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Shanta Gokhale (left) and Sushama Deshpande.Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Shanta Gokhale (left) and Sushama Deshpande.Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The audience now accepts the new woman

Author-critic Shanta Gokhale in conversation with actor-director Sushama Deshpande, on how women characters in Marathi theatre have evolved and taken centre stage

Sushama Deshpande is busy touring Maharashtra with her latest play, Aydaan, which is based on the hard-hitting autobiography of Dalit writer Urmila Pawar, published in 2003. Deshpande, whose play premiered in 2014, shows the exploitation and oppression that a young girl, born into a Dalit family, faces as she grows up, and her journey to becoming a woman’s rights activist and author. After watching the play last year at a festival of Marathi theatre, Pratibimb Marathi Natya Utsav, organized by the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, theatre critic and author Shanta Gokhale wrote, “Sushama Deshpande, who has worked tirelessly for the cause of women through her theatre work, is arguably the only writer-director who could have risen to the challenge of adapting such a story to the stage."

Most of the 60-year-old playwright’s works have dealt with strong women characters—not all of them urban, or palatable to an urban audience. One of her more famous plays started its run in 1989 in rural Maharashtra. Vhay, Mee Savitribai (Yes, I Am Savitribai), a solo performance in which Deshpande plays 19th-century anti-caste reformer Savitribai Phule, continues to be staged. In 1995, Deshpande wrote and acted in another solo performance, Teechya Aeechi Goshta​, based on the life of a Tamasha (a form of theatre) performer. In 2008, she worked with a sex workers’ collective based in Sangli, Maharashtra, directing a play on their lives called My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife.

Gokhale, 76, and Deshpande go back a long way; the former wrote about the thespian in her much feted tome on Marathi theatre, Playwright At The Centre: Marathi Drama From 1843 To The Present, published in 2000. At Gokhale’s Shivaji Park home, the two talk about the evolution of women characters in Marathi theatre, and the many challenges that Deshpande continues to face. Edited excerpts:

Gohkale: I think we can start with your latest play, Aydaan, because it brings together a lot of issues which are part of this whole question of women in Marathi theatre: women as actors, directors, playwrights, and just the one woman producer, good old Lata Narvekar.

Desphande: Mukta Barve (Marathi stage and television actor) too produces plays now. She produced Chhapa Kata with Dinu Pednekar. They have done another play also.

Gokhale: This is interesting. I would say it’s quite historic. Irawati Karnik has written Chhapa Kata. It is about a mother and daughter, and a woman has produced it. I think this is the first time that women have written, acted in and produced a Marathi play. And it’s very successful.

Deshpande: Sai Paranjpye wrote Jaswandi in the 1980s, and the central character is a woman, a housewife.

Gokhale: That’s right. That too was a woman-centric play. But the difference is that in Jaswandi, the protagonist is the wife of a rich man. She is lonely because her husband is never around. Her driver plots to seduce her. She is vulnerable. So she ends up sleeping with him. That means a woman playwright creating a woman character doesn’t necessarily empower her. Whereas, in Chhapa Kata, although the character played by Mukta is manipulated by her ill mother, in the end she shows a lot of spunk. I wonder if the passage of time has something to do with it. Sai wrote her play in the early 1980s.

Between then and Chhapa Kata, which came on the stage last year, a change has come about in the mainstream audience, which now finds this new kind of woman acceptable. I think it started with Prashant Dalvi’s 1992 play Char Chaughi.

Deshpande: Absolutely. Char Chaughi is about a mother and her three daughters. The mother is in a relationship with a married man and her daughters are from that relationship. Each of the four women is different. At one point, I think, the third daughter even deliberates between the two men she likes. She says, “I like one man physically, and the other man at an intellectual level."

Gokhale: Yes! She says that there are so many intelligent men who live with dumb women. As an intelligent woman, why can’t I live with a dumb man! All the characters are flesh-and-blood human beings whom society tries very hard to repress. But they rise above it.

Deshpande: The mother was a very strong character. A single mother who looks after her family well. Each one of them faces complex issues, things that are happening all around us. It was a path-breaking play.

Gokhale: Yes, but these plays—Jaswandi, Char Chaughi, Chhapa Kata—are all middle-class, urban plays. Whatever happens, it is possible for these women to break barriers. Your plays are not about urban middle-class women. Your protagonists win, but only after a very hard struggle. Take Aydaan, Urmila Pawar’s story. Let’s talk about how gender and caste become the crucial issues there.

