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171 – The first Indian woman to perform on New York Broadway

Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Gopal Sharman & I, Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Image courtesy Akshara Theatre Archive. Text by Jalabala Vaidya, New Delhi

I was born in London (UK) in 1936. My English-Italian mother, Marjorie Frank-Keyes was a concert singer and my father Suresh Vaidya was a successful young writer. He was also on the editorial board of Time Magazine in London. My father was arrested by the British authorities when he refused to join the British Army to fight in World War II. He declared he would gladly fight as a free man, but not as a colonial subject. He was imprisoned in Canterbury and fought and won a case in the British Court. His case was defended by well known lawyers like Sir Fenner Brockway and Lord Reginald Sorensen. In a landmark judgment, the court ruled that the British Army could not compel a person to fight because he was a colonial subject.

Of course I was one my feisty parents’ two daughters. I completed my schooling in London then in Bombay (now Mumbai). Later I graduated from Miranda House, standing third in Delhi University. I was also actively involved in theatre and was awarded the best actress for performing sections from Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Later, I began working with Link Magazine in Delhi as a journalist that also had a daily paper called The Patriot. Gopal Sharman was suggested to us as an independent writer who could write very well on the arts. Up until then I had been writing them.

In the 1950s, at the office, I was in charge of putting the month’s issue to bed and I had been told that Gopal would come by with the copy on the Arts columns. He came to the office early and sat several glass cubicles away, typing away, but by late morning the copy was still not done and I began to lose patience. I went bossily through the cubicles and asked him about the text. He looked up and said “Don’t go through the roof, this isn’t a spoof, I am writing it and here it is.” and that’s it, we fell in love. 
I have no idea how, why and what it was, but that’s how we met and were together since. We began to live together in a garage in Bengali Market. Later, we got married.

Gopal at the time was also writing two popular columns under a pseudonym – Nachiketas for the Indian Express and the Sunday Standard. One was about artists and the other was about the Upanishads, Vedanta, mythology, questions on philosophy, life and death. Unknown to us the time, the second President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a fan of Nachiketas’s (Gopal’s) columns.

In early January of 1966, Dr. Radhakrishnan underwent a cataract operation. Unable to read and restless, he asked a close friend Prof. K Swaminathan who had edited the Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi and was a former editor of Indian Express, to find out who was this ‘Nachiketas’ person writing these fascinating pieces, and to invite him to the Rashtrapati Bhawan (Presidential Residence) for a narrative session. Prof. Swaminathan found Gopal and was surprised to find out that it was a young man who went about on a bicycle, with a shock of unruly hair, and wore a polo neck shirt & trousers. He asked Gopal if he would come and read his works to the President. Gopal happily agreed.

When he returned home, Gopal told me about the President’s request and insisted that since I was much better at it, I should perform Gopal’s Full Circle for the President. Full Circle was a dramatic recitation of stories and poems with philosophical concepts narrated with voices of regular people. I would perform and recite the stories & poems, while Gopal, a classically trained singer, would sing songs ranging from Meera Bai’s bhajans (songs with spiritual themes) to songs written by the poet, philosopher and politician Muhammad Iqbal. After some reluctance, I agreed and we both decided to go. I always needed glasses to read, but since I didn’t want to read off a paper, I learnt all of it by heart.

When the day came, a big Rolls Royce came from the Rashtrapati Bhawan to pick us up, along with the formal invitation. To our shock it mentioned my name, but left Gopal’s out! We informed the officials about the confusion, but they did not accommodate the mistake and no change could be made. Nonetheless, now there was no turning back. Gopal came along with me up till the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reception, wished me very well and went off to another meeting. I still remember watching him walk down the slope of that road.

When I was escorted upstairs, the door was opened by the President, with a bandaged eye. He exclaimed “Ah Welcome! But where is the poet?!” I explained what had happened, he insisted a car bring Gopal back, but with 20-30 people in the room including foreign dignitaries already seated, it seemed a bit awkward so we let the matter rest. I began to narrate the pieces, and I remember now and then the very impressed President would interrupt to explain the contexts to his guests and what was being said.

When I ended the performance, Dr.Radhakrishnan was extremely happy. He had loved every bit of it. He insisted that this work should be performed for a proper audience and that he will have ICCR (Indian Council for Culture Relations) arrange a performance at Azad Bhawan. And so it was arranged. When we went and met the director of ICCR, Inam Rahman, I think he was a bit put out at the order of accommodating young unknown people. Perhaps to be a bit difficult, he said the only date available was January 13, only a few days after, and will we take that? Gopal and I looked at each other and immediately said yes.

