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Mainstream, VOL L, No 43, October 13, 2012

Remembering Theatre Critic Ramesh Chander ’Charlie’ (1917-2012)

Tuesday 16 October 2012, by S.K. Pande

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On September 26, 2012 at the ripe age of 97, veteran theatre critic Ramesh Chander, popu-larly known as ‘Charlie’, died in the Capital after a prolonged illness. With his death, India lost one of its oldest critics while Delhi definitely lost its grand old man of theatre criticism, a man who had over 70 years of writing to his credit. 
To understand Charlie one has to understand his times—and, of course, the wide canvas of his hectic life. He grew up during the British Raj. As a student of the prestigious Government College, Lahore, he was caught in the thick of the freedom struggle. A Left activist, he even headed a Tonga drivers’ union in Lahore. His daughter recalls: “He had very strong Leftist leanings and had to go underground at times and even to jail but that only steeled his guts and the clarity of his views. Till the end he was secular to the core, passionate about his theatre work and unwavering in his commitment.”

What is not known is that he sat for the Civil Services exams and was selected to the IFS but his selection was cancelled because of his political views. Instead he plunged into the worlds of radio, television, documentary films, journalism training and theatre criticism.

A broadcaster for many years with All India Radio, Charlie was selected for a career in Doordarshan in its initial phase. In 1959 he became the first Director of Doordarshan and played a pioneering role in establishing television in India. Charlie promoted many promising youngsters during his years in television. Men like H.R. Saluja, a veteran Doordarshan hand who worked with Ramesh, recounts his capacity to put the right man on the right job during his stint in the radio and TV. Independent-minded, he stuck to his guns on any issue, even if it meant confrontation with the powerful. Many will remember his differences with the DD set-up on la affaire Dhirendra Brahmachari. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had wanted a prime-time slot for Brahamachari to teach yoga on TV. As Director Charlie opposed the move as he felt that was too much of prime time wasted!! He was transferred after that but he went on leave to fight the transfer, won his case and was ultimately reinstated.

In his later days he jumped out of impending retirement to help in the launching of the first satellite television experiment. Subsequently when globalisation made its entry he worked with some private television networks, including some that eventually crashed. He also wrote some excellent television scripts for Doordarshan including the well-known Mullah Nasruddin.

A theatre buff lifelong, he took to theatre criticism and dedicated himself to his passion in his post-retirement years. He wrote for The Hindu, The Times of India, Patriot, Pioneer and several other papers. Vinay Kumar, President of the Press Association, recalls how Charlie would rush into the office of The Hindu, hand over his piece, spend ten minutes heatedly discussing the latest news and rush out again.

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THE present writer recalls Charlie’s frequent encounters with presspersons in what was known as the Fleet Street of India, the Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg area which houses major newspaper offices. One can still visualise him rushing in and out of newspaper offices in the late hours in those decades when the old technology ensured that editions went to bed at midnight. It was here that he rubbed shoulders not only with theatre buffs but with critics and senior journalists. Veteran journalist C.P. Ramachandran, himself a theatre buff, was one such personality. Among others were Habib Tanvir and freedom fighter editors like E. Narayanan, P. Viswanath and even Aruna Asaf Ali who founded Link and Patriot. 

Later he developed a penchant for street theatre and the fledgling Jan Natya Manch founded by the late Safdar Hashmi. And remained very close to Mala Hashmi and Sudhanva. 

Dinesh Khanna of the Pehchaan Theatre Group recalled his encounters with the veteran critic and said theatre urgently needs the kind of feedback and engagement with social issues that men like Charlie brought to their work. He said Charlie was very fond of Kabir songs. Some of these were sung at the family condolence at the Chinmaya Mission and also at the DUJ amphitheatre. Present on the occasion were Mala Hashmi, Sudhanva Deshpande, S.S Uberoi besides members of the family.

Teachers of the National School of Drama spoke of his affection for the downtrodden. They also remembered his outspokenness and stubbornness in sticking to his point. For him, nobody was high or low in the rough and tumble of theatre or even Doordarshan.

Veteran theatre director Sharad Dutt and theatre directors Mustaq Kak and Arun Kukreja said he had followed their careers over the years, doling out praise and encouragement when it was due and sharp criticism when needed. 

At the DUJ condolence meeting his son Sohail recalled how his busy, energetic father would watch plays in the evening, come home and write out his review and then head for news-paper offices late at night to deliver them. “I learnt to drive at midnight, going with him to deliver his reviews,” he said. “That was the only free time my father had for teaching me.” 

Time was precious for Charlie. Always busy, he thought things like test cricket matches were a waste of time which could be spent more productively!

Charlie’s daughters Smita and Shivani said their father was a ‘people’s person’ who was the greatest of friends with everyone from a driver to a CEO. He was a unique personality who “could connect the grassroots to the top”, Smita said. This was one of his greatest strengths. Technology did not matter to him, people did, she observed. She urged theatre activists to take forward the theatre movement. That would be the best tribute to him, she felt.

Energetic, volatile Charlie packed his days with so much that often he forgot some engagements. He would forget to pick up his family from various places and sometimes even invite friends to the Press Club but forget to reach there and if he did he would look at the person he had invited and say, “Arre wah, what are you doing here?” This would embarrass the poor soul completely!

Professor D.D. Joshi, the former Director of the Institute of Social Sciences, Agra and a contemporary, said how in his younger days Charlie would be called the Charlie Chaplain of theatre criticism for his mannerisms, choice of clothes, the colourful tie, and pungent views.

Long time friend Bhavanand Uniyal added that his laughter was infectious and what was wonderful about him was that on several occasions he could laugh at himself in a way few people can do.

Well, that was Charlie who left us on September 26. Goodbye Charlie (R.I.P).

A senior journalist who warked for several years in Patriot and Frontline, the author is the General Secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalists.

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