New Book Brings to Light the Lost Art of Theatrical Backdrops Spanning Six Decades

Growing up, Dr Amol Divkar was used to his grandfather, the eminent V V Divkar, being in the gallery sketching, painting and drawing from 5 am to after midnight. “As I got interested in the field of historical research as a professional, I was convinced that I must undertake a study of theatrical backgrounds,” says Amol.

It was only in 1992, when the Nehru Planetarium in Mumbai held an exhibition on theatrical backdrops by various artists that Amol got a chance to view three works by his grandfather with a critical eye, and it reinforced his decision to tell the story of a group of artists from theatre about whom knowledge is fast fading. They were the ones who made dramatic depictions on curtains for theatre, creating painted palaces, jungles and battlegrounds among others, which set the scene for the performance. The book ‘The Art of Theatrical Backdrops: 1901-1960: A Succinct Survey’ was launched in Pune on Saturday.

Beginning with a black-and-white image of the background decoration of Lalbaugcha Raja from 1960 by the senior Divkar, the book gives an overview of the early development of theatre in India, the rise of theatre companies, the genesis of Marathi sangeet natya, techniques used by painters of theatrical backdrops and biographical sketches of such artists.

“As research progressed, we realised that rendering scenic backdrops brought to the forefront a number of technical skills that the artists possessed. They were not technically qualified people, let alone engineers, but, if one looks at some of the drawings and sketches in the book, one would find that these are multi-dimensional. It was the kind of work that could be executed by somebody from an engineering background,” says Amol.

The project had received a grant from Mumbai Metropolitan Region – Heritage Conservation Society, and Pune-based Studio Gestalt had assisted with research, documentation and publication coordination in its role as project consultant. “Pune has a rich legacy of theatre and the theatrical arts. We’re blessed with wonderful artists. But, often, the contribution of those working in the background is overlooked, such as make-up artists, sound and light technicians and backdrop artists,” says Shreeamey Phadnis of Studio Gestalt.

“This book is an attempt to throw some light on their contribution and legacy. It also explores their art, the technicalities, the aesthetics as well as the contribution of some of the stalwarts,” Phadnis added. Chief guests at the launch included theatre architect Ved Segan, musician Pt Suhas Vyas and Marathi sangeet doyen Madhuvanti Dandekar. A Marathi sangeet performance was also held.

A photograph of Dandekar performing sangeet swayamvar standing in front of a curtain depicting a vibrant scene of trees, winding paths and hills has been reproduced in the book. Similar images enliven the text and do testimonies on the dexterity of the artists. Apart from a number of works by V V Divkar, there is an image of a backdrop curtain depicting a grand palace that was made by Somnath Naik of Goa; an atmospheric picture of a night scene on a curtain; and an image from Parsi theatre of Draupadi being humiliated in the court of Virat.

“When a curtain was prepared or ordered for a scene, the artist had no idea about the physical stature or character of the performer who would stand before it. The curtain had to complement them, whether they were short or tall, stout or thin. How the artists managed to accomplish the task is a curious factor. Did they undertake a study or did they simply execute the designs based on nothing but their artistic skills?” Amol asks.

The book mentions instances such as the Grant Road Theatre, which came into being in 1842, and did not carry heavy stage decorations while travelling. Mrs Deacle, a theatre actor who came to Mumbai from Kolkata, “is said to have ordered a great amount of stage scenery from London, which were said to be of excellent taste”. “It is not known where these backdrops are at present. Some remnants might be existing in a basement or garage and have not surfaced. The India Office Records section of the British Library would be an ideal place to look for such signs of late 19th to early 20th century theatre,” says Amol.

“We often say that Western artists rendered backdrops by standing and painting while Indian artists did so by sitting on the curtains. Both styles require skills and temperaments of different kinds. The angle and the view one gets when one stands and when one sits are different but both have rendered works of great finesse,” he adds. During the course of research, he found that entire collections of backdrops maintained by drama companies, including a couple in Pune, had deteriorated. “The companies were very upset about it but there was nothing they could do,” adds the author.

Note: This news piece was originally published in IndianExpress and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights.

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