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Jalabala Vaidya: Founder of Akshara Theatre on Broadway, Thespian Arts & Beyond

A globally acclaimed actor, poet, and playwright, Jalabala Vaidya’s mantle boasts of many accolades. Kick-starting her theatrical journey with a recital for the second president of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Vaidya went on to take Broadway by  storm. Armed with relentless applause, standing ovations, and raving reviews, the maestro gave #OurCity the cultural gem – Akshara Theatre. Captivating the audience with her spellbinding voice in every performance and act, the veteran proclaims, “The art of acting is the art of communication. There’s no physical remnant – it’s all in your hands.” Raising the curtain on what maketh this zealous lady, we get talking about theatre and beyond with #DSSCSecretConversations.

A journalist in the 1950s at Link Magazine, Delhi, destiny had more in store for Vaidya than writing columns and putting the last eight pages of the weekly issues to bed. A chance meet with Gopal Sharman, then a well known independent arts writer, led love to blossom and soon the duo went on to revolutionise Delhi’s theatre circuit. Penning columns under the pseudonym, Nachiketas in those days, Sharman was invited to recite his work at Rashtrapati Bhawan. “Gopal was diffident and prompted me to recite it,” reminisces Vaidya. A room filled with distinguished members of the society empowered her theatre bug, and the performance had the president enthralled, “He was immensely impressed and adamant that we perform it for a wider public.” The Indian Council for Cultural Relations organised their performance at Azad Bhawan and the duo seized the opportunity with alacrity, “The only available date was Friday the 13th, but that didn’t matter to us. It turned out to be our lucky day in fact!” Extended an invitation to perform in Rome, Italy and Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, it’s evident, it was Delhi under the lucky star.

Materialising the invitations to perform in Italy was no mean feat, “We couldn’t afford air tickets, so we reached out to Bobby Kooka (Air India’s then Commercial Director). He offered us a one-way ticket on the condition that we advertise for Air India in our brochure,” shares Vaidya. Endorsements from Bombay covered for the subsequent ticket, and the duo embarked for the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East. Staging Full Circle, a dramatic recitation of Sharman’s stories and poems, the thespian art enthusiasts caught the eye of a Teatro Goldoni Director. “She insisted we perform in a genuine theatre,” recalls Vaidya. Yet another season of revered performances at this noted theatre in Venice led to invites aplenty and the couple set out to on their journey across Europe. “One thing led to another. Yugoslavia, Rome, and Germany just happened” says the lady with a poised charm to herself. With the press rhapsodising about the artists putting India on the international map, RaiTV (Italian TV) solicited the duo to record the recital for television. “The performance was across the road from a car dealer and before we went in, Gopal spotted a black Volkswagen Beetle,” she shares. A generous pay for the show drove them straight to the Volkswagen and the car became a part of their expedition.

Jalabala Vaidya & Gopal Sharman working on the script for The Ramayana

A car, a ferry, and a friend in London ignited the next act of their lives – a two-year sojourn in England. “The media continually promoted the harsh behaviour of Britishers towards Indians in those days and Gopal was frightened that the immigration officers would turn us back. I was born in London, so I knew that wouldn’t be the case, and we were peacefully waved through the Dover. No trouble!” shares Vidya taking a trip down memory lane. A reception arranged for the duo by The High Commission of India in London furthered their conviction, “London had a huge entertainment industry at that time, great stars were born in that era. Whereas, back home we had light-weight amateur productions and we were determined to showcase that Indian theatre can be as great and magnificent as any.” With performances lauded at The Arts Laboratory and the renowned Mercury Theatre where pioneers like T.S. Eliot & Christopher Fry showcased their plays, Vaidya and Sharman were soon introduced to the Royal Shakespeare Company. “RSC wanted us to bring a play to The World Theatre Season and Gopal wanted it to be The Ramayana,” she sharesA forty-page preface and a sponsorship by the Tatas landed them a contract and a flight back home to Delhi, where a need for rehearsal space led to the inception of Akshara Theatre. “We didn’t think we’re building a monumental theatre, we were just building a space,” shares Vaidya talking about the conceptualisation of the 50-seat indoor theatre.