The ICCR invited many well-known people & important dignitaries from the Embassies, and they all loved Full Circle. After the performance we received invitations from the Embassies of Yugoslavia (now seven independent states) and Italy to perform in their countries. But there was a hitch, ICCR refused to pay for the tickets, and we had to find the tickets on our own. We wrote to Air India and asked if they’d like to sponsor us. They wrote back and said they could, for one person and one way only, but that too on the condition that we distribute their advertisements in Europe.
Something had to be done, so I decided to go to Bombay and request the TATAs if they could help. There was a special secretary to J.R.D Tata, I forget his name now but he agreed to arrange another ticket. This was the year of tourism so there was no problem getting a visa to foreign countries. Neither was there a problem with one-way tickets at the time. We managed to get two one-way tickets but only till Rome, Italy.

In Italy, we performed at the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East (IsMEO). Through that performance we got invited to perform at the famous theatre, Teatro Goldoni and so we did. Then we went to Yugloslavia and performed in three cities and they were all wonderful performances. I remember as guests, we were even offered tickets, twice, to the well-known Opera La Boheme but unfortunately on both occasions we had such a time of partying and drinking the night before that we never made it to the opera.

Back in Rome, we did another round of performances, each with a theatre-full of audiences. In the audience we also noticed a lot of red cardinal gowns. Soon, we were invited by the Assistant Father General of Jesuits, an Indian at the time, to perform at their headquarters near the Vatican. We were hosted at a lovely convent and the nuns were so extraordinarily impressed with us because we were vegetarian. They thought it was such an austerity and it was so spiritual, and made lovely vegetarian things for us. Later, the Indian Assistant Father general also organized for us an audience with the Pope Paul IV and so we also got to meet the Pope.

One night, I heard that Joan Baez was going to perform at a theatre, and I was a particularly big fan of hers. It was disappointing to realise that I couldn’t because we too were performing the same night. Next morning when we went to see the papers, I was on the front page and Joan Baez was somewhere in small print. It was amazing and unbelievable. Nonetheless, we did get to met her later, but missed seeing her perform. And that’s how we began our theatre career.

In the next few months we were invited by ITV (Italian TV) to record our performance. After the recording they said that they were cash strapped and couldn’t pay too much. We were used to that, because in India no one really paid or paid well at all – In Delhi we got Rs.250. But the Italian TV pay turned out to be a lot more than we had ever imagined. Excited about our big pay, we spotted a second-hand car sales place across the TV station and Gopal and I immediately bought ourselves a Black Volkswagen Beetle, with a Number 1 plate. We excitedly discussed how we could drive back home to India, because in those days you could’ve driven back home to India.

In 1968, we drove to Munich, and the Southern German Radio & TV : Bayerischer Rundfunk, also recorded our performance. After the recording they enquired how much the Italians had paid us and simply upped our pay by a lot more. We were so happy and amused. I remember in Frankfurt, I also went and got myself my first pair of contact lenses.
We met and made so many amazing friends along the way, some famous and some not. While we performed and drove all over Europe, our beloved second hand car would often break down. I remember a lot of our friends like actress Vanessa Redgrave and even the Qatari ambassador to India were among the many people pushing that car.

In London we performed at various places, including the Mercury theatre, where T.S Elliot had performed his plays. Everywhere we went we received rave reviews. London is where we finally settled down for a while and continued to perform. Gopal began writing on the arts for The Times and The Sunday Times in London and wrote a book on Indian music, Filigree in Sound that was published in London. At the time the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had an event called the World Theatre season. It was the most prestigious theatre festival and they approached us to bring a play to the event. Gopal said – “Yes, we’d like to, but the play I’d like to bring I haven’t written it yet.” He wanted to write a Ramayana relevant to our times, a modern, dramatic and humane interpretation of the Sanskrit epic. RSC happily agreed and signed a contract with us. When our event with RSC was announced, a TATA representative from London came forward to financially back the venture because we were getting India a good name. They awarded Gopal with a Homi Bhabha fellowship, the third person in the country to get it.

