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The Arts

Remembering Rati Bartholomew: Teacher, Friend and Mentor to Generations of Theatre Practitioners

A former student’s tribute to a teacher whose brilliance in grasping theatre’s relevance in contemporary contexts was matched by her generosity in extending herself for students, peers and activists. Both qualities exemplified her lifelong quest for a progressive society. 

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There are not that many teachers and theatre practitioners in India about whom it can be said that they actively inspired several generations. Teacher, writer, co-founder of Delhi’s first bilingual theatre group Yatrik, actor and director Rati Bartholomew, who passed away on September 23 at the age of 94, was one such person.  

She was born on January 4, 1927, in Calcutta. Supriti, Rati’s mother, belonged to the Cooch Behar royal family; her maternal grandfather was the Brahmo leader Keshub Chandra Sen (facts that Rati never mentioned in public). Rati’s father, Attar Chand Batra, was a barrister practising at the Calcutta High Court. In the early 1940s, Attar Chand relocated to his native place Sargodha (now in Pakistan). Rati attended Lahore’s Kinnaird College. 

Partition uprooted the family and they came to Delhi as refugees. While studying at St Stephen’s College, Rati met Richard Bartholomew, also a refugee. His family had fled Burma in the wake of Japan’s advance during World War II.

The marriage of Rati and Richard exemplified the “optimism of a young couple, new beginnings, newly found socialist ideas and ideals…” as their son, well-known artist/photographer Pablo Bartholomew, puts it in his Instagram post. 

The ideals of democratic values, secularism, cultural diversity and pluralism that the fledgling nation had sworn to uphold remained the bedrock of Rati’s life and creative practice. She taught English literature at Indraprastha College (Delhi University), wrote theatre reviews and directed student plays, becoming a veritable campus institution and a support system for theatre students looking for openings. 

As co-founder of Delhi’s first bilingual theatre group Yatrik (1964) and as vice president of Dishantar (founded in 1969), she was at the core of plays boasting the who’s who of theatre in India. From the time of Alkazi’s helmsmanship of the NSD she was invited as a guest faculty and examiner at the National School of Drama (NSD).

Roshan Seth and Rati Bartholomew in Yatrik’s first production, ‘All the King’s Men’ (1964), directed by Marcus Murch. Photo credit: Yatrik Theatre.

The late 1970s saw Rati become a staunch advocate of street theatre, based on collaborations with women’s groups in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. During her association with Theatre Union (formed in 1979), Rati’s name was associated with memorable plays – especially Toba Tek Singh and Marz ka Munafa – which left a deep impression on many a student in college and university campuses in Delhi and other cities.

As one of the co-founders of SAHMAT in 1989, Rati entered yet another intense phase of activity. She had a significant role to play in conceptualising Chauraha, the first All India Street Theatre Festival (1989), for SAHMAT’s campaign against the draconian, colonial era Dramatic Performances Act, still used as a tool to censor freedom of expression. Her essay on the Act in the catalogue triggered fresh debate on the subject. For Anamika Haksar’s play Raj Darpan, performed by NSD students in 1994 and later by the NSD repertory, Rati researched the Act. 

The virulence of communal violence in India from the late 1980s and 1990s onwards disturbed her greatly and the question of how to do theatre in such a context became a big concern for her. 

Above all Rati believed in the power of collaborative work – with students, peers, women’s groups and political activists – seeing in the pooling of creative abilities a way of sustaining progressive ideas and a diverse social fabric. This quest led her to forge creative linkages with theatre groups across South Asia as well. Her passing, after a considerable period of ill-health, is a reminder that a similar creative passion combined with a spirit of collaboration is what is needed in these dark times.

In the following tribute to Rati Bartholomew, well-known playwright and director Tripurari Sharma, a former NSD alumnus and faculty, shares memories of her association with Rati. 

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Rati Bartholomew was a teacher, friend and mentor to more than one generation of theatre practitioners. Her belief that theatre should have a relevance in the contemporary moment and be exciting and experimental at the same time was so infectious that it left an everlasting mark on many of us.  

When I met Rati for the first time as a student at the National School of Drama (NSD, batch of 1976-1979), all I knew about her was that she would be taking classes in Western drama as a guest faculty. 

