The power of two
Marathi playwrights Mahesh Elkunchwar and Satish Alekar occupy the same place as their better-known counterparts Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad in the theatre-active centres of India. Even the most culture-specific of their plays have been performed in other languages. Now, Oxford University Press has published the collected plays of Elkunchwar and Alekar (in separate volumes), thus bringing some of their most important plays out of their Indian context into a wider domain.
Modern times: (clockwise from top left) Satish Alekar (Kumar Gokhale); Mahesh Elkunchwar (Vivek Ranade); and a scene from Alekar’s play, Atirekee.(Theatre Academy, Pune)
Elkunchwar’s Wada Chirebandi (Old Stone Mansion), which deals with the crumbling values of a landowning Brahmin family of Vidarbha, has been performed in Hindi, Bengali, Kannada and even Garhwali.
Alekar’s Mahanirvan (The Dread Departure), which takes an ironic look at the funeral rites of Marathi Brahmins using the keertan (devotional song) form of story-telling to underline its black humour, has been staged in Rajasthani, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Konkani, Tamil and Kannada. Begum Barve, a tragi-comic look by Alekar at the glorious tradition of sangeet natak (musical theatre) in Maharashtra, has been brilliantly adapted in Hindi, using nautanki (traditional/folk theatre) in place of sangeet natak, and in Gujarati, using the music plays of Bhangwadi as a parallel.
Plays by both playwrights have been read and performed in American universities as well.
Although both began writing around the same time, their first plays were staged a few years apart. Elkunchwar’s early plays, published in the prestigious literary magazine Satyakatha, attracted the attention of Vijaya Mehta (née Jaywant). She directed four of them in quick succession in the same year, 1970, for her theatre laboratory, Rangayan. Alekar’s early plays were also published in Satyakatha, but were not performed on the established “fringe” stage. Instead, they became popular on the inter-collegiate drama competition circuit.
Contemporaries though they are, Elkunchwar and Alekar are driven by widely different concerns. Elkunchwar’s preoccupations, to put it in a nutshell, are about creativity, life, sterility and death. In his early plays, his characters are manifestations of these ideas rather than flesh and blood people. In his later plays, for instance Wada Chirebandi, they are delicately delineated human beings of many shades.
Whatever his theme or mode, Elkunchwar’s plays are marked by his mastery over dramatic structure, each play having a well-defined beginning, middle and end. His language, which began as an unstoppable outpouring in his early plays, quietened down later to an economic, rhythmic prose, full of eloquent silences.
Alekar is concerned with the lives of lower middle-class urban people confronting their cultural history in the face of modernity. Unlike Elkunchwar, he does not craft an overarching structure for his plays. What holds them together is his irreverent and ironic perspective on life. His language is an expression of this irreverence, ranging from playfulness to scathing irony. Its syntax and flavour are so unique that they can only be described, tautologically, as Alekari.
The circle of influence for both in Marathi theatre is narrow, for they are considered “experimental” playwrights. This means that their plays have not been staged in mainstream auditoria such as Mumbai’s Shivaji Mandir and Dinanath Natyagriha, or Pune’s Balgandharva Rang Mandir. They have been staged in smaller, more intimate spaces such as the old Chhabildas School hall in Dadar, Mumbai.
But both have their following among young writers and directors of fringe theatre. The late writer-director Chetan Datar was clearly fascinated by Elkunchwar’s work. He directed Pratibimb (Reflection) in a dance-and-drama form, and condensed the 8-hour trilogy, of which Wada Chirebandi is the first part, into a dense 2-hour performance.
Alekar has always directed his own plays. It is an admission of the extreme individualism of his style that other directors have not been able to achieve the effects that he has with his plays. Marathi playgoers never did take too kindly to Alekar’s wayward imagination and style of writing. Yet, ironically, when Alekar staged the play with an all-American cast at the University of Georgia, it had eight houseful shows. Language is not a barrier to understanding theatre. A lazy mind is.
