Legacy lives on

Legacy lives on

His heart beats for theatre and tales of Indian heritage and history. A chat with Mohammad Ali Baig, the ‘Global Face of Hyderabad’s Theatre’

He was born into theatre. He grew up in the wings and green rooms. He loved the fragrance of freshly painted sets and the crispness of newly tailored costumes. Mohammad Ali Baig was destined to recreate enthralling tales of Indian heritage and history for theatre-lovers across the globe.

One of his earliest memories is watching his late father, theatre doyen Qadir Ali Baig, create a “grand spectacle” at the Golconda Fort, long before sound and light shows were conceived. “There was hardly any technology then. We didn’t even have proper street lights to the venue. I always wonder how he did it!” recalls the eminent son, who has not only revived theatre in Hyderabad, but also mesmerised audiences at international festivals in Canada, France, Pakistan, Turkey, USA and the UK.

Carrying forward the legacy of Spectacle Theatre, the playwright-director-actor started the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation in Hyderabad in 2005 as a tribute to his baba.

With productions like Taramati - The Legend of an Artist, His Exalted Highness, Reading Between the Lines, Raat Phoolon Ki, Resham Ki Dor, Pankhdiyaan, Aaina, Dada Saheb Phalke, Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada, Savaan-e-Hayat, Spaces, and 1857: Turrebaz Khan, Baig soon became the ‘Global Face of Hyderabad’s Theatre’.

Excerpts from an interaction with the Padma Shri awardee, who has also won honours for his brand of theatre in France, Canada, America and Turkey:

Which is the most challenging role — theatre revivalist, playwright, actor or director?

Each role has its own challenges. Being a playwright, actor and director are all creative processes. But I suppose being a theatre revivalist has been the most challenging and energy-consuming. It involved developing a theatre-conducive environment in a city without favourable infrastructure, negotiating through administrative and management activities with the governments and corporates… It has been rewarding though, as people tell me about the sea change, both in audiences and
performers, since the inception of Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation.

What does ‘meaningful theatre’ mean to you?

Theatre that has universal themes, but digs deep into our own cultural ethos, evokes intellectual stimulation, and creates magical memorable moments, while entertaining aesthetically. To me, theatre isn’t about subjecting your audience to your own morbid trip, or personal grouses, or even senseless humour. It’s a responsibility towards an audience who chooses to spend their valuable time watching your play, despite other forms of infotainment, beginning with smartphones these days.

What is it about history that fascinates you?

I take pride in my heritage and culture. I believe that our past defines who we are and shapes our future. I suppose it stems from watching my father’s historical pageants at monuments, forts and palaces back in the 80s. There’s an inherent affinity towards history and historical characters who shaped our society and our lifestyle. Though the premise of my plays is history and heritage, the structure is contemporary. I place myself in my audience’s seat and ask ‘would I be glued to it?’

Mohammad Ali Baig and Noor Baig in 'Under an Oak Tree' staged in London

What does it take to keep the audience glued?

The way I conceive my plays, and my wife (playwright-actor Noor Baig) and I write them is such that they are relatable and identifiable. We look at the human facets of those larger-than-life historical figures and what makes their vision, actions and legacies relevant today —without being preachy. When we started the festival, people quizzed if Hyderabad’s audience would come out to watch serious theatre for four days in a row? Today, it is perhaps the only theatre fest in the country where audience buys a Rs 1,000 ticket and runs full houses at 1,100-seater to 2,300-seater venues for 10 days.

Did the global response surprise you?

There’s a certain sense of fulfillment when your own idiom of theatre is applauded globally. Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada moved people to tears at the Oxford University, just like it did at the Edinburgh Fest and Herrison Fete in France. And most of the audience was not even English-speaking! At the world premiere of 1857: Turrebaz Khan at Edinburgh Fest, senior historians from the Edinburgh University working on South Asian history said that they weren’t aware of this legendary character from India’s independence struggle and thanked us for bringing him alive on stage.

Do spouses make for good work collaborators?

My wife and I are on the same wavelength most of the time. Our working styles and instinctive inclinations are in rhythm. I think mutual respect is key if spouses are work collaborators. Also, a healthy exchange of viewpoints is important. The only flipside is that you never get ‘home from work’!

Has the #MeToo movement caught on in theatre?

I think it has made a lot of people in every industry aware of unacceptable behaviour. It’s a good wake-up call.
I am sure it will herald a huge change in codes of ethics in the workspace and teach those in positions of power to handle their roles with responsibility and dignity.

Is gender pay gap an issue in theatre too?

Indian theatre has been far more evolved as far as gender equality is concerned. I don’t think pay gap has ever been an issue. We have a formidable force of women theatre practitioners across the country who are at the helm, and have created strong, powerful work for decades. I don’t see them as female directors or actors. We are all theatre-makers, period.