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Theatre, from times of British to present, at Gaiety

Founded in 1837, the Amateur Dramatic Club in Shimla survives test of time, stages ‘Dinner with Friends’

Theatre, from times of British to present, at Gaiety

A still from the play that was staged in Shimla recently. Photo by special arrangement

R Umamaheshwari

When they weren’t busy ruling over (and oppressing) us, some of them in the British colonial edifice indulged in theatre, if only to amuse themselves. “Anglo-Indian society, especially in northern India, is to a great extent dependent upon its own resources for any form of popular entertainment, and for very many years, professional companies from abroad who visited the cities of Calcutta and Bombay only met with a fair measure of success. Several theatrical ventures in this country indeed, ended in what can be truly termed financial disaster, and for a considerable time theatrical managers in England were chary of sending out first-rate companies on tour, even to the provincial capitals of India…” (EJ Buck, ‘Simla: Past and Present’, 1925. Second edition)

The Amateur Dramatic Club, or ADC, as it was popularly referred to, was formed in Shimla in 1837. About them, Buck writes, “‘Simla in Ragtime’, a local skit, recorded some years ago that ‘the ADC are actors by profession though some of them take up government employment as a pastime’.” The same source also notes: “…members are to be found all over India, and the various British regiments include a certain number in their cadre, whose services are requisitioned for if local talent is found wanting.” (‘Simla in Ragtime: An Illustrated Guide Book’, 1913).

Photographs of old plays staged by ADC.

This colonial past was re-invoked on account of a play one watched. ‘Dinner with Friends’ (loosely adapted from, and an adequately Indianised version of, Neil Simon’s play ‘Rumours: A Farce’, which had made its Broadway debut in 1988) was recently performed at the Old Gothic Hall of the Gaiety Theatre in Shimla. The play is centred on the events of a single night at the home of a deputy mayor of Gurugram, named Jai (who has apparently shot himself through his ear-lobe), and his wife Amyra (both unseen throughout). It is their 10th wedding anniversary and they are missing in action, leading to a comic barrage of speculations by the ‘friends’ (socialites) who have gathered, on the reasons, including extra-marital affairs. One of the friends is Anand, who harbours political ambitions and is in an extra-marital liaison himself. As the night progresses, we become privy to the hypocrisies, idiosyncrasies, and gossip-mongering of the upper class. The play was directed by Anil Walia and the close to two-hour run time passed by effortlessly. The character that got the most laughs was that of the hyper anxiety-driven Arjun (the advocate), played by Chandrajit Singh, and equally amusing was the opinionated Sonia (played by Siya Minocha). Almost all of them were first-time performers and included civilians, bureaucrats and Army officers, not to forget a teenager who gave the background score.

During the colonial period, while the ADC performed plays at various places in Shimla, including at the Viceregal Lodge, it was after the construction of the Gaiety Theatre on May 30, 1887, that the Simla ADC took over its reins and performed, for the first time, the play titled ‘Time Will Tell’. Buck notes: “Among the actors were Colonel Stewart (known as Red Stewart), Colonel Henderson… Miss Carter, and Mrs Fletcher… The prologue called forth on June 9, 1887 some amusing verses in the columns of the Civil and Military Gazette, which were at once declared to be the work of Rudyard Kipling.”

Initially, while the ADC would produce as many as 20 plays and the performances would be held from mid-April until October, the numbers dwindled gradually. Buck writes, “The boxes in the Gaiety, which used to fetch some Rs 9,500 to Rs 11,000 when sold by auction 25 years ago for the first and second nights of a play, now fail to produce a quarter of that sum… there is not the same keen interest taken in acting as heretofore, the advent of Messrs Madan and Company’s excellent cinemas (the Elphinstone and Prince of Wales) has undoubtedly resulted in many rupees that used to find their way to the Gaiety being attracted to these rival places of entertainment. For many people prefer seeing a first-class film like ‘Queen of Sheba’ or ‘Thief of Baghdad’ to an old play acted by amateurs.”

A plaque at the ADC office.

At present, the ADC office has a good collection of old photographic albums, as well as a ledger belonging to its colonial past, where minutes of the meetings and accounts are recorded. The photographs have details of the performers and many of the plays and the years of their performance are also noted. This heritage building also houses a library, and a dining hall and until 1993, this was managed under the patronage of the Headquarters, Western Command. On October 1, 1993, the management of the club was taken over by the HQ, ARTRAC.

As of now, the ADC has a memorandum of understanding with Gaiety to use their premises and every year, around September-October (usually before Diwali), the ADC members put up a production. It has 1,300 authorised members.

A framed plaque at the lounge of the ADC shows Dr S Radhakrishnan (the former President of India) as the patron of the Shimla ADC, dated October 24, 1962.

During colonial times, as Buck records, “Simla has ever been the home of amateur theatricals; the Gaiety Theatre has time after time produced the best London plays, and Poona, Ootacamund, and Mussoorie have not yet succeeded in vieing with the talent of its actors, or the all-round excellence of its plays.” And the tradition has continued.


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