Inter-Caste Marriage and the Liberal Imagination Vijay Tendulkar's KANYADAAN

Ania Loomba

(This paper discusses the depiction of inter-caste marriage in Vijay Tendulkar's controversial play KANYADAAN (1983), which has enjoyed a recent revival both in India and abroad. Responses to the play have been split largely along caste lines, with upper-caste audiences and critics regarding it as an expose of liberal reformism, and dalits either ignoring it or regarding its depiction of dalit masculinity as offensive. But few have commented on how the play pits its version of female agency against a particular vision of dalit masculinity. This paper sets the play in the context of Tendulkar's particular engagement with Dalit Panther literature, but argues that it also speaks to ongoing debates on sexual violence and on the literary representation of transgressive passion. It shows how KANYADAAN both unravels and embodies the most troubled aspects of the relationship between caste and gender in postcolonial India.)

It is very hard not to react strongly, even violently, to Vijay Tendulkar's 1983 Marathi play KANYADAAN, a controversial, explosive depiction of an inter-caste marriage that has had a continuous history of performance, and seen a recent English-language revival in India and abroad. Its dalit anti- hero, Arun Athawale, has married Jyoti Devalikar, a brahmin woman. Arun is foul-mouthed and violent; he is increasingly abusive towards Jyoti, even during her pregnancy, but she stays committed to him, ultimately turning her back on her own family in order to do so. In response to him, various upper-caste characters in the play articulate the idea that dalits inhabit a different 'culture', a culture shaped by dalit histories of dis- possession but one that cannot, nevertheless, be easily changed. Written at the end of a particularly important decade of dalit activism during which dalit intellectuals and activists had themselves insistently articulated the idea of dalit 'difference' in order to demand equality and justice, the play seemed to both echo and subvert the language of dalit self-assertion.

It is hardly surprising that dalit intellectuals and others reacted negatively to the play. In 1988, when Tendulkar was inaugurating at the All India Dalit Drama Convention, a dalit writer hurled a sandal at the playwright.1 But Tendulkar was also criticised from the opposite direction: one commentator in a mainstream English-language newspaper pronounced that he should have 'known better' than to try and 'rationalise' Arun's brutishness.2 KANYADAAN had a robust stage life, how- ever, and eventually won the Saraswati Samman award; Tendulkar confessed that he was 'confused' by the award, since the play was 'not the story of a victory; it is the admis- sion of defeat and intellectual confusion. It gives expression to a deep-rooted malaise and its pains'.3

Today, viewers and critics continue to be hotly divided in their responses to the play. Many tend to see KANYADAAN as a powerful critique of liberal reformism (embodied by the father Nath) but for others, the play itself embodies the hypocrisy of such reformism. Some viewers cringe from its portrayal  of Arun, but others continue to see that depiction as necessary for the play's take on the ideology of marriage. We can see these divisions as indexing various stances on caste politics itself, and even dismiss defences of the play as evidence of continuing casteism. But whatever our conclusions, the play obviously reverberates with long-standing debates about domestic and sexual violence, and about how such violence is raised in the context of dalit men. As such, it is worth paying careful atten- tion to its depiction of inter-caste marriage, and its polarisation of female agency against dalit masculinity. Comparisons have been made between the depiction of caste in KANYADAAN and theatrical representations of blackness and race, a subject which is also worth thinking about, given ongoing debates about the relationship between race and caste.

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