“When do we start rehearsals?” was the crisp reply from Sundar (Dhritiman to the world) Chaterji to my wife Gowri Ramnarayan’s email to him attaching the first draft of what was to become her first play, Dark Horse, Walking Down Arun Kolatkar’s Lane.
The protagonist of the play, the reclusive, iconoclastic Mumbai-based poet, had died a few days earlier, and Gowri, who had literally hunted him down a decade earlier for a newspaper interview, had been moved by the power of his poetry to write a script that included a number of his verses to be enacted on stage.
One thing led to another and soon was born JustUs Repertory, the theatre group that was the brainchild of Dhritiman Chaterji and a few other theatre fiends, the late Bhagirathi Narayanan the most prominent of them. Nearly six years, six plays and some fifty performances letter, incredible as it may seem, the Madras Players, arguably the oldest English theatre group in India, recently collaborated with JustUs to produce a Gowri Ramnarayan Retrospective of three plays at Chennai. The shows on 2, 3 and 4 July this year were sell-outs, suggesting that the fledgling of 2005 has come some way from its tentative beginnings. And when we look back with nostalgia and some pardonable pride, we cannot help feeling that the journey would not have even begun without Dhritiman’s inspired recognition of the potential of the Dark Horse script.
Like most Indians of our vintage, my wife and I had been blown away by Dhritiman’s standout performance in Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi, back in the early 1970s. South Madras was hardly the place we would have expected to run into him years later. It was with incredulity therefore that I caught sight of this look-alike of his at a cigarette shop in the neighbourhood I used to frequent. I ran into him frequently, but it took me months to gather the courage to walk up to him one evening and ask him if he was Dhritiman Chaterji, the celebrated actor, fully expecting to be told he was very sorry to disappoint me, but he was Somasundaram or Mahalingam or Ramaswamy!
To my delight, it was indeed Dhritiman, who had moved here from Calcutta with his wife Ammu and son Pablo in the 1980s. Soon we became friends, and realised not only that he had no starry airs about him, but also that we shared common interests in the arts (and sport). We often ran into one another at literary events and the theatre, and even watched one memorable ODI together, when rain forced us to repair to the Madras Cricket Club bar after the game was abandoned. Watching his own films with him, ones directed by Ray in particular, with Dhritiman furnishing background information and sidelights, was a highly rewarding experience, as was listening to recordings of his conversations with the great master. Gowri and he memorably discussed Ray films for film buffs at the British Council once, and the seeds for artistic collaboration were sown.
It was thanks to Dhritiman’s initiative that we brought Dark Horse and a subsequent play by Gowri, Water Lilies, to Kolkata. With his iconic and powerful performances as Arun Kolatkar in the former and a Serbo-Hungarian author in the latter, Dada, as they all called him with great affection, was a huge influence on the younger members of the troupe. Not only did he set a great example with his no-nonsense, disciplined work ethic, always on time for rehearsals and always focussed on his role, he loosened up enough after the plays, to show the boys and girls the sights and sounds of the city, not averse to shaking a stylish leg in their company. Of course, they felt comfortable enough with him despite his star status to enjoy pulling his leg, claiming that his roles as writers in the two plays allowed him to carry the script hidden inside books on stage. They even go a step further to relate the apocryphal tale of how he once read from the wrong page of the script!
Today, JustUs Repertory has earned a reputation for serious theatre—strong scripts, well-rehearsed performances, good production values, and a striving for excellence—with its consistent showing in several cities in India, but the memory of our first foray outside Chennai, at the Birla Sabhagarh at Gariahat in the Hutch Festival of 2005 is inerasable, for more reasons than one. Dada had fallen ill close to the date of the show, and there had been some suspense about his making the trip, and we were understandably nervous about our Kolkata debut. Dada and the rest of the cast won the hearts of a an appreciative, even indulgent audience, and the live music of the play—composed by Gowri and sung by Savita Narasimhan—stole the show. We had arrived!