Thursday, July 14, 2016

Catalyst of Artistic Activism

An alumnus of the legendary Sir J J School of Art, Ramnath Tharwal's credentials are rooted in commercial art but his calling in life was the collaborative art form of fine art we call Theatre. Born to working class parents, Tharwal grew up in a modest Girgaum Chawl room, sharing the scanty space with his parents and six siblings. His father ran a Paan shop at the street corner while his mother served tiffins to the neighborhood. The young Ramnath had no option but to fund his JJ education himself, working part-time as a design artist cum newspaper boy. And yet amidst the hectic schedule, he found time to play an ever-obliging backstage Man Friday at the iconic Chabildas Theatre in Mumbai's Dadar area.

It was here that he observed the masters in action from close quarters. His sincerity and devotion - in running errands, designing sets or playing marginal parts - paid rich dividends in the form of accidental opportunities to work with the very best in business, God sent for someone making a backdoor entry into the world of dramatics. Imagine working with Dr. Sriram Lagoo in his production of Anouilh's Antigone or being part of Pt. Satyadev Dubey's epoch-making Aur Tota bola based on Chandrashekhara Kambara’s Jokumaraswamy in your probationary years. These would be monumental breaks even for trained graduates of the field, and hence underline Tharwal's raw propensity that the said mavericks were quick to spot.

In a whirlwind career of 44 years, Tharwal has rubbed shoulders with numerous stalwarts across renowned theatre groups like Roopvedh, Aavishkar Chandrashala, Unmesh and Abhivyakti including Dr. Lagoo, Vijay Tendulkar, Pt. Dubey, Hemu Adhikari, Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande, Achyut Vazhe, Rekha Sabnis, Shantaram Pawar, Damu kenkre and Sudha karmarkar. Impressed by his calligraphy skills, director Govind Nihalani entrusted the publicity design of his seminal film Aakrosh to Tharwal who did a great job in reproducing the film's hard-hitting theme of human angst on paper.

Post his tryst with experimental theatre, he joined Bal Bhavan, the well-known government-run Performing Arts Centre as drama instructor. He incepted the pioneering ‘Interschool Play Reading Competition’ which went on to become one of Bal Bhavan's most prized offerings. Bal Bhavan also introduced him to Pratibha, a colleague and friend for life who later became his wife. After spending a decade at Bal Bhavan, he moved to the world of children’s theatre in Hindi & Marathi and set up his own group Kalaghar in the year 1984. Four days later, Ramnath and Pratibha entered into wedlock and the husband-wife duo steered the brainchild Kalaghar with fresh resolve.

As the creative head, Tharwal wrote, produced and directed innovative plays on contemporary issues even in deprived areas of Nagpada, Kamathipura, Neighbour house & Vakola Pipeline Municipal School of Mumbai. These plays raised public awareness on staple social issues like hygiene, cleanliness, disease prevention and literacy in an idiom that street urchins could easily identify with. He also published a children's magazine named 'Dishyaav Dishyaav' for several years till a time came when Marathi lost its place of pride even in Maharashtrian homes which got kids apologetic about their regional roots. This trend deeply pained Tharwal but he had to bow down to demand-supply diktats, when the magazine copies were regularly 'returned' and had to be sold to old paper marts for peanuts.

But his herculean effort continued to fetch him accolades from one and all, as also more coveted opportunities. None other than the celebrated actor-director Shashi Kapoor asked him to be part of Prithvi's Summertime Workshops. Thus began a 17-year association with Prithvi till Kapoor's daughter Sanjana parted ways to form her own group Junoon. But Tharwal knows no full stops. Even today, he independently trains students of age groups from 4 years to 60 years.

His personality development workshops employ theatre as a medium of intervention and thus don't cater to acting aspirants alone. Anyone keen to get better at expression in day to day interactions is part of the target audience. His ex-students include noted actress Vidya Balan besides a host of Marathi artistes who later became popular film & TV stars. Tharwal has conducted acting and personality development workshops across Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat besides one in Chicago. Now in his late sixties, a doting father to his software professional son who's settled abroad with his family, Ramnath Tharwal is still bursting with potential film scripts at the seams.

He regularly produces short films based on his ideas pertaining to issues of universal significance, some of which have been uploaded to his Youtube channel. Clearly, his activism is several notches above his creative abilities as actor, director and script writer. His style and substance may leave much to be desired but his sincerity is unquestionable, so is his never-say-die spirit and child-like enthusiasm. But to me, his most crucial contribution is his unconditional resolve and uncanny ability to employ his own learning towards the larger cause of Children's Theatre. Precisely why he should be recognized as a maverick in his own right, not merely as a pupil of stalwarts or a mentor of stars.