At the end of our two-year adventure, in 1970, we returned to India and began preparations on the Ramayana. We also needed to find a space to rehearse the play. We began with the process of auditioning actors and actresses in Bombay for our new play. I remember Amjad Khan came, and others from FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) and soon we had a good crew. While in Bombay, I heard that Morarji Desai, deputy to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also in-charge of allotting government housing to artists in Delhi, so I approached him about a place and he called me to his office at 7.30 in the morning. Gopal had written a preface on our Ramayana, and I showed it to him. Morarji Desai said he would read it and that I should return the next morning at exactly the same time. I thought he was a nasty man for calling me at 7.30 am in the morning. Nonetheless, I went and he had read it, had made some notes and said it was wonderful. I was shown six locations, and asked me to choose whichever house I’d like. I chose this one in Lutyen’s Delhi. Gopal hollowed out the bunglow, redesigned the space, and included a 50-seat indoor theatre. He did a lot of the work all by himself.

Soon after rehearsals began, the cast went on strike over some grouses. Now when I look back it was probably an attempt by some envious people whose incitements sabotaged our crew. It was dreadful and we were upset, but we went to the bank, paid them their dues and said our byes. On a trip to Simla to pick up my daughter from her boarding school, Gopal who had clearly been doing a lot of thinking, asked me to perform all the 22 roles in the Ramayana he had written, by myself. He was inspired by the narrations of Kathas (the traditional Indian storytelling format) at his home in Lucknow, UP. I was not so sure, but Gopal rewrote the script into the form of a Katha and it began to look very good – and we began working on it. But there was more disappointing news. When RSE heard that our Ramayana was going to be a one-woman show, their interest in the project turned cold. They had envisioned an epic story with a large crew. That was a big blow. Nonetheless, we didn’t stop the work and I performed it for the first time in 1970, for a small audience above the porch of Ashok Hotel and later at other venues, including our own theatre.

One day, a team from USA Educational Institute sent 15-20 people to see the Ramayana. It was their last night in India but they were quite impressed with the show and asked us to meet them for breakfast before they flew out. They said it was the first time they had seen something that displayed a contemporary spirit of India, moreover it was in English and hence understandable. They invited us to USA and to perform through their colleges. We went to America, and in the course of travelling, we were also asked to perform at the 1000-seater National theatre School of Canada in Ottawa. Along the way we met with a big New York based lawyer and an angel investor, Robert A. Hendrickson who was known to fund the arts, and was interested in our work. He came along with us to Canada to see how we did with a big audience. Of course, we did splendidly well, and soon he contacted us to do a season on Broadway and that’s how we got to New York Broadway. It was most fantastic. So far, we are the first and only Indian production to have performed on that platform.

In 1981, TN Kaul, the Indian ambassador to USA, suggested that we perform the Ramayana at the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts), Bombay, but NCPA’s response to sponsoring the show was at best luke-warm. Kaul then invited actors Sunil & Nargis Dutt to watch us at Akshara. After the show, the Dutts insisted on paying for the play to be staged at NCPA. We agreed and played for 10 days straight to a full house. I remember after one of our shows, JRD Tata invited us for tea and said that he hadn’t watched the play, but it wasn’t because he did not want to. He had sent his driver to buy tickets but even the cheapest tickets were being sold in ‘black’ outside.

Our Ramayana has since been staged more than 2,000 times over 45 years at the most prestigious of institutions around the world and everywhere we went the theatres were filled with audiences. We did a lot of more work after that. A play called Karma, which was funny and moderm. I produced, performed in and narrated most of Gopal’s acclaimed television films like India Alive, The Kashmir Story, The Sufi Way, Gitanjali and Gandhi’s Gita, a play about Mahatma Gandhi’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita into Gujarati and how he and his wife Kasturba went through the final revision in the Himalayan foothills.

Gopal passed away in June of 2016, and his last appearance on stage was on April 13, 2016, when he played the part of the British Presiding Magistrate in the play about my father in the English Prison: Suresh Vaidya vs The British Government.
I miss him a lot. But we both believed in our work, the wisdom of life, love and theatrical arts and that should never stop. These days I am writing a play on Gopal and my life. A life that we have so loved, enjoyed and shared. We built a wonderful world together.

But this story is about Akshara Theatre, Gopal Sharman, me, our family, friends and well-wishers. We have been theatre performers for so many years and we have been extremely fortunate. Built in phases over a decade by Gopal himself and his team, the Akshara theatre, a non-profit arts institution, is spread over an acre of land and has grown to a 96-seat indoor theatre, and a 300-seat amphitheatre at the back of the property.

Our life is about our work, and anyone who is a part of our family or the theater has to willy-nilly perform, including our dogs and cats.