By then Rati was already known for her many creative pursuits. She was doing theatre with the students of Delhi’s Indraprastha College, where she taught English literature, and was involved in campus theatre activities. At the same time, she was an integral part of premier theatre groups like Yatrik (she was a founder-member) and Dishantar, which changed the face of Delhi’s theatre world in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Rati had a zabardast personality. She sported a big bindi and wore ‘ethnic’ sarees – seen as markers of conventionalism – but there was nothing conventional about her. She had an erect posture, her hair was usually tied in a French knot, and her voice was deep and clear.  She was always willing to hear us out but made sure that she was heard as well!

 As a teacher Rati was thorough and taught with ease. Concerns about being understood by all the students were uppermost in her mind. If she saw a blank look on some faces – students came from diverse backgrounds – she would ask them why they did not stop her and ask her to explain again. Rati had a way of engaging such students without making them feel small. 

Outside the classroom, there would be the occasional banter – “you thought I would not see you dozing!” – or joke, words of encouragement or admonishment, all rolled into a moment of friendly exchange.

Moreover, she never let on about her background – I came to know much later that her mother was from the Cooch Behar royal family. She carried herself with so much dignity. Our learning was not limited to theatre; she was an inspiring role model as well. 

The four women founder-members of Yatrik Theatre: (left to right) Rati Bartholomew, Kusum Haidar, Sushma Seth and Joy Michael; Joy Michael, Kusum Haidar, Sushma Seth, and Rati Bartholomew on Rati’s 90th birthday, in Gurugram (Haryana). Photo credits (left to right) Avinash Pasricha for Span, Pablo Bartholomew. All rights reserved.

Around 1981-1982, when I had started freelancing as a playwright and director, I received a call from Rati. She was scouting for a play for a production with the students of Indraprastha College and wanted to know about Bahu, the Hindi play that I had written and directed as a student at NSD. She had missed it because she was abroad at the time. 

The play was centred around a widowed bahu, or daughter-in-law, from an ‘upper’ caste landlord family in Punjab who finally decides to step out of her claustrophobic surroundings, embracing life as it were. Rati felt the play would speak to the youngsters.

She directed Bahu, staging it in the open. The set she visualised juxtaposed the realism of a rural Punjabi household – complete with grain, hay and cow dung, clay and brass vessels, even a charkha – with a pristine skyline of tall trees. 

For the scene in which the play’s eponymous character – her name is revealed finally as Umavati – leaves her matrimonial house, Rati had the actor walk through the audience. This communicated subtly that Umavati had not left ‘home’; she had emerged from a deadened state to join the living. 

Rati’s bahu was a strong character not given to self-pity as was portrayed in several other productions. She would always emphasise that every performance has a point of view, which is its politics, emerging not just through the spoken word but through the overall treatment and theatre language. Every play is political, she would say. 

Working with her deepened this realisation. One of the plays we worked together on was Aks Paheli, which sought to highlight the stereotypes communicated through representative images, be it of Sita, Kaikeyi or Laila. I rewrote the play several times after receiving feedback from friends, including Rati. 

The play was staged in Delhi’s Aga Khan Hall with the support of the Society for the Portrayal of women in the media, an initiative of prominent figures in the women’s movement such as Kamla Bhasin and Bina Aggarwal. Rati and I were co-directors. 

Gradually we became friends. For example, she taught me to select better sarees [spoken with a chuckle]. Our friendship was facilitated largely by Lakshmi Krishnamurthy (of Madras Players fame, who had also worked with Girish Karnad and B.V. Karanth in the film Godhuli). Lakshmi would nudge us into debating matters of theatre art, art and craft and we would have marathon discussions. Sometimes, Bindu Batra, who was then looking after cultural events at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, would also join us.

Around that time Rati and I did a theatre workshop on basic theatre techniques in Saharanpur. Among the participants were college students, shopkeepers and workers from an ITC cigarette factory. After learning the techniques of voice modulation, holding the body, and improvisation, the participants were expected to perform a play.   

The young workers from the cigarette factory were most enthusiastic. They would come straight from work to the evening rehearsals. Some of them would slyly roll down their shirt sleeve and bring out a cigarette, smuggled out for “Ratiji”. The person who achieved this feat received the warmest of her smiles. On some days there would be more than half a dozen cigarettes for her! The workshop concluded with the participants performing Spartacus. 

