The agony of time and distance is sometimes unleashed furiously upon the soul. I was browsing through some news reports when I read this phrase: “the late Chetan Datar…” Late??? How? When? I knew this man; met him on my last visit to Mumbai in 2001, when I was making a documentary about theatre in India. I spent some time with him, interviewed him on camera, corresponded with him for a while and then, in one of those cruel acts that life plays on us, lost touch with him. And now, THREE YEARS after he passed away I learn about his death!
One almost feels cheated by the lapse in time, robbed of the opportunity to mourn, to join the community of friends and colleagues who three years ago banded together to celebrate his life and career. And yet, this thought persists: for me he lived three years more; every time I mused about Indian theatre I thought of him, for he was a rare artist, a person who cared nothing about commercialism or fame but saw it as his life’s mission to keep alive the power and beauty of the theatre. He produced plays on shoestring budgets, taught classes in voice, movement, and acting for which he charged a pittance, demanding only the most passionate dedication to the art, and inspired dozens of young people towards the true meaning of theatre as a window to understanding the human soul.
In the backlash against colonialism in India, many artists fought against the shackles of “Western” art, seeking more indigenous forms of expression. While this led to the emergence of native language theatres and the rise of brilliant local writers and performers, it also spawned in some instances a kind of arrogance against European texts, which were cut and pared in the service of “adaptation,” and often became vehicles for directors to foist their genius upon a public caught up in the fervor of the “independence” spirit!
What struck me about Chetan was his utter humility—he saw himself as a director in the service of the playwright and the text; having resisted attempts to change his own texts, he had a deeply rooted fealty to artistic integrity, which he extended as a mantle over actors, writers, designers, and the audience. His soft-spoken manner belied a fierce loyalty to his core artistic principles which resisted the lure of commercialism and populism. When everyone around him was caught up in the promotion of linguistic preeminence—the Hindi theatre, the Gujarati theatre, the Marathi theatre, the English theatre—he did not see himself as a champion of anything but theatre as art; Marathi was his chosen medium, but it seemed more an accident of birth than anything else—at least, that was the way he appeared to me in our conversations. He was truly unique.
Memory and dreams force a present continuum upon all our experiences, particularly those that are rooted across the globe; chronology disappears in the blur of distance and each encounter, real and imagined, is revivified by the imagination to be located at will on the bookshelf of one’s personal mythology. But for a ridiculous browsing accident, Chetan Data, for me, would still be making theatre in Mumbai. Why can I not choose to believe he still does? I am sure there are those in Mumbai who carry him in their imagination, as I do in mine.