133 – “My grandparents were staunch political rivals”

My grandparents' wedding. Gaya, Bihar. 1956

My grandparents at their wedding. Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh 1956

Image and Text contributed by Richa Srivastava, Mumbai

My grandmother, Sushila Sahay whom we called Nani, was born in Jila (District) Hoshangabad in 1926 in the Central Provision, now known as the state of Madhya Pradesh. A daughter of a Forest officer, she was brought up in Dehradun in Uttar Pradesh. When she was 13 years old, Nani heard that Mahatama Gandhi was visiting Mussoorie and she travelled to hear him speak. Heavily influenced by Gandhi’s words, she met with him and declared her wish to be involved his Ashram, the Sabarmati Ashram. However, Gandhi recommended that she finish her education first. She heard him out, but to feel associated with the movement, she began to wear only Khadi clothes, worked to uplift the Harijan groups, who were considered Untouchable in the conservative caste system of India. And when she finished her Bachelor’s degree, she did joined the Ashram. However, by then Gandhi has been assassinated.

My grandfather, Dayanand Sahay, whom we called Nana, was born in 1928, in a village called Bhadvar in Bihar to a conservative family. By the time he grew up he had already lost many siblings to the fight for freedom. He became a Sarvodaya Activist, that propagated Gandhi’s political philosophies. Later, he joined the Shakho Deora ashram in Gaya district, a branch of the Gandhi ashram established by Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly referred to as JP or Lok Nayak (people’s leader).

In the 1950s, my grandmother would travel to the ashram in Gaya with a few other women and that is where my grandparents met. At the Gandhi Ashram however, every member was considered a brother or a sister and in the beginning she also tied a Rakhi (symbol of brotherly love & protection) to my grandfather, considering him an elder brother. So for my maternal grandparents to gradually fall in love may have surprised or shocked many. Anyway, in 1956, they got married. They both only wore Khadi and as a token of dowry (as was the custom) he took only Rs. One. My grandfather’s father, I am told, was very unhappy with his son’s inter-caste marriage and declared to disown him. Nana was even coerced into attending a village panchayat meeting meant to dissuade him from marrying Nani, but he wouldn’t listen. Eventually the family came around and blessed the wedding.

Over time, JP and my grandparents  became close friends and associates. They became actively involved with politics. They worked with and supported JP when he led the opposition against the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in the 1970’s, calling for her resignation, and a program of social transformation, which he termed Sampoorna kraanti (Total Revolution). Instead, Indira Gandhi proclaimed a National Emergency in 1975 and subsequently, JP, several leaders and his party members including my grandparents, were all thrown into jail.

When Janata Party was voted into power, and became the first non-Congress party to form a government at the Centre, Nani who had by now become its member, became the Home Minister of Bihar for one year from 1977 to May 1978. She resigned the same day as her first grandchild, my brother, was born, and so she also missed his birth.

What I consider the most interesting part of my grandparent’s lives is that they also became political rivals, with my grandmother joining the Janata Dal Party as an MLA and my grandfather who had very early on joined the Congress. In fact, in 1989, when VP Singh became Prime Minister, was also the year that Nani stood for elections representing Janata Dal Party while my Nana supported the opposition, Congress (that eventually won). It is amazing that their relationship stood the test of political and professional rivalry, and we sometimes wonder how they even managed to work around that. Having said that, my grandmother was an idealist and my grandfather a pragmatic man, they both encouraged and respected each other and there never seemed to be any ego problems.

My grandfather or Nana went on to serve three terms as member of the parliament. He emerged as a Kingmaker for several established Politicians who would go to him for money, encouragement or advice. Nana was the first person to make pre-stressed concrete sleepers, now used by the railways for reasons of safety, speed enhancement. Inclined with a socialist attitude, he also decided to share his sleepers formulae with other businessmen. He rose in position to become a member of the Rajya Sabha, however he passed away in a car accident in Gaya in 2002.  Nani, even at a very old age, continued to serve people in her own several ways,  and was deeply concerned about the country’s emotional and intellectual health. I remember, she would dictate to us letters of grievances to the president and the prime-minister. To my family and I, my grandparents were a truly a great team and a couple to reckon with.


127- Qutub Minar, the place where many loves met

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

Image and Text contributed by Deesh Khanna, Gurgaon

I remember when I would visit Delhi from Simla, the Qutub Minar was the place where my husband and I used to meet even before marriage, with family approval, of course. There were several couples and families who would come to the Qutub, meet, hang around, picnic, play and talk. It was and still is, indeed a beautiful monument of India.