Inspired to explore a modern twist to the epic, the playwright, Gopal Sharman scripted the central characters, Rama and Sita as humans and not gods. “They aren’t divine in the play, so Rama can be jealous and Sita can be foolish. We don’t portray the war in the epic as heroic, it’s gruesome, akin to reality. However, divinity is inherent in every human being and in the end, it prevails,” shares Vaidya. As the mise en place for the performance continued, the cast called quits, “Gopal was putting them through a gruelling schedule and they weren’t used to it. At that time theatre was a side thing, not a career. However, I do feel it was an act of sabotage.” Drawing parallels between the two eras, Vaidya says, “I was watching La La Land a few days back and it got me thinking about the tremendous training the crew would have gone through. The entertainment industry is immensely demanding and you have to be physically, vocally, and in every facet, perfect.” With Vaidya as the sole actor, The Ramayana transformed into a katha and a one-woman tour de force. While RSC rescinded their offer as “They wanted an opulent show,” the performances in Delhi evoked an invitation to America. Things started rolling exponentially on the jaunt and The Ramayana became the first Indian production to be showcased on Broadway. “I was always caught up in the physical happenings of everyday, rehearsals, remembering lines, make-up, and getting up on stage; communication was my sole focus. The fact that it became like a representation of India is another thing,” shares Vaidya talking about the experience that shines brightest in her crown.

Image:; Akshara Theatre

Whilst rising ladders in America, a threat of demolishing Akshara Theatre had the duo rushing back home. Owing to the controversies during the 1975 emergency and their achievements in the USA, Indira Gandhi granted an audience to Sharman & Vaidya. The tête-à-tête elicited a political satire on Doordarshan that would reassure the country Gandhi didn’t revoke free media. “However, when the time came, she was upset & angry at us for lampooning her. We shared our thoughts about how it would help her, but that didn’t matter,” professes Vaidya. As they refused to give in to authority and the show got nixed, the actors metamorphosed it into a comical satire on stage, slyly named Let’s Laugh Again. “The point was to urge authorities to recognise criticism and try pull themselves up, but I guess it’s never a good time to stage a political parody. That’s why we were never awarded an honour for our contribution to India’s theatre culture. No Padmas and Ratnas for us,” chuckles Vaidya ironically.

As the lady serenely sips the last of her tea, we get talking about Delhi’s theatre evolution. “It’s progressed a lot. There’s more experimentation and people are looking in all directions for script ideas,” she shares. With her daughter, Anasuya Vaidya and granddaughter, Nisa Shetty, following the footsteps, the theatre virtuoso shares theatre runs in the family, “Even our dogs & cats have become actors!” As Vaidya sets the stage for rehearsals of The Ramayana at Akshara this weekend, we bid adieu, but not before the DSSC signature rapid fire.


Your most memorable performance till date?

Jalabala Vaidya: I have to say there are two. One is The Ramayana at Sadler’s Wells, London in 1984. It held 1600 people and I was just one person on stage. I wasn’t sure if it would carry or if I would appear as a dwarf in their eyes, yet it worked flawlessly. Second, is one of the last performances I did with Gopal at Akshara. I invited him to the stage at the end of the play (like always) and we stood there, hand in hand, and it was a beautiful moment.  

One theatre entity who never ceases to inspire you?

Jalabala Vaidya: Laurence Olivier.

The one role you’ve always wanted to play?

Jalabala Vaidya: Joan of Arc in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

Your favourite city to perform in?

Jalabala Vaidya: New York.

One change you wish to see in Delhi’s theatre scene?

Jalabala Vaidya: Less backbiting and less trying to pull each other down.

A tip for people looking to enter the world of theatre?

Jalabala Vaidya: It has to be a deeply felt desire.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.


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