Q&A | Makarand Sathe
The playwright on his three-volume book on 150 years of Marathi theatre and dichotomies in the idea of a ‘national theatre’
An architect by profession, Makarand Sathe’s moonlighting career in the arts has held him in good stead. As a playwright, his plays have been performed at both national and international festivals. His Marathi absurdist novel, Achyut Athavale Aani Athavan, was released by Penguin Books India in an English translation by Shanta Gokhale, titled The Man Who Tried to Remember, in 2012.
Perhaps his most towering achievement in recent years has been the Marathi treatise, Marathi Natakachya Tees Ratri—Ek Samajik Rajkiya Itihas, which emerged from a grant from the not-for-profit organization India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), and was published by Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, in 2011. It traces 150 years of the history of Marathi theatre—from the very first public performance of Seeta Swayamvar in 1843 right through to the 1990s, when contemporary experimental theatre was entering its prime—in three dense volumes narrated as a dialogue between a clown and a playwright over 30 years. An English-language version has been released recently. The title is a literal translation, A Socio-Political History Of Marathi Theatre: Thirty Nights, and it runs into 1,440 pages in three volumes. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What was the translation process like?
The first phase involved abridging the material, since the Marathi version ran into 1,800 pages. The publishers of the English version, Oxford University Press (OUP), wanted a condensed volume and I argued that the book would lose its comprehensiveness and its value as an exhaustive reference manual. They agreed to allow a translation that maintained the thoroughness of the original. Academician Madhuri Dixit translated 50-odd pages before dropping out. Contemporary Marathi playwright Irawati Karnik and I worked in tandem to translate most of the material. There were three other translators who worked on smaller portions. The consolidated material was then vetted, particularly for language, by theatre critic Shanta Gokhale. I then rechecked her draft for interpretation and meaning, and then a final version was sent to the OUP. I worked closely with their copy editor, fielding extensive queries.
The book is written as a series of conversations between a clown and a playwright over 30 nights. How did this framework emerge?
Although I’m interested in intellectual analysis, I am not a historian by profession. I felt the book should not resemble tedious history books that line library shelves. This book started as a personal exploration of who I am, and I wanted to know the answer to that in sociopolitical historical terms. One idea was to introduce the sutradhars (narrators) of several plays as conduits to their worlds—this proved to be cumbersome, and not all plays lend themselves to such a telling. The writer himself could address the question of “Who am I?”, but I didn’t want the book to read as a playwright’s apologia. The conversations needed to be initiated by another entity. That is where the clown emerged, rather than the standard sutradhar of Marathi plays. The clown is all pervasive, he can be subversive, funny, direct or argumentative as he likes, while being a sounding board to the playwright. Initially, the clown does the prodding, but later the questioning self of the playwright rears its head. This fosters a sense of lively debate. Any issue at any point of time can be seen through two voices. The stories that emerge are therefore, multi-layered.
It is absolutely 100% fact. The vigour of research, references, quotes, everything is in place. It is very faithful to the Marathi original. In terms of argument, there are no changes. We added more than 50 elaborate footnotes, keeping in mind that non-Marathi readers wouldn’t be privy to inside information about Marathi theatre.
The book brings out very clearly that Marathi theatre is not monolithic. All its various strands are expounded upon—folk forms, Dalit theatre, middle-class theatre. Do these forms share common ground apart from a common tongue?
There are shared characteristics. Earlier, there wasn’t a clear demarcation between “high” or “low” theatre (not in terms of class, but aesthetically). The same writers wrote for middle-class commercial shows, for experimental works, for the socialist theatre of the Rashtra Seva Dal. Even if you take Annabhau Sathe and his working-class theatre, many middle-class writers, film directors or film actors were his close friends. There was a lot of debate, and a lot of clearly defined positions, but even then there was a lot of interaction. Society wasn’t fragmented as it is now. Also significantly, Marathi theatre of all genres has always been word-based theatre—the theatre of ideas and language. That’s what distinguishes it from other genres, like the theatre of roots, for instance.
How did you excavate the subaltern voices for which material was rather thin on the ground?
The problem was that, everywhere in India, but especially in Maharashtra, we are really poor in documentation. Even for mainstream theatre, few photographs or interviews have been preserved. For Dalit theatre, absolutely nothing is available. Even scripts cannot be traced. I relied a lot on personal collections, some of whose owners could be really taciturn. There were certainly some very interesting exchanges. A few shahirs (folk performers) from the tamasha tradition, who had no written record of their work, sang their songs for me. The research led to old tattered copies of journals, so fragile that I wouldn’t take xeroxes—I copied them out by hand. So many people helped me, as evinced by the extensive list of acknowledgments.
A so-called national character in terms of the country’s history emerges in your work. Is there such a thing as a “national theatre” or is that a misnomer?
Well, yes and no. On one hand, there is no such “national theatre”—it’s just a conglomeration of several forms. On the other hand, there were significant exchanges. The first political play in Marathi was translated from Punjabi, in 1872. There was a lot of interaction, especially between the provinces of Hisar, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Maharashtra was in a position of political leadership from the 1920s with the arrival of Gandhi, so there was always a sense that our theatre addressed national questions, not local concerns. In fact, when the very first Marathi play, Seeta Swayamvar, was staged in 1843, the promoters billed it as “national entertainment”. So we have always been aware of the streams of national theatre, and positioned ourselves against that backdrop. Which is why, the book is essentially sociopolitical history seen through the prism of theatre.
We get a ringside view of the changes across 150 years in Marathi theatre. How seamless have these transitions been?
There is definitely a strong sense of continuation. Obviously there are directional changes, but even if you create a work that is subversive to the kind of theatre that precedes it, you still follow in the same flow. In the last two decades, I feel Marathi theatre has been one of the country’s most vivacious. However, it appears to be increasingly relegated to urban centres like Pune and Mumbai. Earlier writers emerged from smaller towns, groups worked in rural areas; now that is vanishing fast. Still, the theatre circuit remains strong and continues to deal with the complexities of our time that have arisen from globalization or capitalism, for instance. Theatre exists in the here and now, and audiences need to keep flocking to venues. In a fragmented world, the work of theatre becomes more difficult than say, novels or films. But, in its heart, Marathi theatre is really trying to surmount these odds. They are falling a bit short at the moment, but that’s all right. The striving continues.