I am not sure who took this picture though. It had been only a few months since my marriage in June, because we had begun wearing sweaters. I was wearing a Ferozi (Fuschia blue) Salwar Kurta with the latest cut, with a wonderful complicated hairstyle. Now my hair has thinned so much, but at that time, indulging our hair with beautiful complicated Hairstyles was a huge hobby and personal challenge every morning. I could style my hair in ways you can’t even imagine.

Every weekend, my ‘Rodu” as I fondly called him, and I would take the Tanga (horse carriage) from Daryaganj (old Delhi) and go and see places. Rodu was very fond of showing me new places, and if not places then it was the movies. We loved watching movies at Golcha Cinema. The matinee shows were old movies, and evenings were new ones. In Daryagunj, we lived in one of the several apartments in Madras House.

Both my husband’s family and mine, had come to live in Simla, Himachal Pradesh after Indo-Pak Partition. The families had originally lived in Lahore (now Pakistan). And we girls had studied in Kinnaird College in Lahore and then later at the Church College in Simla. The girls from Kinnaird College were very popular for being feisty, smart and opinionated. In Simla, I used to participate many drama and theatre Groups, all the time playing roles as a man, and the one time I got to play a woman, it was the role of a nurse.

My family were also huge supporters of the Congress, and we cousins and sisters enrolled ourselves to be Congress workers and worked very hard campaigning and collecting donations for Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. One of those times, we were also asked by the Congress workers to wear Burqas, pretend to be Muslim women and vote on their behalf. We were almost caught when one of my cousins tripped over on a stone and in pain exclaimed “Hai Ram! (Oh Lord Rama – the Hindu God)”. We ran and gave the booth care-takers quite a chase. I laugh when I think about that, but you know, at that time no one thought what was right or wrong, we just did what we were told, and as far as we were concerned it was for a good cause. Anyhow, those requests never came again.

My husband was one of the most well known portrait photographers of Simla and then later Delhi. He had studied Chemistry in Bombay but then he went back to Lahore and worked as a darkroom assistant in a ‘S.Rollo’ Studio. After Partition he got a job with a Kinsey Photo Studio in Simla and worked under a German photographer there. He learnt a lot from him. Their job entailed developing other people’s work as well as photographing people and important delegates and leaders who visited Simla and then later Delhi.

Everyone in my friend’s circle except I knew that Rodu was interested in me and rumours were abound. So when I got wind of that, very upset I confronted him about it on Mall Road. His unexpected response was “Would it be so bad if we were to be together?” I was stunned and I confess I may have begun to like the idea right then.

Later Rodu moved to Delhi to work with the Kinsey Studio, (a branch of the one in Simla) a very popular Photo Studio in Connaught Place and when he sent a marriage proposal, my entire family was delighted, because all this while my mother had used my future husband as a sound board and advisor on my other prospects, and he would sheepishly give her feedback, all the while suppressing his own feelings for me. But nonetheless, when he finally let my family know of his intentions, everyone was happy and we got married six months later.

When we moved to Delhi he continued working with the Kinsey Studio, later he joined the USIS in Delhi (United States Information Services) as a photographer and photographed several of their events, delegates and leaders. At home we converted a small bathroom in the backyard into a darkroom and Rodu and I would develop the negatives that he had photographed. I also continued working as a volunteer for Congress and campaigned for Indira Gandhi.

In Delhi, I remember meeting Amrita Pritam, the acclaimed author and writer, often on the bus. Our families were acquaintances since Lahore. She remembered me from my theatre days and insisted that I did not give it up. But by now I had had three children, and big family responsibilities and so I decided not to do so. We were good and we were happy. In 1980, Rodu decided to work on a contract basis with USIS, and one of those assignments in 1983 he flew on a special plane with the then Secretary of State (USA) to Agra. Upon return, he gave up his seat for another delegate, and took the car instead. My beloved Rodu passed away that day in a car crash on the Agra-Delhi highway. Our lives went through a very dark time, but at the least I know that we really loved and respected each other and we were the best of friends one could ever ask for. We had made each other very happy.

Today my daughters Meenu and Amu, and grandchildren are happy and well. My son Dinesh, is now one of the best known photographers of India. A passion and profession for long he resisted, until one day, years after my husband’s death, he too could not resist the call of the Photograph. I wish Rodu could see his children now. He would be so proud.