Marathi Theatre

The adjective that best describes the important Marathi plays of the last ten years is "free". The impact of different isms - existentialism, Maraxism, naturalism, symbolism - can be seen, but these plays have not made themselves vehicles of any one ideology, almost as if in reaction to the plays presented between 1972 and 1983.

One also feels that theatre today has comparatively fewer biases, prejudices and influences. No mature playwright or director now would try to imitate Ghashiram Kotwal, Gochi, Uddhwasta Dharmashala, Begum Barwe, Mahanirwan, or even Holi and Atmakatha. Maybe these youngsters will prefer to do nothing, but will surely refuse to fall prey to these strong stimuli of the past.

The theatre people of the seventies had an almost empty canvas. (Rangayan had stopped being active since 1965). The immediate past was not a burden. It was comparatively easy to be a pioneer or even to create history, while the theatre people of the eighties had a backdrop created by the earlier generation. It was very easy for them to be overshadowed; and it may be said that they successfully refused to be thus eclipsed.

The first sign of a fresh kind of theatre was seen in Shyam Manohar's Yakrit (1984), followed by Hriday (1984), both directed by Satyadev Dubey. His comic plays focus on the individual, his relationship with other individuals and with society as a whole: on the larger power struggle. The characters in Hriday live an alienated life, immersed in corruption, identity less. "Lack of pure joy" is their sorrow. These plays express a feeling of pity for these characters, who become a laughingstock, yet do not lose all sympathy, giving rise to a peculiar kind o black comedy.

Manohar, who has refused the regular narrative as well as conventional characterization, is an important playwright of the last decade. This success is shared by director Satyadev Dubey who managed to bring these hidden statements into theatrical focus. One can say that Manohar's plays are the next milestone in Marathi theatre after Alekar's Mahanirwan.

When Manohar was inspecting human beings from the inside, Shafaat Khan, in his Mumbaiche Kawle (1983), was presenting a kaleidoscopic picture of middle-class youth, his political naivete and idealism, and the all-encompassing corruption. Khan likes to satirize political-social-religious happenings and non-happenings with his oblique style and logic.

This is obvious in his other plays too, like Ka (1981), Kisse (1983), and Bhumiticha Farce (1988). He seems to have a total allergy for conventional plots, naturalistic characterization, usual stage geography and the box set. Often, his attention is focused only on the apparently absurd.

While discussing the use of folk forms in modern theatre, one has to note the possibility of the concept of desivad (nativism) being the main force behind such ventures. In this regard, one needs to reevaluate the works of K N Panikkar, Habib Tanvir, Bansi Kaul, Ratan Thiyam. B Jayashree et al, or else the urban theatre-lover will live in the computer age by day and be pushed back a few centuries at night, watching these plays. Of course there are examples where the use of folk form has, in fact, helped in articulating and expressing the content. Vijay Tendulkar's Ghashiram Kotwal (1972) and Alekar's Mahanirwan (1974) can be viewed as pathfinders in this context. Both made use of various folk traditions of Maharashtra, such as the kirtan, and marked the major turning point of contemporary Marathi theatre.

The new generation, however, has greater affinity with Mahanirwan than with Ghashiram. Playwrights like Rajeev Naik, Shafaat Khan, Makarand Sathe found the roots of their sensibility in this play. The anxiety to make sense of the physical environment and social milieu, the "no" to tradition, the anger about the past, the cool reaction to close blood-relations, the cynical way of looking at things and an attitude (basically reflected in language) that subverts long-held notions about life and death - all these themes seem to explode in Mahanirwan.

When several codes are broken on the level of content, one finds a corresponding code-breaking on the level of form, with an amazing amalgamation of tradition and experimentation. It can even be said that Mahanirwan opened a channel for the future generation to express itself. A still more mature example of Alekar's theatre vision is Begum Barwe (1979). A minor former female-impersonator (stri-parti) on the sangit rangabhumi, who thinks of himself as a woman, a cruel representative of actual reality and two identity less, unmarried clerks make up the cast. Three of them share an absurd daydream, which brings to the fore numerous complexes rooted in fear, insecurity and anxiety. Alekar makes use of several theatrical devices from the gong to the rolling curtails.

But the real backdrop is the music of the sangit rangabhumi, in a way, an urban folk art. The sign-systems of brutal reality and this make-believe world clash to create the distorted shattered world of Begum Barwe. Rajeev Naik, Antarnatya's playwright, is prolific and experimental. He uses anything for his springboard - the dialogues of the Rigveda, characters from the Mahabharata and its commentators, conceptual analysis of the genres of comedy and tragedy, or Freudian-Jungian psychoanalysis.

