Facades and Backdrops in Bhangwadi, Bhuleshwar

This is Bhangwadi, once the gateway to a Gujarati theatre, with performances nightly in the Rhangboomi  style. The term Wadi applies to a style of community buildings, an enclave within the city for a regional, caste or family grouping, but originally a garden. The term Bhang refers to a narcotic, variously identified as relating to cannabis, or a drink associated with the nearby Shiva Temple, or the Cocaine trade. According to the Mumbai Theatre Guide, this was once a den of art and addiction!

Today, the humble ‘drug store’ beneath the entry is merely a pharmacy.

A theatre structure (as opposed to a less formal use of the courtyard) was built in Bhangwadi in  1905 and, according to a newspaper report on a court case the following year, caused much grief to the neighbours, who took the then proprietor Tribhovandas Mangaldas Nathubhai and the theatre company owner, who is named as playwright Chandulal Dalsukhram (Jhaveri)(Times of India 1906). The company is the Deshi Natak Samaj, an astonishingly long-running group which only closed in 1980. Another name, more strongly associated with this company is Dahyabhai Dholasaji Jhaveri, the renowned writer, actor and director, who established the company in 1889. The latter had been seeking a theatre since the demolition of the Tivoli at the beginning of the century. A temporary theatre on Hornby Row was established, but the project of a new theatre had been his focus when he died: ‘I hope to give the Bombay public a substantial and pucca-built theatre in the near future, which, I feel sure, will be the envy of all the other theatres here’ (Jhaveri 1902: n.p.). The courts seem to have established Chandulal Dalsukhram Jhaveri  to manage the company and carry on the work of the new theatre, though the name of the ‘nephew’ is not given in the Times of India report.

I’ve been trying to find out whether the façade, with its splendid carved elephant, coat of arms, half-decayed ‘Welcome’ and motto, ‘Wisdom Above Riches’ was actually built as the gateway to a theatre, or built prior to it.

It could be a coincidence, but at Nathubhai’s family home in Girgaom there was also ‘a massive archway…displaying a flag with an elephant, under which were inscribed the words “Wisdom above Riches”. On another building, the word ‘Welcome’ was written on the pediment (Nathubhai 1896: 108). This strongly suggests to me that Nathubhai, a successful merchant, and son of the famous cotton merchant, reformer and philanthropist, Sir Mangaldas Nathubhai, built the façade to Bhangwadi, around the same time than the theatre was erected, soon after he bought the site in 1904. You can still see a stone elephant from the Girgaum house, in the back wall of a garage, crumbling in an alcove full of detritus.

The theatre’s position in the building complex was not directly through the archway, though there  is a courtyard surrounded by chawl buildings. Kirwan Mehta describes the complex:

Bhangwadi was the famous theatre of Princess Street. It incorporated dwellings of performers and a company kitchen. The atmosphere was of a labyrinth of lanes leading up to the auditorium. Then there were soft sounds of music, theatre books for sale. All this added to the experience of seeing a play. (Mehta 2009: 137)

The complainants in the 1905 case say that the theatre was built on a formerly vacant piece of land, although Jhaveri and Nathubhoi assert that this was not so, and that an iron foundry in one corner created at least as much disturbance previously. However, the report describes the way that theatre performances occurred daily, ‘including Sunday’, from 9.00 every night until about 3.00 in the morning. Later reminiscences of the theatre suggest that performances could indeed go on all night, culminating in breakfast (Soman 2015: n.p.). Apparently, ‘There is frequent clapping of hands and loud shouting during the performance, and loud whistling is constantly heard during the time the performances last.’  The changing of scenery and moving properties is also reported to be noisy, and to make matters worse for the neighbours, an oil generator, used to supply electric light, was causing fumes and further noise disturbance (Times of India 1906).

As a result of this hearing the proprietor was ordered to build a brick wall ‘enclosing the entire perimeter of the stage, of a height not less than the present height of the theatre’ (Times of India 1906b). This suggests a theatre that was previously merely screened from the surrounding buildings, rather than enclosed.

Later accounts of the theatre suggest quite lavish and large-scale scenography, including ‘trams, fire engines and horses appearing on stage (TNN 2015: n.p.). Kirwan Mehta mentions the importance of the theatre backdrop as a way of imagining the urban scene, mentioning the painted drop curtain from the Gaiety Theatre, which showed Back Bay and new public buildings (2009:137). Sheth, describing more recent, but nostalgic productions, mentions ‘painted scenes – of palatial bungalows and decorative gardens with peacocks and playing fountains’ which ‘recall a different era’ (1971:n.p.). This suggests the superimposition of an idealised (wealthy, colonial, turn of the century) city at the heart of the actual city, in the  crowded space in Bhuleshwar, before an audience of workers (tickets were cheap), presented by the 200-strong company that lived in the Bhangwadi buildings built by an Indian merchant philanthropist.  Such a confusion and collision of real and imaginary must have been more potent than Bhang.

There is so much more to say about the theatre that went on there, but this is what I know about the space and the spaces within it…though I did not know any of this when I took the photograph.

Jhaveri, Dahyabhoy Dholsaji  (1902) ‘The Deshi Theatre’, letter to the editor, Times of India, December 18th.

Mehta, Kirwan. 2009. Alice in Bhuleshwar. New Delhi: Yoda Press.

Nathubhai, Tribhumvanadasa Mangaladasa. 1896. Lectures on Hindu Castes, Ceremonies, Customs and Inheritence. The Education Society.

Sheth, Jyotsna.1971. ‘Bhangwadi: The Gujarati theatre which still attracts people because of its old-world charm’. Times of India. Feb 28th.

Soman, Sandhiya. 2015. ‘Kalbadevi’s Gujarati theatre in Mumbai drew crowds from Kerala, Calcutta’. Times of India. July 19th.

Times of India. 1906. ‘The Bhangwadi Theatre: Complaints from Neighbours’, Nov 16th.

Times of India. 1906b. ‘Bhangwadi Theatre Suit’, Dec 22nd.