thrives on revenue from ticket sales and the patrons are largely poor agricultural workers. "It purely survives on its own without any professional help, " says Sadanand Borkar, who looks after 125-year-old Vyankatesh Natya Mandal started by his grandfather in Navargaon in Chandrapur district.

Drama groups charge at least Rs 50, 000 to stage a play in a village each time. It sounds like an expensive proposition, but village mandals, which invite the companies, actually rake in up to Rs 3 lakh on ticket sales. Interestingly, there are no complimentary passes or VIP seats. "Even my wife and kids have to buy a ticket to watch my play, " Borkar says before the curtain goes up on Karasthan (Conspiracy), a play written, edited, and directed by him. "We plough all the profits into our organisation and also grant short-term loans to members of our team, " says Borkar, who was nominated for the Maharashtrian of the Year award (2011) given by a popular Marathi daily for his popular plays such as Maze Kunku Mich Pusle and Atmahatya that dealt with the issue of farmers' suicides. This play has been staged during the SAARC festival (2008). He has inherited this theatre company and has invested in giving it a professional look, building a permanent stage with a revolving platform in Navargaon.

Interestingly, the scripts of these dramas are handwritten and largely based on contemporary issues. For established actors, the potential to earn is immense - in the busy five months he/she can make up to Rs 5 lakh depending on his experience and reputation. From Prabhakar Phanshikar of To Mi Navahech to established actors like Ashok Saraf, Ramesh Bhatkar and Dr Girish Oak, most veterans have performed in zadipatti theatre.

A majority of actors are from villages and they are not formally trained and start practicing just a few days before the season starts. The payments are distributed to everyone right after each show concludes.

"We explore fresh faces before the start of the season and even rope some in from Mumbai and Pune, " says Devendra Lute, another writer, actor and director. Lute has in fact just completed a film based on his extremely popular play from last year, Sun Sambhala Patlinbai. The film is awaiting censor clearance. "The film is entirely shot in this area with its zadipatti flavour, " he says.

Like Borkar and Lute, who have become household names in these four districts, many other dramatists have made their fortunes here. Hiralal Painter, a comedian, confesses that as a child he would steal away from home to watch zadipatti plays. Today he collaborates with Lute.

Zadipatti's limelight is open for amateurs and veterans alike. There is Sudhakar Kokate, a farmer from Talodhi village, who earns extra money as a make-up man. Mangesh Gohane, a farmer from Delanwadi village who plays the tabla for plays. Megha Parab, who teaches English literature in CP and Berar College in Nagapur, acts in zadipatti dramas because she loves the electrifying atmosphere of small town theatre.

Senior actor, Pune-based Sonali Mane, who has been regularly acting in Borkar's plays for the last several years, adds that the public in this part of paddy-cultivating districts is so aware and engaged with the play that they spot and criticise every slip. "Even if a character shown on the posters is missing, there is a huge hullabaloo, " points out Pune actor Roopa Tare.

Ramesh Lakhnapure, an Ordinance Factory employee in Nagpur, a zadipatti regular who has acted in a couple of plays, says it is a great platform for social networking. "Thousands of villagers bond together here, " he says.

Lecturer at SFS College Pramod Munghate, who has worked on a UGC-sponsored project on "Mass movement of people's theatre of eastern Vidarbha" says that zadipatti is a strong influence on the local people. "Radio and TV failed to lure them away from theatre. They wait for this season through the year and save up to watch the shows, " he says.

Tour operator Shailaja Pingle, who has visited the festival with her family, is planning to include zadipatti theatre in her package tours. "The plays are preceded by a lot of other events such as Shankar-Pat, a bullockcart race that attracts betting, " she says.
Around the festival, a whole lot of small enterprises also flourish. LIC agent Pramod Kumare, who runs a tea stall to feed the crowds that throng the festival, says his earnings as a seasonal caterer are enough to fund his children's education.

Zadipatti has undergone transformation over the last 100 years. Borkar's 72-year-old father, Parmanand, says that in his childhood and youth, there was no light or sound system to bolster the plays. "We had to literally shout so that people could hear. The plays used to be staged in gaslight, " he recalls. Of course, mythological plays dominated the stage then. Today, the cost of staging a Ramayana or Mahabharata are prohibitive. "The actors also find it difficult to deliver old-style dialogues, " says Parmanand.

But one thing has not changed over the decades - every play has to have music written into the plot. "Even if music is not required, we have to insert a song somewhere to satisfy the audience, " says Parmanand.

HOW MAKESHIFT THEATRES ARE MADE


Except Borkar's theatre, all zadipatti plays are staged on makeshift theatres - mostly temporary pandals or vacant farm plots. The tickets cost anywhere between Rs 40 and Rs 100, depending on whether you ask for chairs or opt to squat on the ground. But both tickets are sold in advance days before the event. The crowd starts gathering well before the curtain goes up, armed with peanuts, the most popular snack of the region. Once the season comes to an end, the land is leveled again.

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