Now well into its fourth decade, the rip-roaring Malwani comedy, Vastraharan rolls on. The juggernaut from Bhadrakali Productions, which completed 5,000 shows with a staging at Sion’s Shanmukhananda Hall in 2009, has since enjoyed several revivals, including an ongoing run flagged off in August this year. In the coming week, it will be staged at venues that have been no stranger to its enduring success at the turnstiles. These include the Yashwant Natya Mandir in Matunga, the Ram Ganesh Gadkari Rangayatan in Thane—a venue just a year older than the play itself—and the historic Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh in Girgaon.

In many ways, this season feels like a triumphant homecoming, and unlike “limited runs” in recent years, it is slated for a longer innings this time, according to Bhadrakali’s Prasad Kambli who inherited the mantle of the production house after his father, the great Macchindra Kambli—the play’s raison d’etre—who passed away in 2007. As recent shows indicate, there is still no dearth of takers for a comedy that, almost unwittingly, has become a pop-cultural milestone in the history of commercial Marathi theatre.

Comic subversions

In a 2016 article for Loksatta, playwright Gangaram Gavankar had written an animated account of the play’s star-crossed beginnings. Much before the photocopier made its appearance in India, scripts (and subsequent copies) had to be meticulously written out by hand.

“From 1962 to 1974, the script was lost thrice and I re-wrote it as many times,” wrote Gavankar.

Vastraharan, a fictional farce set in the real-life Konkani village called Revandi, subverts the infamous episode from the Mahabharata by using the well-worn trope of a play within the play.

“I always found Draupadi’s disrobing right before five of her husbands very objectionable, and so apologizing to Maharishi Vyas, the eulogized writer of the Mahabharata, I got down to penning Vastraharan. The scene opens with Dusshasan gone missing as his wife has threatened him. Now, who would rip off Draupadi’s saree?” wrote the playwright, of the play’s premise, rife with possibilities for a comedy of errors with a gender perspective that was surprisingly progressive.

An early production of the play with Malwani superstar Raja Mayekar came to a cropper, but the play broke through in 1977 when it won several theatre competitions in Maharashtra. It took another three years for a production by Narendra Nare to be launched at Dadar’s Shivaji Mandir. A young Macchindra played Tatya Sarpanch, the village satrap hoping for a great showing of an amateur production—it is a part the actor reprised 4,923 times. Director Ramesh Randive was also part of the cast. Contrary to popular belief, the play ran into losses during its opening run and was looking to fold after 60-odd shows. A “final” performance was attended by the legendary P.L. Deshpande, whose effusive and much-publicized response to the production was a shot in the arm for the play and revitalized its box office prospects. Later, Macchindra bought the rights when he launched Bhadrakali in 1983, and steered the play to even greater heights. The rest, as they say, is history.

Live long and prosper

There are perhaps many reasons for the play’s longevity—Macchindra’s crowd-pulling stature, its familiar cultural references, its side-splitting subversive humor, the manner in which it upends notions of public morality, the delightfully colloquial flavor of the Malwani dialect. Prasad describes its guilelessness, the “innocence of its content” as one of the main reasons for its appeal.

While the play has structurally remained the same over the years, its current running time of a little over two hours is highly compressed when compared to an earlier era in which staged entertainment took over the better part of an evening. Prasad recalls a performance of Vastraharan, staged especially for politicians and their cohorts, that ran into more than five hours.

“These days, theatre is more a weekend affair for audiences who have many other avenues of entertainment,” he says.

This is why the recent successful run of his latest award-winning production, Sangeet Dev Bhabhali, has been particularly heartening for him.

Hundred-and-sixty shows might seem paltry when compared to Vastraharan’s epoch-making run, but it is a contemporary benchmark in its own right, which is why emulating the success of Bhadrakali’s landmark production, in sheer numbers, is not one of Prasad’s preoccupations. In terms of artistic sensibility and commercial success both, he feels that the 17 plays he has produced in the past decade, that have altogether performed 3,000 shows, have done more than justice to the legacy that was handed down by his illustrious father.

This article originally appeared in The Hindu on September 25, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.

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This post was written by Vikram Phukan.

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