The Play Must Go On

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment


Playwright At the Centre: Marathi Drama from 1843 to the present (Gokhale, Shanta)

Maharashtra is the second largest state in India by population, the third largest by area, and the richest by GDP. Maha rashtra, as any Indian knows, means Great Nation; it follows that the Maharashtrians are a proud people. Over the roughly 700 years of their existence as a linguistic entity, they have much to be proud of, in three categories – blazing military glory, a strong cultural and literary tradition, and a highly progressive and reformist society. The three are inter-connected.

The Maharashtrian day in the military sun started with the battle of Salher in 1672; at the very pinnacle, in the mid-18th century, under Balaji Baji Rao, their dream of supplementing the moribund Mughals as the masters of India looked well within their grasp; but an Afghan warlord smashed that dream to bits on the heartbreaking fields of Panipat, and their very independence came to a crashing end when Baji Rao II surrendered to the British in 1818.

It is no coincidence, says Shanta Gokhale quoting GP Deshpande, that the crown jewel of the Maharashtrian literary tradition, Marathi theatre, came into existence in the years following this abject defeat. Pride had much to do with it.

The fact that drama is born within 25 years of the fall of the Peshwa regime clearly suggests…that the people who had lost political power had now turned to art. This was most certainly a silent protest against imperialism, but more importantly, it was an attempt by the aristocratic class which had brought about its own political downfall, to seek its identity in a new field of activity, and closely re-examine its own face.

The initial plays, written by people like Vishnudas Bhave or Vinayak Janardhan Kirthane, drew their themes from mythology and history, and their audiences lapped it up; theirs was a natural reaction of a society plunged from the heights of empire to the depths of surrender and slavery within a single generation. But their search for self-esteem did not extend to blind glorification of the past, and colonial rule was not without its benefits. It exposed them to world literature, and to strands of Western social and political reform, and the playwrights focused their efforts on closely examining the ills of their own society, provoking furious internal debate, and even, in the celebrated case of Sangeet Sharada, influencing legislation. Patriotism and social reform were two of the cornerstones of Marathi theatre; a third, and a large factor in the popularity, was the heavy use of classical Hindustani music. The urban middle-class was just beginning to take shape in Mumbai and Pune, and the theatre was a one-stop entertainment shop for them, fusing tradition with novelty, and intellectualism with melodrama.

A scene from Tendulkar’s Ghasiram Kotwal

Independence, in 1947, brought several challenges to regional theatre in India. The patriotic and slightly subversive streak they represented was no longer required. Hindi was designated the national language and slowly began a creeping hegemony over other regional languages. Most importantly, a new form of entertainment began to invade villages and towns across the country: the cinema. Cheaper than theatre and more glamorous, it launched a devastating attack on the older art form. Within a few years, Tamil and Telegu theatre were more or less dead, with playwrights, actors, directors, singers and producers deserting theatre in droves in favor of its vanquisher. In Maharashtra alone, theatre fought back in the fifties and held its own – and by 1960, its victory over Marathi cinema was complete.

Behind this victory, I suspect, was a mundane economic reason. A considerable amount of movie-making money was available in Bombay, but almost all of it was being routed to the production of Bollywood (Hindi) movies, that had a nationwide market, and not towards funding Marathi cinema (in contrast, Tamil and Telegu cinema movements were thriving at the same time). There was thus an unmet need in urban Maharashtra, for entertainment and intellectual debate in Marathi, and this was the space that Marathi theatre managed to make its own.

But this is not the only narrative that explains the golden years of Marathi theatre, between 1955 and 1980. The other story, recounted masterfully by Gokhale, documents the wave after wave of gifted playwrights (Vijay Tendulkar, Ratnakar Matkari, GP Deshpande, Satish Alekar, PL Deshpande, Chintamani Khanolkar, Achyut Vaze, Mahesh Elkunchwar and dozens of others), renowned directors (Vijaya Mehta, Ebrahim Alkazi, Satyadev Dubey), and versatile actors (Shreeram Lagoo, Rohini Hattangady, Aravind and Sulabha Deshpande, Bhakti Barve, Mohan Agashe, Nilu Phule). Most of them grew up in families that watched and discussed plays; they grew up to live and breathe theatre and learnt ceaselessly from each other; the milieu promoted experimentation, innovation, the restless rejection of the past and continued pursuit of excellence.

Marathi plays were unique in many ways. It was a literary tradition rather than a performance one, in that the playwright was “at the center” of the play; he got star billing, not the director or the stars. This meant that the emphasis was squarely on dialogue, on originality of scripts, and to an extent, realism of representation, and not on stylized movements, dance and mythological themes, unlike in the theatre of the rest of India. By the 1960’s, even music, the crown jewel of the earlier generation of drama, was frowned upon, and the divorce of the experimental Marathi theatre movement from the traditional sangeetnataks was complete.

