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Qudsia Zaidi

At the monthly mehfil of The Urduwallahs at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, the crowd was a mix of the unwashed and the coiffed. Several familiar faces in the audience were giants in theatre and, at the same time, extras on television. Under streamers and pale lights, they had gathered to reminisce over Qudsia Zaidi, the woman who founded Hindustani Theatre in 1955.

Zaidi’s story begins when the borders of India and Pakistan were still braided together. She was born in December 1914, in Delhi, went to college in Lahore and got married in Kanpur. Her passion for literature was fanned by Patras Bokhari, her brother-in-law and an eminent humorist of his time; her love for theatre by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the doyenne behind institutions such as National School of Drama (NSD) and Sangeet Natak Akademi. Even from her photographs, you can tell Zaidi was a class act.

Soon, artists and intellectuals, idealists and wool gatherers were loitering in her drawing room in Delhi. By the time she started her theatre company, her corner included talents such as Habib Tanvir (the founder of Naya Theatre), Padma Shri MS Sathyu and mime artist Irshad Panjatan. Her goal was to stage Sanskrit and world classics in a language everyone understood: Hindustani. From Brecht to Ibsen, Kalidasa to Shudraka, Zaidi’s translations and adaptations widened the repertoire of Hindi-Urdu theatre at a time when few stage-worthy texts were available.

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MS Sathyu and HabibTanvir

“At that time, Hindi dramas weren’t so well-presented. Parsi theatre had a huge influence,” says Javed Siddiqui, the dialogue writer for films as bipolar as Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Hindustani Theatre had the distinction of being India’s first professional theatre. “Every connected person was an employee,” he says. The company’s debut production was Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, of which Jawaharlal Nehru was a huge fan, having seen the play at least 15 times. “Once, when he was accompanied by Marshal Tito [then president of Yugoslavia], he left during the interval. The theatre troupe became upset with him. Nehru had to call everyone for tea the next day to pacify them. That was the relationship they had,” says theatre director Atul Tiwari.

Another accomplishment of the company was in taking Sanskrit classics such as Amrapali, Mudrarakshas (from Vishakhadatta’s play) and Mitti Ki Gaadi (from Shudraka’s Mrichchhakatika) to the working classes. “The general notion was that plays for mill workers should be about exploitation or riots. Hindustani Theatre showed that it’s not necessary to do just protest theatre for them. They did 50-60 successful shows in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa, in the steel mills and for coal workers,” says Shaili Sathyu, Zaidi’s granddaughter. In fact, the day Zaidi died of a heart attack at the age of 46, her company was performing for coal workers in Murkunda, close to Jamshedpur.

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Zaidi in Yugoslavia in the early 1950s

Zaidi’s centenary festival has been initiated by a long line of friends and three generations of women in her family: her daughter Shama Zaidi, who has co-written many of Shyam Benegal’s films and is married to MS Sathyu; her granddaughter Shaili; and her great-granddaughter Poorna Swami. The festival will stage three plays: Chacha Chhakkan Ke Kaarname, a humorous play with Tom Alter playing the lead role of a man who has an uncalled-for penchant for interfering in household affairs; Aazar Ka Khwab is adapted from GB Shaw’s Pygmalion [also the source for My Fair Lady]; and Mudrarakshas, one of the few Sanskrit classics to have a political theme and not revolve around a love story or divine characters. The plays have already been staged at the NSD, in Delhi, and will be shown at the NCPA, in Mumbai, this month. “We plan to take this festival and exhibition to other cities such as Jaipur, Bhopal, Bangalore, Aligarh and Lucknow,” says Sathyu.
“It all depends on how much support we can gather.”

At the mehfil, Shama Zaidi, who is brief and unsmiling, ends up telling a rather lighter-veined story, “When we were staging Chacha Chhakkan, the set fell on her. The play went on to become a huge hit.” As Tiwari winds up his talk, he says, “Zaidi could have named her company the Urdu Theatre or the Hindi Theatre, but she named it Hindustani Theatre, which encompassed both. I think we could all learn something from that.”