Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Vijay Tendulkar and the turbulent 70's

Vijay Tendulkar was a journalist working with Marathi newspapers like Maratha and Loksatta in the late 1960s. Yet he was not known for his contribution as a crusading journalist like some of his peers did. He was more known for his columns and creative writings. He once told me, then a student of journalism, that his journalistic duties were limited to editing features, a job that provided him livelihood. Nothing more, nothing less.

As I recall his words today, it strikes me that he later provided us news reporters working in Pune and Mumbai a lot of fodder so that we earned our livelihood.

That was the beginning of the 1970s. His play 'Shantata Court Chalu Ahe' (Silence Court is in Session) had caused quite a stir in Marathi cultural field when it was first staged in 1967. There were angry debates at meetings and in newspaper columns. Yet, these debates were mostly within the decorum of civilities. His delightful play 'Ashi Pakhare Yeti' was a huge hit and was staged about 1000 times.

At the beginning of the new decade, however, Tendulakar's brand of existentialism was visible in Marathi theatre as he penned Sakharam Binder, Ghashiram Kotwal and Gidhade (Vultures) during this period. That was the beginning of the stormy history of Marathi theatre.

Ghashiram, the musical drama set in 18th century Pune created a prolonged controversy as it was considered to be anti-brahmin. Another reason for the ire from the conservatives in Pune was that the play depicted Nana Phadavnis, the Peshawa, in bad light. Yet another reason was that the theme distorted history.

The play was written and presented at a time when political violence was set in Maharashtra with the rise of Shiv Sena. It depicted how the mighty politicians exploit every situation to their advantage and mercilessly dump those who helped them rise. Years later, Tendulkar fans saw in Ghashiram similarities with the events of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975.

It was a turbulent period for the Marathi theatre giving the newspapers one opportunity after another to write about. The original company that produced the play, Progressive Dramatic Association, was split because of the Ghashiram after a dozen shows. A new company was formed under the banner of the Theatre Academy with Dr Jabbar Patel at the helm. The play was banned for some time, but after the ban was lifted, Ghashiram bounced back to attain fame outside Maharashtra and beyond India. Opponents again opposed when the troupe was to go abroad for the shows. The opposition was that the play would tarnish the image of the state as it had a completely distorted history of the glorious period of the Maratha rule.

Tendulkar wrote the following lines to be read before Ghashiram was presented to the audience in India or abroad to blunt the opposition:

This is not a historical play. This is a non-historical myth presented with dance and music. Ghashrams are the creations of certain social circumstances. These social circumstances and the Ghashirams go beyond Time and Space. Though the playwright accepts some support from history, he does not intend to express any views on the existence of Peshwai (the rule of Peshwa), Nana Phadanvis and Ghashiram Kotwal as historical personages. If at all, this fable conveys any message, it is completely different.

Gidhade was another play that depicted violence among the greedy members of a family that did not have any traditional values. It shocked the conservatives. Demonstrations were held outside the theatres. A cultural brigade, promoted by established theatre companies, forced the Censor Board to make changes in the script. The Tendulkar supporters championing the cause of freedom of expression countered every such move that left theatregoers amused.

For example, the censorship authorities had objected to the display of a red blood spot on the backside of the female character who had aborted due to the kick flung at her abdomen. The theatre producer agreed not to display the red spot and was allowed to stage the play. The show was advertised in the Marathi press, asking the audience to treat the blue mark on the backside of the female as red blood mark of the abortion! Needless to say, the censor authorities were left red-faced.

Sakharam Binder, played by Nilu Phule, was about a bookbinder who defied the social code of marriage as he gave shelter to young deserted women in his house. Although the play became a landmark in the history of Marathi theatre, it had upset the moralists who raised hue and cry about the theme and the language whenever it was staged. The producers and actors had to face violent reaction everywhere and the play was subjected to a protracted legal battle.

(First published: DNA, Pune edition, May 19, 2008)

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