Sushama Deshpande
I first met Sushama tai at her apartment in Mahim. She was sitting at the dining table in her over-sized dark green nightgown, giving relationship advice to a young colleague of her husband's, who had recently been married. ''So what advice did you give him?'' I asked. Tai said, 'I told him: ''What are you doing here?'' Go home and have sex with your wife. You young people are so caught up with your work that you don't have time for each other.'' Now this girl has left her hometown, her parents and everything she has ever known to come to Mumbai and settle down with this fellow, and he instead spends all his time in the theatre. Of course they are constantly fighting.'

I was amazed by her openness even before our conversation began, but this is Sushama tai. You can see this candidness resonate in her work and in the stories she chooses to tell. The bulk of her work has focused on the discriminated sections in our society. She has focused on social stigmas and taboos and has dealt with great personalities such as in her famous biographical, one-woman play WHAY MEE SAVITRIBAI. I spoke to her about Savitri and her extraordinary journey in the theatre to date.

 By Deepa Punjani

Gaurangi Dang (GD): You've now spent over 27 years performing Savitri, yet the need for a show like this doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon. Why do you think that is?

Sushama Deshpande (SD): You see Jyotiba and Savitri Phule were pioneers. If you look at social movements in Maharashtra, whether they are about women's rights, or the Dalit movements, you would find that you could trace all these movements to this couple. They are hugely responsible for starting the conversation on the need for change in Indian society. They fought very hard for the things that we now take for granted, like education. It was a tough uphill battle but they were relentless. However, now you see things getting worse because the politics of our world is becoming more and more fascist and rigid. Even now when I stage performances, sometimes girls don't show up because their family members are afraid to send them out late at night. There's also this other fear of the girl child learning something new that would make it harder for her to be controlled. So I have to often go and plead with the community members to allow the girls to come and participate. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't.

Tai, in conversation with one of her actors for her play AAYDAAN.
Tai, in conversation with one of her actors for her play AAYDAAN.

GD: And does this resistance affect you?

SD: I think it only makes me want to fight harder. The moment I stop feeling that fire or need within myself to do a show, from that day onwards, I'll stop doing the show.

GD: Why did you pick Savitri?

SD: I felt I owed a lot to Savitri while I was growing up. The fact that I had any shot at an education, had a lot to do with the battles she had already fought for girls like me.

GD: When did the Savitri journey begin?

SD: It's actually a funny story. It began when I was still working as a journalist. I was pregnant and was three months into my pregnancy. I decided to stay home to take care of my baby. I was trying to stay healthy you know, like to eat properly, to exercise a little bit...but I got bored of that pretty fast. It was very difficult to do nothing, so I started doing a bit of reading. I wanted to do something on the women who had worked with Gandhi ji for I felt very little had been written about them. On hearing this a friend of mine suggested that I instead research Savitri, and the idea stuck. I started researching Savitri and Professor Ram Bapat served as my self-appointed guide on the project. During my research, there was news of a rape doing the rounds. Rape back then wasn't as usual as it is today, and I remember asking the Professor, ''Sir, what would Savitri have done?'' It was then that we realised that this could actually be a form of theatre.

GD: How has the piece evolved over the years?

SD: Savitri changed from an idea into a feasible reality. The play has evolved over time. At first the idea was to do it like a regular play, with multiple actors, sets and lights on stage in an auditorium. We even went to visit Savitri's house, so that my husband could design the sets and the lights for the play.

Sushama Tai, in conversation with Awishkar theatre’s Sitaram mama before he rang his famed <i>ghanta</i> (the bell) for the show.
Sushama Tai, in conversation with Awishkar theatre’s Sitaram mama before he rang his famed ghanta (the bell) for the show.

The first performance of the play was for a women's organization, the 'Nari Samata Manch' on 3rd January 1989 on the S.N.D.T campus at their big hall at 4 pm. 3rd January is also celebrated as the day of Jyotiba's birth. However, fifteen minutes into the performance, the electricity went out. This was a crucial moment, and in this moment I was once again left to think, ''What would Savitri have done?'' So we opened the doors and windows of the auditorium and performed it that way. This changed the entire game. It was then that I realised that Savitri could be performed anywhere, by anybody who was willing to understand her like I did.

I've performed this piece several times in rural areas. At first I used to just go in, start performing, finish and leave. A rural audience is very different from an urban audience, for they will simply leave if they do not understand what is going on. So I started to interact with the audiences before I actually began the performance. This put the people more at ease and allowed them to invest themselves in the story. If they're not prepared for what to expect, then it gets harder for them to watch.

Eventually I started carrying a small kit. I would apply Savitri's tikka, do my hair up, while simultaneously asking them questions about Jyotiba and Savitri. I'd say, ''Do you know Savitri?'' ''Do you know why I'm doing this?'' Sometimes I'd ask them about their own lives. ''Why are you here to watch me?'' And then eventually I'd ask them ''Should I begin?'' But it took me about seventy-five performances to figure out that I should probably talk to them first.

GD: Savitribai was Dalit, and you are a Brahmin woman. Even the Tamasha artistes in TICHYA AAAICHI GOSHTA, ARTHAT MAAZA ATHAVANCHI PHAD, have survived on the periphery of our society. Was there any backlash when you tried to tell these stories in terms of your caste v/s theirs?

