A new production by Awishkar of Shafaat Khan's MUMBAICHE KAVADE (1976), directed by Priyadarshan Jadhav, proves to be just as relevant, forty years later. Shafaat Khan is one of the best and underrated Marathi theatre playwrights and directors we have. His plays, while a reflection of our history and politics, are ever so farcical. In MUMBAICHE KAVADE (THE CROWS OF MUMBAI), the more obvious satire focused on two self-interested party workers is taken over by an absurdity that is frightfully and outrightly humorous, even though the landscape of the play cannot be grimmer.
Death hangs in the air as hundreds of bodies are rotting in an unnamed village that has been overcome by a natural disaster. The two workers (Vikrant Kolpe & Hrishikesh Shelar), deliberately cast as bumbling buffoons, belong to two opposing political parties. They have arrived at the village to help, but soon find themselves in a situation, spiralling out of their control. It is in their interactions and in their encounters with characters from the village (Prashant Lokhande, Anil Baburao Shinde & Prashant Tribhuvan in multiple roles) that the irony between a callous State and its marginalised citizenry is played out. The two workers step over and around the bodies (we can only imagine these), as they quibble amongst themselves to arrive at a solution to clean the village of the bodies. The surviving villagers on the other hand will not rest until the rites for their dead, for which crows must peck at the funerary cakes, are duly completed as per tradition. There is only one small problem. The crows have taken flight.
It is interesting to contemplate the concept of distance in Khan's play. It gets manifested in various forms- the two distant party workers who are only together because it serves their present purpose; the body of a low-caste man, refused a burial by his own fellow, upper-caste villagers - distanced even in death; the physical as well as the metaphorical distance between Mantralaya, the State Government's seat of power in Mumbai, and the village in the hinterland; the distance within Mantralaya itself as the harried party workers move between departments in a classic show of red tape; the distance left by the crows that have flown far away, and which must now be sourced from Mumbai. In between these 'distances', chaos reigns, the vice-like grip of tradition throttles democracy, ineptitude and corruption prevail, while the rotting bodies continue to raise a most stinking stench.
The play has been tweaked by the director himself will full permission from Khan to convey a more contemporary resonance, but its original ethos is left intact. The sociopolitical references in the play have been cleverly edited to match the present-day. The chorus in the tradition of Tamasha theatre, is led by prime singer Vijay Kargavkar, and aided by musicians, Gautam (on dholki) and Subhash Kharote (on harmonium). Penned by Ganesh Chandanshive, the songs underpin the travesty of the narrative. The actors are all very good with a keen sense of timing. This is Marathi theatre at its conventional, simplest best; its tonality lies not in any externalised design, but rather in its inherent power of the word.