Just about a year ago, I was sitting by the side of Vasuben (1924-2020) at a literary event. From top to toe, a young lady wouldn’t have looked much smarter. The white skin, though wrinkled, still glowed. The spare figure was still graceful and the features had remained sharp. In her designer dress, she sat erect without effort. Eyes sparkled with responses. The colour of her hearing aids blended with the skin’s . For four decades she had greeted me with ‘Prabhu,kem chho?!’ I didn’t know this was for the last time.
A person tall and beautiful, metaphorically even more so, she was noticed and admired by everyone at any gathering. She acquired that image as a person and as Director of All India Radio (Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot). She commanded respect of everyone for her work and the powers that be were at times ill at ease with her. For she was fearlessly outspoken, articulate, had impeccable integrity and a multifaceted personality.
What made us friends was her talent in theatre, which I thought from the first acquaintance was not fully tapped. She spoke chaste Gujarati, could modulate her voice as context demanded and had elegance in her movement. She was not seen in varied roles probably because a hero who could match her stature was not around and in her youth she was busy shaping a career with All India Radio and at the same time making a significant contribution to society. The roles she played on the stage remain etched in memory. Two of them flash up on the mind.
One is her two-act solo performance, under Subhash Sha’s direction, in Ratanbai Thamko Karo she herself wrote. At 62, I happily recall, as Suryakumari she became a teenage girl, flirted, courted a boy, sulked, cajoled, frowned, wept, chided her tormentors, got playful. The central character was in one segment with parents, with her in-laws in another and a political leader in the third. Vasuben played other characters and dramatically interacted with them. An indictment of our male-dominated society, asking a woman all through life to dance to tunes set by men. The play ran for quite a few successful shows.
She gave a taste of what a live wire she could be on the stage as a self-willed domineering gorgeous middle-aged woman in This Alone is True, Mrinalini Sarabhai’s autobiographical novel in English, dramatized and directed by Peter Frye. She also gave a moving portrayal as the mother of a mentally ill daughter in Loheeni Sagai, based on Ishwar Petlikar’s widely read novel. She had literary achievements herself as a story-teller. Some of her works won awards.
Vasuben was a liberated woman much before it was an in-thing to get known so, so much so she preferred to not use the surname Bhatt after her name. If you posted a letter marked only ‘Vasuben, Ahmedabad’, it would have reached her!
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