Deshpande: Aydaan, the book itself, is very powerful. It’s an autobiography, but what I found interesting was the humour with which Urmila Pawar looks at her life. She has faced discrimination on the basis of both caste—she belongs to the Dalit community—and gender. Even when she came to live in the city, the discrimination continued. That makes hers a very representative story. She belonged to a very poor family with many siblings. Her mother was illiterate, but she ensured that her children, including Urmila, received education. Urmila went on to do her graduation and postgraduation. She felt the need for inner growth, and she was prepared to fight for it. She mentions at one point in the book that her husband was addicted to drinking, and she was addicted to education and working for women.

Gokhale: When you perform this play in different towns and cities, a large majority of the people who come to watch it are middle class. What is their response?

Deshpande: Their response is quite mixed. The play begins with a conversation amongst the village women with whom Urmila grew up. Their language is very colourful. The middle-class audience can’t relate to that. They start listening only when the play begins to talk about school and Urmila’s father. But, recently, we did the play in Ramnarain Ruia College (in Mumbai) and the response of the students was fantastic. Even in Pune, recently, Lokayat (a Pune-based non-governmental organization) organized a performance and the audience, all young people, was great.

It’s a two-and-a-half-hour-long play. But they were with it all the way through. I must thank Ramu Ramanathan (playwright) here for forcing the play out of me. Every time he’d see me—even on Google chat—he’d ask, “Aydaan?" Of course, for the longest time even Urmila didn’t give me permission to do the play based on her book. Also, the other big problem I faced was what form to give the play.

Gokhale: Finding the right form is the biggest hurdle. Even Vijay Tendulkar had the story of Ghashiram Kotwal complete in his mind, but he couldn’t find a form in which he could tell it. It was entirely by chance that he saw the Marathi folk form naman khele being performed in a wadi (neighbourhood). The characters stood swaying in a line. Each actor would step forward to do his bit, and return to the line. He knew instantly that he had found his form. That’s the source of the human curtain we see in Ghashiram.

Deshpande: Ramu’s point was: You did Vhay, Mee Savtribai about Savitribai Phule’s work. Who else can do Aydaan? I was very tense for the first performance. I thought people will not accept the play. Three girls play Urmila and all the other characters, men and women. The girls don’t change costumes. They suggest the different characters by means of some mannerisms and gestures.

Gokhale: Marathi parallel theatre has always given playwrights and directors the freedom to break the boundaries set by conventional plays. The mainstream theatre doesn’t allow that.

Deshpande: That’s right. There were more performers in Aydaan, but it seemed to me like an extension of Savitribai. The process was interesting too. All the three girls participated in the reading of Urmila’s book, and choosing which parts could go into the play.

Gokhale: It is generally believed that the reason why more women haven’t directed plays in our theatre is because they feel inhibited by the system which is dominated by men. What has been your experience?

Deshpande: Even with Aydaan, I felt it was a challenge. It’s not like no one turned up to watch the play. They did. But nobody supported it by organizing performances. I was very upset. I wrote a long letter to Ramu in which I wondered if I had made a mistake by not going into commercial theatre and television serials for fame. Perhaps I should have turned in that direction. It’s not like chances didn’t come. But then, while we were performing Aydaan, I was also performing Savitribai in Hindi all across the country. The response was phenomenal and I told myself, “Why am I upset, yaar? I am doing what I believe in doing."

Gokhale: Comparing Aydaan with Teechya Aeechi Goshta​ (a 1995 play about a Tamasha artiste written and performed by Deshpande), I find there are other and equally complex issues of caste and gender that you had to deal with. If we go back to Kamlabai Gokhale (the early 20th century Marathi stage and film actor) we find that she was acting on stage at a time when women were not supposed to. Perhaps her confidence came from belonging to a high caste and of being in her husband’s company. Women in Tamasha come from the lower castes and don’t have husbands. But your play attempts to show them as empowered despite the social discrimination they suffer.

