The following interview features Sushama Deshpande & Suhas Joshi in conversation with Professor Pushpa Bhave. Both Sushama Deshpande & Suhas Joshi are veteran actors. Deshpande’s play VHAY MEE SAVITRIBAI (Marathi) which she has written, directed and acted in has not only won her critical acclaim but has done over 2000 shows. The play since its premiere in the late eighties is being performed to date. Actor Suhas Joshi barely needs an introduction. She has been involved with Marathi theatre since many years now and is a popular face both on the Marathi stage and in films too. Her production of SMRITICHITRE (Marathi) is based on the memoirs of Laxmibai Tilak. Both plays are one-woman shows and were performed at the Prithvi Theatre Festival 06’. The joint interview which we have reproduced here was conducted for the ‘Meet the Playwright’ sessions which were organized as part of the festival. The interviewer, Pushpa Bhave is a well-known social activist, academic and writer.
Pushpa Bhave: Good morning everybody. I will not introduce Sushma Deshpande and Suhas Joshi to you all, since they are quite well known. What I will try to do instead is to introduce Marathi autobiographies written by women; a very short introduction and then we will move ahead. As you may have noticed, the two performances are two different kinds of performances and we will get to talking about them. In Marathi we have very early autobiographies written by women. The first one was by Ramabai Ranade, the wife of the famous Justice Ranande. She said that she is writing an autobiography but it is about ‘us’. In Marathi she said, ‘Aamchya aayushyatil kaahi aathvani’ (Some memories from our life). Yet in that autobiography you see a consciousness of her life as a wife in a big joint family and as a wife of Justice Ranade who was supposed to be a reformist. There are two separate lives that she leads because when Ranade goes out, she has to appease 56 elderly people in her house and these elderly people don’t like her reading books. So she goes to her bedroom to read books. She is not supposed to be seen reading books. But at night when Ranade comes back home, he takes her homework and she is supposed to do all her homework. Later on she has an English governess which is something that is absolutely unaccepted by the house. So she is not allowed to enter the kitchen. Another famous autobiography is ‘Smriti Chitre’ by Laxmibai Tilak but before talking about it I would like to touch upon a book which is not an autobiography but is autobiographical in nature. This book was written by a woman called Tarabai Shinde. This book is almost a contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous book- ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’. Tarabai Shinde stayed in Buldhana which is even now supposed to be a backward area. She wrote a book called ‘Stree Purush Tulana’ (A comparison between Men and Women) and it was difficult for her to get the book published but Jyotirao Phule got the book published, much against the wishes of the male members of his association. So this was an important book. It has been translated into English as well. And now we come to ‘Smriti Chitre’. ‘Smriti Chitre’ is almost a classic. It was written by a woman who was wife to the reverend Tilak. But she doesn’t write it in that mode; she writes about herself, her point of view. Laxmibai starts off as a very staunch Brahmin woman and she comes to a point where she feels that all things like ‘I am pure, you are polluted’ are meaningless and she starts drinking water from even a sweeper’s house. Also, during the famine she takes in small girls whom she knows nothing about and brings them to her home. This is in fact an elevation of a human kind. She does talk about reverend Tilak and his problem of conversion but she is very conscious that she is writing her autobiography, and indeed the autobiography is considered to be a masterpiece in the genre of Marathi autobiographies. A question which is always asked is that why only Bengal and Maharastra have these early women autobiographies. I feel that the answer lies with the tradition of the saint poetesses. Our saint women wrote small pieces which were autobiographical in verse and I feel that was a beginning. Recently we have started decoding those verses as autobiographical verses. What Sushama has taken up is quite different. This is a script on which Sushama has worked on. In fact, it has been Sushama’s style that she works on scripts. And Savitribai, wife of Jyotirao Phule was a unique woman. She was our first woman teacher along with Fatima about whom we know nothing, but in whom Savitribai had a friend. So she has worked on that script- meaning that she researched and put her script together with the help of some autobiographical sketches of Savitribai from Phule’s biographies. Sushama has imagined Savitribai as a little girl from a small place beyond Satara, Naigaon and traces her journey from childhood till she blossoms into a full fledged woman. So this is unique in the sense that Sushama has worked on the script and has then enacted it right from Savitribai’s childhood. Another point in Sushama’s performance or the film which was made from the play is that she relates to our times. In fact the narrator Sushama is continuously relating Savitribai’s story to our times. So these are two different things. ‘Smriti Chitre’ is presented as a one woman show and since the autobiography was already there, the scripting was relatively easier. Suhas has worked on the script and presents it herself. Since you have recently seen the two performances, we can talk about it, starting with the senior person Suhas Joshi. Suhas this was not the first performance of SMRITICHITRE.
