Sunil Shanbag

New Performance

Grant Period: One year

Sunil Shanbag received an IFA grant in November 2005 to create ‘Cotton 56, Polyester 84’, a theatre production that brought to light the suppressed history, subculture and marginalisation of the mill workers of Mumbai, whose plight has largely been ignored in the still raging public debate on the future development of the mill lands. Sunil has for many years been concerned that working class stories and politics have not been reflected in mainstream contemporary theatre. He worked with writer-director, Ramu Ramanathan, who wrote the script after interviewing innumerable mill workers and their families, mill land activists, trade union leaders, lawyers, media people and mill owners, and attending various committee meetings and presentations before the court. The play “covers the migration of workers from their villages to Mumbai city, the establishment of the powerful communist trade unions, their overthrow by the emerging Shiv Sena, the struggle of the strike years under the leadership of Datta Samant, and the coming together of the underworld and the political establishment to gain control and exploit the commercial potential of the vacant mill lands”.

The play opened in February 2006 against the background of two crucial Supreme Court decisions that went against the interests of the mill workers. This, and the fact that the play dealt with an unusual subject, attracted much media attention. The play had an inaugural run of eight performances at the Prithvi Theatre. It has now completed 17 performances in all, and has been seen by fairly mixed audiences ranging from upper class elites to groups of political activists, labour leaders and some workers. The production has received a generally positive response. From the very beginning, Sunil has emphasised the importance of performing the play for worker groups in Mumbai and outside. Discussions with the Girni Kamgar Union and worker interest groups were being held even as the performance was taking shape. Senior union representatives have seen the play and expressed the desire to organise performances for their members. Unfortunately, these groups lack the financial and human resources to create opportunities to show the production. With financial support, Sunil feels confident of performing this play for working class communities in different locations. He feels this is critical to fulfilling the play’s artistic and political agenda.

This grant underwrites the costs of organising 20 performances for worker groups, primarily in Mumbai and other places in Maharashtra, over the next 12 months. Two shows each with the Kamgar Kalyan Kendra (Mumbai), AITUC (Aurangabad), and the Girni Kamgar Union (Mumbai) have already been finalised. Groups in Thane, Mulund and Nagpur have expressed interest in the production. Sunil is also looking for opportunities to show ‘Cotton 56, Polyester 84’ for working class audiences in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. The sponsoring worker groups will be asked to contribute according to their capacity towards venue, publicity, and boarding and lodging expenses of the performance. Grant funds will underwrite the remaining costs. Gate receipts, if any, will go to the working class group that hosts the performance.