Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry
These days one is terrified of opening the newspaper or social media sites as one is constantly confronted by the passing away of colleagues, friends and loved ones. Besides making one aware of one’s own mortality, it leaves holes in one’s heart and makes one recognise that loss and grief are an inescapable shadow that is stealthily waiting for all. One shock followed by another shock, in fact, a series of shocks, seems a constant and recurring process and image.
The news of Mohan Maharishi’s death was met with disbelief in the theatre fraternity. He passed away on May 9 and often on my brief visits to Delhi, one missed his towering presence either at the National School of Drama (NSD), where he served as the director (1984-86), or at Kamani Auditorium, where one met him during the viewing of a play. He had not been keeping well.
Maharishi joined the NSD as a student in 1962, which serendipitously was also the year that Ebrahim Alkazi joined as the director. After he graduated from the NSD, Maharishi established two theatre groups, Dishantar and Sanket, in Delhi.
Trailblazers like Om Shivpuri, Ram Gopal Bajaj, Sudha Shivpuri and Maharishi’s wife and classmate, Anjala Maharishi, were his contemporaries. Through this extraordinary collaboration of brilliant and talented artists, startling plays were produced. Their way of working was distinct, creating a fresh template of acting, slightly different in ‘dare’, but resonating with the teachings at the NSD. New reference points were emerging for the students of acting to absorb and reflect on.
“Always dignified and thoughtful, always attentive to his colleagues and students is how I remember Mohan Maharishi through his tenure as the NSD director,” says Anuradha Kapur, a former director of the NSD herself. “A director, pedagogue, a playwright, an artist, a teacher — he was a rare mix of many talents.”
The first time I heard of Maharishi was when he was working as a theatre adviser to the Mauritius government (1973 to 1979). As a student at the NSD during that period, we looked forward with immense excitement to see his play ‘Andha Yug’ (written by Dharamvir Bharati), which was being performed in Delhi. A play conceived and conceptualised with a student repertory in Mauritius seemed challenging and we were sure that a surprise awaited us. This was in the year 1975, if my memory doesn’t fail me.
Before the show, Maharishi came to the school and as he walked down the corridors and went into Ebrahim Alkazi’s cabin, a collective buzz expressing curiosity and awe was heard. His camaraderie with the director amazed us as we, the students, shuddered and stuttered before the formidable and charismatic Alkazi. We wondered if one day we would have the guts to follow a similar act!
We also heard from the overactive grapevine that he had booked a ticket for our diploma production, ‘Albert’s Bridge’ by Tom Stoppard. The cast, including myself, went into a tizzy. After the show, he came backstage, exuding confidence and conviction amongst the raw and gawky students.
He had an extremely impactful persona. Slow, deliberate enunciation and his deep, reflective responses to questions made one recognise him as a man who was never casual, but thought through every question that was posed.
After his stint in Mauritius was over, he was invited to head the Department of Indian Theatre at Panjab University, Chandigarh. It offered a diploma course that was later upgraded to a Master’s degree. A carefully-drafted syllabus showed his pedagogical skills where practice and theory were given equal significance.
The play that catapulted him to the national arena was ‘Kelu Janmejaya’ by Adya Rangacharya of Karnataka, translated into Hindi by BV Karanth and titled ‘Suno Janmejaya’. A new star was born, and he was feted and applauded for taking dramatic points of departure from the existing theatre cannons with his bold and complex interpretation.
This was followed by ‘Einstein’, ‘Raja Ki Rasoi’, ‘Vidyottama’ and ‘Saanp Seedhi’, as well as classic plays like ‘Andha Yug’ and ‘Rani Jindan’ (Punjabi). The notable plays written by him include ‘Einstein’, ‘Raja Ki Rasoi’, ‘Joseph Ka Mukaddma’ and ‘Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi’.
The first time I met him on a personal level was when my husband got a transfer from Bhopal and we moved to Chandigarh. Bhopal and Rangmandala, with BV Karanth at the helm, had been a magical period for me. Chandigarh seemed desolate and unfriendly. I decided to make a visit to the drama department and meet Maharishi.
His warm welcome and immediacy in assigning classes to me was a true act of generosity. Later, he invited me to direct the annual production and slowly I was pulled into the atmosphere of the department as a teacher and practitioner. I joined the department formally as a faculty member in 1990 and my association with him slowly transformed into friendship. Farewell, dear friend and colleague. Your imprint is indelible and visible for all who care to see.
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