SD: I am a storyteller. I've never been to a single school to study theatre. I picked it as an art form because I was deeply interested in it. I use theatre as a form because I believe that it can tell the story best. There have been reactions to my work. After one of my shows at Mumbai University, one of the professors there said that I used the sex workers that acted in my play to publicize myself without their consent. But doing theatre was their decision and I was only their director. The women were very well aware of their roles in the play and it was their call all along. I only did the play because the proposal excited me. I think as artistes, we don't adhere to the same social norms, as most other people are prone to. For somebody like me, it isn't about being a Deshpande and Savitri belonging to another caste. My job is to tell the story to the best of my abilities and that is all that should matter.

GD: Who are the women that have influenced you?

SD: All our powerful women. Tarabai Shinde, wrote 'Stri Purush Tulana' all the way back in the 19th century. Rukminibai became a doctor and fought for her own divorce. It was one of the first divorces in the country. The judge charged her Rs 1200 and she got a petition signed by 102 women to finally get her divorce. When I read women saint poets, writing in favour of the great god Vitthal, they use him as a medium for their unique expression. Soyra, the 13th century dalit woman saint wrote about the female's menstrual cycle when it was completely a taboo and an unspoken subject, in a time when menstruating girls and women were considered unclean. The problem exists to date. Even now there are people who still refuse to allow their girls and women to enter the kitchen or go to a temple during their time of the month. Soyra asked why we label something so natural as 'malign'. Zana, another poet, grew up in a high class, but nevertheless patriarchal society, and spoke about issues of identity. She wrote, ''My pallu has come off, as I walk unafraid into the marketplace.'' Due to the patriarchal framework of our society, most of this poetry has remained elusive. The stories of these strong and powerful women have mostly been eliminated from our histories.

A still from play AAYDAAN, directed by Sushama Deshpande.
A still from play AAYDAAN, directed by Sushama Deshpande.

GD: What is the experience of performing at political rallies?

SD: Political people are not interested in performances. They are interested in how Jyotiba and Savitri affect people. At first I would say no to all the rallies, but then I started performing at these rallies for hefty sums. They paid well.

GD: How has it been working with the men who figured in your theatre and political journey? You were mentored by Ram Bapat, trained under Augusto Boal and have worked in close contact with Sharad Pawar.

SD: I could do Savitri because of Ram Bapat. He was such an incredible person. He actually never taught me in college. I was studying in Baramati and he was teaching Political Science in Pune. It was through the small cultural circles in Pune that I got acquainted with him. I was young and in Pune at that time, a lot of people would always be asking him things, and so I also followed suit, and started asking him these political and cultural questions. He was my Sir and the total credit for Savitribai goes to him. He gave me these incredible books that went on to create a base for Savitri. He'd say, don't just look at Savitri and Jyotiba as individual beings, but study the society in Pune at that time - the ideology that was prevalent in those times, and the larger battles they had to fight against. It's because of Bapat that I could visualise Savitri and Jyotiba. Sir nahi hote, to shayad mera performance kabhi nahi hota.He was the man I went to when I realised that this could be a theatre form. He was a quiet person, one who wouldn't say much. He'd just interrupt me while I would ramble on with the smallest of questions that would lead me to thinking. He gave me the confidence to write the script and develop it.

Sharad Pawar is a political guy. I've worked with him quite a bit. His work whether it is social or cultural in nature, has a lot to do with the politics of politics. He knows exactly why he's propagating a certain ideology or agenda over others at a given point in time. It's because of him that Ambedkar University is called so. I know him because we're both from Baramati. The atmosphere of working with him was very different. I was a Trustee Secretary of one of his organisations. I started working with women under a trust for Sharad Pawar.

Sushama Deshpande

I first met Augusto Boal in Toronto, Canada. I attended his workshop while I was attending a Theatre of the Oppressed conference. Then I went back to India and began working for Sharad Pawar. In 2003 when I stopped working for him, I decided that I wanted to explore the Theatre of the Oppressed further. I wrote my friend Betty Bernard asking for help to go about the process. She had interviewed me for her project on Women in Indian Theatre. There was an Augusto Boal workshop on the anvil in Los Angeles for a month but it was really expensive and I obviously couldn't afford it. So Betty once again wrote to them, that a girl from India is coming and if you let her do the workshop free of cost, then in return, she will perform her acclaimed piece on the life of Savitribai Phule on the last day for you. They agreed and so I went in with an English translation of the text to L.A. and performed the piece in Marathi itself.

I didn't even have a place to stay. Betty wrote to them once again and one guy came forward saying that I could stay at his place free of cost. We'd work all day and then eat dinner with Augusto Boal every evening. It was an incredible time in my life. We learnt techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed - from Forum theatre to Legislative theatre, but the real learning comes from one's self. Boal would always say that the concept is mine, but it's up to you to choose how you explore it. We stayed in touch since the workshop till he passed away.

GD: You've come a long way since your Baramati days of performing for your father. Do you miss that old world?

SD (laughs): I miss the farm. I wanted to stay on the farm. I would like to go back and work with women and children on the farm. My parents have now passed away, so of course it wouldn't be the same to go back to Baramati, but I'd still like to go back to living on a farm.

GD: Anything else on your list?

SD: Sometimes I feel that maybe I should have done all these TV serials. At least that way you get recognition and so may be more people could have come to watch my plays. Then there are days when I am very happy with the way things are because I realise that the work I have done and continue to do, is meaningful to me.

*Gaurangi Dang is an English Literature graduate from the University of Delhi and a student of The Drama School (DSM), Mumbai. She likes to tell stories :)

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