Suhas Joshi: No.
Pushpa Bhave: You have seen earlier performances of SMRITICHITRE by Kusumtai?
Suhas Joshi: No. I have not seen them but I had done a film with Vijaya Mehta. When I had done the film, it was written by Vijayabai and Mangesh. After doing the film I felt that the language in the film was not Laxmibai’s. Vijayabai had taken a lot of liberties in the film; scenes were shifted from here to there, and characters were changed. When Ramdas Bhatkar met me, he suggested that I do it as a one woman show. Initially I thought that since it has already been performed by Kusumtai and Vijay Tendulkar has written the script for Vijayabai, why do it again? But Ramdas insisted that the book is a classic and that I must do it. So I started working on the script. I have not done anything to the script as you said. It was already written by Laxmibai and I have just edited it by picking out some scenes. In the film you might have seen that it ends with her becoming a Christian. Tendulkar’s script ended with reverend Tilak’s death and I always felt that the scene by the sea was very important. Since that scene brings out such a different element to ‘Smriti Chitre’s’ character, I felt that I should go till the end. So from that scene to the time in Nashik where she was felicitated, to the time she passed away- those scenes I had to work out on my own.
Pushpa Bhave: I see a major problem in this. I don’t know whether one should relate it like this but Suhas’s physical presence on stage is very Brahmin. She looks certainly like a heretical Brahmin and she can’t help it.
Suhas Joshi: That’s why I was kicked out of MITRA.
Pushpa Bhave: But to me Laxmibai is not a typical Brahmin woman. She was born in a Brahmin house. And in fact in Marathi there is one strand of thinking which explains itself by saying ‘Oh she was a Christian but she was a Hindu pati vrata’. I don’t accept that phrase. Being loyal to your husband is not typical Hindu, so that is an illogical phrase. But it was still used and Kamlatai Deshpande, a famous social worker wrote a preface to ‘Smriti Chitre’ where she says, ‘Oh she (Laxmibai) was a typical kokanast woman even though she converted to Christianity.’ Now the essence of the autobiography is that she comes out of this Brahmin feeling of ‘I am pure, you are polluted’, step by step. So I am asking Suhas that even theatrically one has to come out of the Brahmin mode. You can’t help your physicality but how did you achieve it otherwise?
Suhas Joshi: The physicality which you are talking about according to me is not something I had trouble with. Though I look Brahmin and Laxmibai also was a Brahmin, so I didn’t find anything wrong with the physicality. But her entire travel from being a Brahmin to a Christian…
Pushpa Bhave: And even beyond Christianity, if I may say so.
Suhas Joshi: While performing I never thought about it. I was concentrating on my performance, basically. Because I wanted to do it for theatre. My objective was that those who watch plays should like it. What you are asking me about I have not given much thought to, frankly. But it is such a good autobiography; there is so much drama in Laxmibai’s life and that is what should reach the audience. It is such a lengthy book that no one is going to read it. So I felt that the story can reach out to people through the medium of the theatre. That is the main reason why I did it.
Pushpa Bhave: But while doing it theatrically, do you find spaces for this thought of Laxmibai which is coming through not only Hinduism but is also going beyond Christianity?
Suhas Joshi: I never really thought about it. Really.
Pushpa Bhave: So while doing it theatrically, the character’s language is typical- one because it is her own and another is that she has devised a style of her own in her autobiography and this style relates to the Kahaani area; the mythical tales in Marathi which express themselves in short sentences. English humour is somewhat like that. In fact theatrically it is easier to use that language. So tell me how did you do it while directing it?
