Playwright Mahesh Dattani discusses the legacy of Vijay Tendulkar, who passed away on Monday, 19 May, 2008, and explains why he was the pre-eminent playwright of modern India
What was playwright Vijay Tendulkar’s contribution to theatre?
Vijay Tendulkar’s contribution to Indian theatre was immense. He was the true father of modern Indian theatre. He was the first playwright to put the Indian middle class family under the microscope, like Arthur Miller did the American middle class in the 1950s and the 60s.
Did his plays have a dominant theme or a subject?
Yes, many of Tendulkar’s predecessors and contemporaries glorified the Indian middle class but he had the acid gaze. Which is why I say that he put his subject under a microscope. He showed the rot within, the violent and dysfunctional side of the Indian family.
With the exception of a few, others tended to brush these issues under the carpet. There usually would be a patriarch at the centre of your conventional family drama and his values would invariably be “good”. It was Tendulkar who first questioned these values and the gender equations within the family.
Are most his plays then centred around the middle class family?
Many are, even if they do not fit the living-room drama genre. Tendulkar talked about the man-woman relation at its basic level. He also talked about caste equations in society and also in the context of the family.
In Kanyadaan, for instance, the daughter of a middle class Brahmin man decides to marry a dalit. At first all seems to be great but as the play progresses we realize that things are not what they seem. With his veneer of liberal mindedness, the patriarch says that his daughter’s decision is a progressive step. But he is basically a self-centred person who is more caught up with his ideology and not really concerned about his daughter’s happiness.
Was Tendulkar was very influential even though he wrote all his plays in Marathi?
I see him not as a Marathi playwright, but as a modern Indian playwright. He has been so influential because, along with Girish Karnad, he was a playwright whose works have been translated into all the major Indian languages, including English. However, he did write some film screenplays in Hindi.
What does Vijay Tendulkar mean to you in your personal journey as a playwright?
I grew up watching his plays and was struck by the way he dealt with violence in the family set-up. It was largely psychological, though sometimes of the overt physical variety too—there was this simmering undercurrent of power play.
Many of my plays also revolve around the middle class family and I was hugely influenced by his works.
His play Kamala, for instance, in which a journalist buys a tribal woman to highlight their plight of the tribals, shows the urban-rural power equation, as well as the nuances of interpersonal relationship in the form of the journalist’s relation with his wife.
Has there been a noticeable shift in Indian theatre in the pre- and post-Tendulkar era?
Well, I haven’t done an academic study, so I can’t say. But, to me, his body of work stands alone in many respects. There have been others before him, like PL Deshpande or even Rabindranath Tagore, who deal with social issues, but their treatment tended to be more romantic, poetic or lyrical. Tendulkar was hard-hitting and direct; that is what puts him in the realm of modern theatre. It was his exceptional and unflinching gaze.
What is your favourite Tendulkar play?
That’s a tough one, but if I had to select one, Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (Silence! The Court is in Session) would be it.