Taking inspiration from the old and traditional, Naik gives it the shape and sensibility of the new and modern, and touches the universal during the process. At times he uses a particular device like the monologue (Mitli Papni, 1987); at times his play becomes a long argument (Akhercha Parwa, 1993), at times, almost a modern school of criticism (Vandha, 1986). In Apsatlya Goshti (1993) he went near naturalism without creating a totally naturalistic play, in Sandha (1990) he went close to symbolism without creating a symbolic play.

It is difficult to label Naik's plays, though Sandha is said to be a classic example of the discussion-play, and Akhercha Parwa has almost given risen to a thesis play. A self-explanatory stand, linearity, fear of theatrical elaboration - these defects remain in his plays, which give more importance to thoughts and ideas than to feelings and emotions. Plot, conventional characterization, "dramatic" situations are absent. Naik is said to be a "cerebral" playwright, which indeed should be taken as a compliment.

Prashant Dalvi's Dagad Ka Miti! (1989) seems to be about four individuals, but one soon realizes that it is about an entire class. It comments on social corruption and the need for privacy. What if walls were to become transparent, and even minds? The playwright offers a theatrical extension of this fantastic idea revolving round the concept of man's identity. The play is a mixture of naturalism and clownish fantasy, hence the caricaturist characterization.

In the performance directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni, this balance was achieved, but the result was not very strong. Dalvi's over explanatory, poetic dialogue might be the reason. His play Paugand (1988) dealt with various observations regarding adolescence, made in a free form. Stir (1988) was almost a street-play, progressive in content. Dalvi tends to remain experimental in the naturalistic genre.

Makarand Sathe's plays are distinctly different in sensibility. Charshekoti Visarbhole (1986) directed by Vijay Kenkre, Roman Samrajyachi Padzad (1987) and Sapatnekarache Mul (1993), both directed by Ajit Bhagat for Avishkar, do not have a story or plot. The string of situations does not take you to a predetermined target, but clever observations, coupled with apparently ridiculous situations, suggest many things about tensions in modern life, tradition and modernity, the relationship between science and nature. They operate on an almost surrealistic level. Though, at times, one feels the imagery to be too personal and therefore non-communicative, one can definitely say that Sathe's is a novel experiment.

Premanand Gajvi is a prolific and prominent Dalit playwright. His problem-plays in a conventional box-set genre deal with such social evils as the Devadasi problem (Devnavri, 1980), bonded labour (Tanmajoi, 1985), "water-for-all" (Ghothbar pani, 1977). A very straightforward structure is characteristic of Gajvi, obvious statements and slightly crude imagery, his drawbacks. He does not go into all the social problems he chooses to write on, but his integrity and honesty more than compensate. He has become the spokesman of the downtrodden in Marathi theatre and his sympathy lies with all exploited people, as is evident from Kirwant (1992), directed by Shreeram Lagoo, which deals with the woes of a Brahman conducting funeral rites, and Jay Jay Rahuvir Samarth (1985) directed by Ajit Bhagat, about the dominance of the Ramdas sect over the Tukaram sect. Gajvi's commitment thus has a broader base.

Gajvi's lack of a wider ideological time frame disappears in Datta Bhagat's Wata Palwata (1986), directed by Sudheer Mungi. Bhagat traces the influence of the Ambedkar movement through three generations. The inner tensions within the movement are pinpointed, along with an emphasis on the integrity of the earlier generation and the broadening of ideals of the younger generation. With this play, the committed Marathi theatre became truly unsentimental and introspective.

Any article on Marathi parallel theatre will remain incomplete without mention of two competitions. The full-length play competition organized by the state government in centres all over Maharashtra has given us productions like Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe! Ghashiram Kotwal and Mahanirwan. Recently, however, noncompetitive theatre flourishes, at least in Bombay and Pune, and the qualitative output of the state competitions has decreased considerably. However, it still provides a platform and about 500 plays are staged every year with about 15,000 people participating. The second platform is the intercollegiate one-act competitions: Unmesh and INT in Bombay and Purushottam Karandak in Pune. (Of course, innumerable one-act competitions are conducted all over Maharashtra, the important ones at Kankavli and Wai.)

*The above article appeared in a newsletter titled "Theatre 4 U" that was distributed during the Prithvi Festival of 1997. Some inputs in this article are courtesy RASA.

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