In fact, it was the rest of India that changed to fit in, in the seventies, as serious theatre took off everywhere: Badal Sarkar wrote Ebong Indrajit, Girish Karnad wrote Tughlaq and Hayavadana, Mohan Rakesh wrote Adhe Adhure and Ashad Ka Ek Din, Ratan Thiyam wrote Chakravyuha. But Vijay Tendulkar was still the Colossus in their midst, with Sakaram Binder, Gidhade, Mee Jinklo Mee Harlo, Ghasiram Kotwal and Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe.

Indian Cinema, too, was going through an exciting parallel phase in the seventies, from Shyam Benegal’s Ankur and MS Satyu’s Garam Hawa, through Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elipatayam, Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashraddha, Gautam Ghose’s Paar and Antarjali Jatra, and the advent of Hindi directors like Govind Nihalani,  Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Mahesh Bhatt. The two movements – parallel cinema and experimental Marathi theatre – fed each other; Govind Nihalani brought Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Party to the silver screen, and Saeed Mirza did the same with Ghashiram Kotwal; Vijay Tendulkar wrote the screenplay for Ardh Satya; Naseeruddin Shah produced Waiting for Godot at Prithvi Theatre; Shabana Azmi acted in Tumhari Amrita and Ingmar Bergman‘s adaptation of Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House; Karnad made Manthan and Swami; Satyadev Dubey wrote screenplay for Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika and dialogues for his Junoon. The creative milieu was gradually falling in place at the national level, a hotbed of intense activity, of cooperation, collaboration and competition, between a large number of broadly like-minded young people (with left-of-centre politics), constantly questioning themselves and their audiences about the meaning of art and life, of realism and farce, of social injustice and human relationships. In Maharashtra, the next wave of brilliant playwrights and directors was just arriving on the scene and preparing to scornfully sweep out the debris of their seniors (just as their seniors had done with their seniors) – Shafat Khan, Prashant Dalvi, Premanand Gajvi, Makarand Sathe, Chandrakant Kulkarni, Waman Kendre, Atul Pethe. Gokhale’s narrative ends in the mid-1990’s, with their introduction, and expressing hope for the future; but as a reader in 2012, I must take the story forward.

In the 1990s, India liberalized its economy and threw off the self-inflicted shackles of its socialist past. Just as colonialism had not been without benefits and independence had not been without challenges, liberalization proved deadly for certain things: parallel cinema and experimental theatre were among them. Audience attitudes changed to favour mainstream kitsch; funds and attention were diverted in that direction. Serious theatre and cinema took a backseat. Once again, there was a migration of artistes and directorial talent from the medium of theatre, and this time it was to a new, formidable competitor: cable television. Insipid and soppy soaps blossomed on TV screens across the country in a dozen languages, each providing job opportunities to dozens of men and women who would otherwise have been gainfully employed in plays, and drawing a middle-class audience that would otherwise have stepped out of home and strolled down to the neighbourhood theatre-hall.

It is a pity; but this is life. A great cultural heritage cannot be sustained by nostalgia alone. Marathi theatre may or may not see another golden age (there are those who tell me that non-mainstream Indian films are seeing a revival; I do not dare believe them yet) but the Maharashtrians are a proud people, as I said, and it is only a matter of time before a group of dissatisfied experimenters will come together in Maharashtra, and together make great art. As Gokhale says,

No art form is born in a vacuum. It is always the result of a combination of socio-political-economic circumstances and contemporary cultural practices, within and because of which particular individuals at those points of time find that they can make a creative contribution which fits in with the prevailing climate. Without being conscious of where history will place them they use their skills and imagination in ways which have never been tried before. Later they are declared the fathers of a movement or an art form

There are others more pessimistic than I, who believe that not just Marathi theatre, but the Marathi language and literary tradition itself, like that of other states in India, is in terminal decline. Two decades of liberalization has made us uniformly utilitarianistic, and there is no utility to be squeezed out of regional literary or cultural pursuits. I refuse to believe this is the end. Artistic expression will find a way, even if it isn’t the same way it took in the times of our fathers and grandfathers; when it does so, if it is any good, it will create its own demand.

♦ ♦ ♦

A word, before I end, on the book that triggered these meditations. Shanta Gokhale’s is not just a history but a definitive guide. She is learned and highly perspicacious; she loves her subject and her familiarity with it is consummate, from Deval and Gadkari down to the contemporary drama scene in Pune, Mumbai, Satara and Ahmednagar; from tamashas and sangeetnataks to Brecht, Ibsen and Ionesco (all big influences on Marathi theatre). Her English is impeccable, her translations evocative. She never fawns: her analysis of the greatest Marathi plays and playwrights of every generation is always balanced, and I failed to note a personal bias towards or against any. Of course, when she speaks of theatre, she mainly speaks of the ‘off-Broadway’ genre, glossing over the sangeetnataks, which exist even today, and which, in the opinion of some, constitute the real Marathi tradition. But that is a matter of opinion, perhaps, and she is entitled to hers. Finally: in Gokhale’s opinion, mentioned several times in the book, the industry, despite having great actors, playwrights and directors, has been handicapped by the lack of a competent stage critic to educate audiences and guide playwrights; on the evidence of her book, I violently disagree.

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