Collected Plays of Mahesh Elkunchwar, Oxford University Press, 372 pages, Rs695.
Collected Plays of Satish Alekar, Oxford University Press, 432 pages, Rs695.
Shanta Gokhale is the author of Playwright at the Centre: Marathi Drama from 1843 to the Present. Shanta Gokhale
The stage as canvas
Reading the recently published Mister Behram and Other Plays by Gieve Patel is both a discovery and an education. The collection of three plays challenges the insidious notion that playwrights who write in English about India can only offer an amateur, unserious effort predestined to skim the surface of their themes and characters, while remaining alienated from the “true” Indian experience.
The three tragedies—Princes, Savaska and Mister Behram— written by Patel between 1968 and the early 1980s, and directed and performed in quick succession by a generation of talented theatrepersons, including Pearl Padamsee, Nosherwan Jehangir, Roger Pereira, Shernaz Patel and Rajit Kapur, to packed auditoria in south Mumbai, are some of the most intelligently crafted theatrical writing in India.
More remarkably, these are plays situated within the Parsi community of Mumbai as well as the rural landed gentry of south Gujarat, a region that Patel has had close family ties with. Popular culture has often reduced Parsis to shrewish or oddball caricatures who habitually debase their own emotions. In a set of interviews accompanying the plays, Patel confesses it was very important for him to avoid these stereotypes. He succeeds in showing us a world and a way of life built around a single ethnic identity but by universalizing their triumphs and failures, makes them speak for all.
The difficulty of his task must have been compounded by his refusal to play up a few stray examples of ethnicity as local colour. Thus he writes in English without using a sprinkling of Gujarati words, a device that lesser writers have used liberally. His explanation offers an insight into the exacting ways of the playwright. “However close to life a work of art may be, to me it is a work of art and to that extent it is artificial, in the best sense of the word,” he says in an interview that forms part of the book. The artifice he chose was to work in one language and mould it in various ways for different characters so that there isn’t a single Gujarati expression.
This also helps set the tone for the spare yet entirely credible experiences that form the plot and reflect Patel’s abhorrence for an easy compromise. “Second-rate literature bores me,” he says, fatigue mingling with defiance.
For an artist who has remained more private than most, and true to the intensity of his own experiences, he offers some very acute and uncomfortable observations on the state of theatre and its growing mediocrity. “It is a misunderstanding of theatre that week after week audiences are exposed to just one kind of naturalistic theatre,” he says. “This leads audiences to believe that verisimilitude is the greatest expression of creativity.” Then there are the “other extremes of stylized theatre which to me are as much anathema,” he says.
Play it right: Gieve Patel’s depiction of Parsis has a universal resonance. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Finally, the theatre of little traditions, such as folk, has been viewed too often as the sole and legitimate representative of Indian theatre. “The theatre scene in any country cannot grow without a familiarity with (the) great classical texts of any culture,” Patel says.
The three plays in his book are tragedies in the classical mould, with an irremediable and coiled, stripped-down inevitability about the path their characters take. Thus, in Princes, a huge squabbling, fighting, restive cast defeats every possibility of a resolution even as a fiercely coveted child by two sides of a bitterly feuding family pays the ultimate price.
In Savaska, he explores the theme of the use of power in intimate human relationships through the device of an older, prosperous landowning Parsi man who is enamoured by a young impoverished Parsi girl from Mumbai.
And in Mister Behram, perhaps the most powerful and darkly disturbing of the three plays, he explores the improbable but compelling theme of a father-in-law obsessed with his son-in-law in a district town of Gujarat in the 19th century.
Perhaps his aloofness from the actual highs and lows of the cultural scene in India can be explained by the fact that Patel is also a poet and painter of repute and has also had a full career as a physician.
Mister Behram and Other Plays, Seagull Books, 290 pages, Rs350. Devina Dutt
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