What really energised Rati was doing theatre. She would get excited about every venture, big or small, and was at the heart of so many collaborations because she had a way of tuning into those endeavours and extending herself generously. 

Equally fascinating were the connections she made between the various areas of her theatre work and interests, bringing her expertise in one area to another with a fluidity that was amazing. For instance, her knowledge of painting and sculpture gave her a keen eye for visualisation.

The more we collaborated on projects, the more I experienced this quality of hers. In 1984, I worked with leprosy patients at the insistence of Razia Ismail who was then with UNICEF.  Based on that I wrote Kaath ki gaadi (The wooden cart), a play about the lives of Madan, belonging to a well-established family in an urban educated context, and Kanu, from a rural background. The research was originally part of a UNICEF project for Alarippu, an informal group Lakshmi and I had formed. 

With the support of Ramgopal Bajaj, Vijay Tendulkar and Manohar Singh, Kaath ki gaadi was taken up by the NSD Repertory Company. Then I invited Rati and Subhash Udgatha to come on board as co-directors. 

From the play ‘Kaath ki Gaadi’: playwright Tripurari Sharma, co-directed by Rati Bartholomew and Subhash Udgatha.

The subject was difficult and there was so much to address in terms of detail – showing temples and rituals, and city roads; questioning the severe social stigma attached to the disease; and communicating the journey towards self-esteem. Rati could grasp the interweave of personal, intellectual and artistic aspects of the work at hand and arrive at a resolution of the basic question – how to handle the production. 

She suggested a flexible design so that the action could flow with ease. It was a contemporary play characterised by realism in acting, but the setting was inspired by folk scenes. 

Rati’s flair for visualising a play was evident during our collaboration on a street play Farak (1989) examining the property rights of women in the personal law of Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities. For the play we researched the ongoing debates around the issue, especially the celebrated case of Mary Roy. I focused more on the writing while Rati gave it image and direction. 

What Rati did was ingenious – she used a simple rope to show a property and the shares going, or not going, to women.  The square formed by four persons holding a rope was a house; when they dropped the rope, the ‘house’ vanished, with the reality of the woman’s situation becoming crystal clear. 

This simple ploy conveyed so many issues: women’s property rights or the lack of them, the loss of home and the constant question facing them – where is my space, where is my corner. The play was taken by Alarippu to various colleges and colonies in the hope that it would prompt conversations on gender issues among the young.  

Rati was all for agit prop theatre. What she liked about it was the strength and power it demanded of actors – strong bodies and voices. But she would insist that there was no room for monotony in it. There was no reason why seriousness of intent had to weigh down the production, she would say.

Her sphere of influence was not limited to India but extended across South Asia. She worked with activist groups in Bangladesh and Pakistan, doing workshops and directing collaborative productions. Her connections with them were strong. 

I saw it for myself when we went to Bangladesh in 1986-87. Rati made it a point to meet all her students from NSD who happened to be in Dhaka (NSD used to take some students from Bangladesh). She even extended her stay so that she could spend more time with them.

During one of her many trips to Pakistan, Rati was able to go to Sargodha and visit the house that she and her family had left behind during Partition. There she discovered that the family friend in whose care they had left the house, had looked after it till his last breath, at a considerable personal cost, so as to keep a promise made to his friend Attar Chand, Rati’s father. 

(Left to right) Artists A. Ramachandran, Krishen Khanna and Ram Kumar with Rati Bartholomew and Ashok Vajpeyi during the book launch of ‘The Art Critic’ by Richard Bartholomew, at Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi in 2012. Photo credit: Pablo Bartholomew

In the weeks since her passing, I have found myself thinking about the time I was fortunate to spend with her.  Apart from the brilliance and high energy she brought to theatre, it was her nurturing ability that left its mark on me (and others). She was actually interested in the work of every student or practitioner and would stimulate, guide and provoke them to think of newer ways to conceptualise plays that spoke to their contexts. 

Honest and straightforward, she was without malice, and had time not just for the brilliant ones but also for strugglers. If someone blundered, she did not desert them. The faith she reposed in people and the sheer joy she gained from doing theatre was what inspired many of us to journey on that path.

Probably that is why there is so much love and respect for her in different parts of lndia and beyond its borders as well. Rati Bartholomew is alive in our hearts and minds.

Tripurari Sharma is a theatre director and playwright and a Sangeet Natak awardee. She retired from the NSD faculty in 2018.