The beauty of theatre is that not only does it provide a creative outlet for the artiste but begets its meaning through narrative and metaphor. It brings a bunch of people together in a certain place where they step into the shoes of another character and through their dialogues entertain, convey thought-provoking messages and join the audience in forgetting their reality for a while.
A theatre performance involves the collaboration of arts. It is, for this reason, that for the past twelve years, it has formed an integral part of my life. Performances on different stages, in different settings and cities, have been both exciting and challenging. Of course, with travel comes the opportunity to try different cuisines and restaurants of a place. Therefore, theatre performances in different cities excite me because it brings forth a confluence of the three passions of my life – Theatre, Food and Travel. This time we were all set to perform on a stage which enjoyed the patronage of imminent personalities – Viceroys, Governors-General, Military Secretaries and Commanders-In-Chief, Distinguished Actors and theatre Artistes. We were going to perform at The Gaiety Theatre.
The Need For Theatre In Shimla
Shimla or Simla, as it was known in the days of the British Raj, came into focus in the year 1863 when the then Viceroy of India, John Lawrence decided to shift the summer capital of British India from Calcutta to Shimla. However much before that, the British had already started doing a recce of the place that had fancied them due to its climatic conditions. Of course, there was no electricity, phones or televisions in those days and the only way to entertain themselves was by way of playing cards, eating or drinking. During this time the Governor General bought about the idea of theatre so people could get together, eat, drink, rehearse and eventually perform. The Amateur Dramatics Club was established in 1837 by the British Officers stationed at the hill station.
The Governor-General himself acted in these productions. The performances were paid events and the money collected was used for charity. However, it was much later on the 30th of May, 1887 that the Gaiety Heritage Cultural Complex came into existence and became the nuclei of cultural activities in this hill station which was affectionately referred to as “Chota Vilayat” or ” Little England”. The first play staged in the Gaiety Theatre was ” Time Will Tell”.
The Man Behind Gaiety Theatre
The architect of Gaiety Theatre was Henry Irwin, one of the most celebrated architects of his time. He was responsible for the Viceregal Lodge and most buildings in Chennai presidency like the Southern railway Headquarters, the Government Museum and the Madras High Court.
The Architecture of Gaiety Theatre
The entrance to Gaiety opens from the Mall Road and has an appeal of one of those old cinema houses from the bygone era. It is only when you enter the hall that the jaw drops. The exquisite gold carving, paper mache panels, the mint green walls and deep blue pillars, and the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture clearly speaks aloud the grandeur of an invincible British Empire. The last time it was renovated was in the year 2005 and that was when the paper mache panels were put further making it look more glorious. The acoustics are the finest in design and the voice reaches deep and clear from the stage to the audience without the use of mikes. It is a theatre marked with elegance, detailed Baroque adornment and a Gothic appeal.
Even though electricity came in 1950, the wires were put in much earlier during construction. Prior to that, kerosene lamps were used to light up the hall.
The seating capacity is a little more than 300 people. The theatre is said to be a remake of the Robert Hall of London. What makes it spectacular is the three separate seating boxes of eight seats each. These were made exclusively for the Governor-General, Commander-In-Chief and the Governor of Shimla. These privileged boxes were where they sat and witnessed many performances. Between the stage and the audience is the proscenium where the musicians sit or if even more are required, they can sit in the basement below the stage much like the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi.
The tech (technical) rehearsals mark our entry/exit points, the focus light positioning and the voice check to see if the throw of dialogues will reach the audience clearly. As I soaked in the ambience of the hall, it dawned on me that I stood on the same stage where famous celebrities performed.
Viceroy, Robert-Bulwer Lytton wrote and staged the play ‘Walpole’ here. The founder of the Boy Scouts, R. B. Powell acted in the play ‘The Geisha’ on this stage and Rudyard Kipling performed in ‘A Scrap of Paper.’ The stalwarts of Indian cinema have stood under these stage lights. The legendary singer, K.L. Saigal made his first public performance at the Gaiety. Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher have enthralled the audience in this theatre. Since the army has taken over Gaiety Heritage Cultural Complex, it continues to enjoy the patronage of its officers and soldiers who watch plays and stage at least four productions each year.
The hall was jampacked for the show. The jawans and their wives occupied the seats on the balcony. The officers and their families sat in front of the stage. Lt. General Sirohi, also the Executive President of the Club, was our chief guest and sat at the privileged box in front. The play began. I waited behind the curtains for my act. In those brief moments, as I watched the audience, the actors on stage, the Gaiety Hall in its splendour, I was overwhelmed. As the continuum of the past, this was my moment in the present to enthral the audience and entertain them. I would give my best. When else will I ever get the opportunity to perform in the only exotic Gothic theatre in Asia – The Gaiety Theatre, again? With these thoughts in my mind, my arms spread wide I stepped on the stage. It was my moment and time to shine under these arc lights.