Suhas Joshi: I didn’t direct the play. Pratima Kulkarni directed it. Let me explain it to you. The questions that you are raising are things that we thought about differently. Theatrically while doing it, a new device which we had used was that even if Laxmibai is speaking, my expression might be Tilak’s, When Tilak is speaking; my expression might be Laxmibai’s. This co – ordination was very necessary for a one woman show. I have worked on that and not on the script. The issue which you are talking about is beyond my capacity. I am basically a stage performer and if I like a script, I work on it. I work on my role and that’s it.
Pushpa Bhave: As you rightly pointed out, there is a very significant relationship between Tilak and Laxmibai. Tilak was a very knowledgeable person but Laxmibai did not accept him as a guide or a mentor. She always argued with him. She wanted to be convinced. Even while becoming a Christian it was her decision that ‘tomorrow I am going to get converted to Christianity.’ But she was really very fond of Tilak; so much so that when Tilak got converted, according to the Hindu custom she could have stayed back at her mother’s place. In fact the people there wanted her to stay with them and not go back to Tilak. So this period in her life is very crucial. Whereas in your performance you have only your personality and you’re trying to show your personality. How did you work on that?
Suhas Joshi: I don’t know how to explain it really, because while rehearsing it we did all these things. I am sorry but I really can’t explain it because performance is more important to me.
Pushpa Bhave: Maybe I am not putting it correctly. Reverend Tilak had a personality of his own which was very queer and Laxmibai had a personality of her own. While doing the one – woman show, showing these two personalities is like acting upon two roles. So as an actress how did you come to grips with two very different people?
Suhas Joshi: I can’t explain. I am sorry. I can’t.
Pushpa Bhave: You must have mixed your vaachik abhinaya
Suhas Joshi: Yes.
Pushpa Bhave: So how did you go about it?
Suhas Joshi: See it’s a man’s voice, but I cannot succeed entirely in recreating a man’s voice. I tried to get as near to the voice as possible. After all it shouldn’t appear false. And I don’t say that Tilak is speaking. The story is being narrated by Laxmibai herself, and she is telling us about various events that took place in her life. I remember when I had performed the initial shows, the press reports were very bad. One of them had written that I had not imitated anyone. In a one woman show it is always expected that you imitate others correctly, but I never wanted to do that. If Laxmibai is narrating the story, then I only have to go to the extent, to which she thinks about the characters because the story is more important than all my imitations. So I have done three four voice modulations but Laxmibai’s original voice is not going to go anywhere. So I cannot explain to you about what I did for this character and what I did for that character. I will give you an example. Before doing this play I met P.L.Deshpande because he is famous for his vaachik abhinaya. I asked him how he does it and he told me that it happens by itself. When you start rehearsing, you automatically come to know how the different characters will speak. And that character itself is not going to be recreated; it will have to come through Laxmibai. That is what I have worked upon.
Pushpa Bhave: I think Suhas has mentioned a very important point here. I don’t like the phrase ‘one woman show’ or ‘one man show’. In theatre you accept different personas. Consider P.L.Deshpande’s BATATYACHI CHAAL. It has many personas. So that word ‘one man show’ is wrong. In Marathi it is called Ek Paatri Abhinaya. Paatri means persona. There is never one persona in a show so that word is wrong. And another feeling which I had when Sumantai Dharmadhikari and other people were doing such shows was about their insistence on imitation. When you are acting and you are trying to imitate someone, many a time it comes across as a caricaturish imitation. That doesn’t prove to be good. In fact in P.L.’s BATATYACHI CHAAL it was significant because the nature of the piece was such.
Suhas Joshi: Even if you look at it that way, whatever P.L. did were all male characters. He never imitated women. In my case that was not possible.
Pushpa Bhave: No, apart from that the feeling you had was very important- that what you’re presenting is an autobiography and in an autobiography any persona which arrives on the scene is seen through her end and Laxmibai is very particular about that. So her feeling that she should do it through her perception was right. Now we will take a break from Suhas and move over to Sushama because it’s very difficult for Sushama to keep quiet.