Deshpande: Let me first explain that there are two types of Tamasha performances. There’s the sangeet bari and the dholki fad. The latter begins with an invocation to God, and there is social and political commentary too, done by a clown. Then comes a lavani, followed by a narrative or play called vag. Earlier vags used to be on Puranic themes. Later they became socially relevant. The dholki fad is performed by the Mang and Mahar castes, who are socially backward. The sangeet bari, which is a series of lavanis strung together, is sung and danced by women from the Kolhati samaj. I did research for my play by spending a lot of time with Tamasha artistes. Once, I mentioned that my husband had watched a performance, too. The artiste I was speaking to said, “Tell him not to go there." I said I didn’t have any problem if he saw a Tamasha performance because it’s a very interesting art and I have faith in my husband. She replied, “But I have faith in my girls!" This is the source of their confidence and empowerment, which I wanted to depict.

Gokhale: What was the reaction of your feminist friends to this play? Because Tamasha is meant to seduce married men. Take them away from their wives. So what happens to the sisterhood?

Deshpande: Well, the lives of these women certainly interested them. After one performance, a few of them said something needs to be done about the children of Tamasha artistes, who face a lot of stigma. I was very excited and told the artistes about this. They looked at me and said, “Forget it. Everyone talks, but there are only a few mad women like you who do something about it." They were right. No one did anything about the children. Again, compared to Savitribai, which everyone from the social and political fields wanted me to perform, to show their affinity to the Phule ideals, hardly anyone wanted to invite the Tamasha play, although that too was about another kind of woman who needs to be understood. Of course, The Stree Mukti Sanghatana (a women’s rights group based in Maharashtra) organized performances. But nobody else did.

Gokhale: Were you present for Expressions, the women’s cultural festival that Madhusree Dutta organized in Mumbai in 1990? This was a milestone event in cultural activism centred on gender issues. You remember that Yamunabai, the Tamasha artiste, performed, and we were all floored by her? Madhusree’s idea in having this three-day conference of theatre artistes and activists was to bring about a dialogue between them so that they would take something from each other. Your plays straddle both sides and your attempt in showing your protagonists as empowered is, to my mind, similar to feminist artistes showing Sita and Draupadi as empowered women. I am not always convinced by these attempts. Tichya leaves me wondering if you are not looking enough at the exploitation they suffer. It’s a trap. Because if you look at their lives from that angle, it becomes a victim story. And Tamasha women are not victims in that sense.

Deshpande: To write that complexity into the play is very important. I once asked the women, if they had one more life, what would they choose to do? They replied after a pause, “We will choose to be Tamasha dancers in our next life too."

Gokhale: You say there was a pause before they gave you that answer.

Deshpande: Yes, there was.

Gokhale: I wonder if, in that pause, they saw themselves as married women whose husbands would go to Tamashas and be seduced, and then answered your question. You also directed a play with sex workers in Sangli with VAMP (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad, the cultural arm of Sangram, a community-based organization for sex workers’ rights) in 2008. The play, My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife, was not so much about them wanting to escape their lives, as about having the right not to be harassed by the police and goondas. Your plays constantly bring up this issue of social discrimination against women—Urmila Pawar, Tamasha artistes, sex workers.

Deshpande: The work that Sangram and VAMP do with sex workers started as an AIDS awareness campaign. When the sex workers began to connect with each other, they also got a lot of training about their human rights and the law. It was a long process. Now they wanted to tell their own stories through a play. They were also very clear that mainstream audiences should see it. So whereas I had performed my other plays outside the proscenium, I now took this play back to the stage.

Gokhale: Yes, I saw a show at Prithvi Theatre. It was a packed house and the show was very lively and charged.

Deshpande: We did four shows. The women wanted to talk to the audience after the show. For me it was a very rich experience. When we would eat together, all of us would sit and talk about things. They’d say, “That customer talked a lot. I’d have finished four scenes in that time."

Gokhale: Audiences have definitely changed. I think it’s because of the great variety of entertainment that is coming into homes through television and the Internet. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was parallel theatre and cinema that loosened people’s straitjackets. Does this day and age make it easier for you to do your kind of plays? You didn’t have people demonstrating outside Prithvi, calling the play “obscene" and demanding that it should be banned. In that sense, things have changed. Although, I must say, there’s been a strong tradition of issue-based plays in Marathi theatre, supported by the liberal half of Marathi society.

Sushama Deshpande: Yes, that’s true. The liberal half has always supported this kind of theatre. Nothing is so controversial any more.

Also read: Excerpt: Acting Up—Gender And Theatre In India, 1979 Onwards

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