December 10, 2019
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The Tumultuous Prophet

His own judges were the first to be baffled. A revolution was born on stage.

The Tumultuous Prophet
The Tumultuous Prophet
Marathi is the only Indian language today which has a viable urban theatre, managed by and for the educated middle classes. Right from the early 1930s, alongside the commercial natak mandalis which specialised in song-and-spectacle melodramas, playwrights like Mama Varerkar, M.G. Rangnekar and Acharya Atre devoted themselves to creating a 'parallel theatre', with tasteful and socially engaged plays, aimed at the elite.

Vijay Tendulkar, who died on May 19 at the age of 80, was a product of this tradition, but managed to lead it in a wholly different direction. He created a new language for the stage, rejected the sentimental and self-regarding complacence of his predecessors, and explored middle-class problems with an honesty and depth that often scared the audiences away. He wrote over 30 plays, some inevitably indifferent, but a few—like Shantata! Court Chaloo Aahe (Silence! The Court is in Session), which brought him national recognition in 1969—so powerful and original that they have ensured his place as the greatest Indian playwright of the 20th century.

When Ghashiram Kotwal first competed for the Maharashtra state awards, its innovative combination of music, choreography and analytical design so baffled the judges that they couldn't decide whether it was legitimate theatre. Half a century later, it stands unexcelled for the sheer brilliance of its artistry. Anyone who has ever been involved in such an enterprise knows the amount of preliminary discussion, rewriting and revision that such a complex work demands. But amazingly, Ghashiram Kotwal arrived readymade and complete. The production followed the text exactly, playing every detail as Tendulkar wrote it—a tribute to the precision of Tendulkar's conceptualising.

What makes the play so unique is also its prophetic quality. The plot concerns Nana Phadnavis, the 18th-century ruler of Pune, who tries to create a puppet for his own little games, only to realise that he has given birth to a monster who may swallow him up. The play predicted, with terrifying accuracy, the Indira Gandhi-Sant Bhindranwale dance of death, 11 years in advance of the events. The Shiv Sena, claiming the play vilified a Maratha hero, tried to stop it from being sent abroad. But it was smuggled out with the help of the CM, Sharad Pawar, and went on to win global acclaim.

Then came Sakharam Binder. It's not only Tendulkar's best play, but one of the masterpieces of Indian drama. When first performed, several political parties united to demand a ban on the play, and it had to be rescued by the courts. Its critics claimed to be scandalised by its overt sexuality. But one suspects that Tendulkar had once again hit a raw nerve, the basic middle-class hunger for property as a guarantee of security, and the ruthlessness this hunger could unleash. Lakshmi, a perfect embodiment of Hindu womanly virtues, manoeuvres a murder to keep the roof intact over her head, invulnerable in her sense of moral rectitude.

Tendulkar was a journalist by profession and was also known for his scripts for films like Nishant, Manthan, Ardha Satya and Aakrosh. In his last 20 years, he authored two novels, which were received in embarrassed silence, but wrote no new plays. He was buffeted by a series of domestic tragedies—his son died, then there was the traumatising loss of his daughter, Priya, whom he regarded as his creative heir, and finally the lingering death of his wife.

During his tumultuous life in the theatre, Tendulkar was always associated with the adventurous young. Vijaya Mehta at the very beginning of her career, Arvind and Sulabha Deshpande when they started their own group, the Progressive Dramatic Association, Shreeram Lagoo, Satyadev Dubey, Jabbar Patel, Kamlakar Sarang—one can go on. Even during his last few months in the hospital, the volunteers who attended on him would have made the who's who of today's young Marathi theatre. They had all drawn upon his hospitality and warmth, his almost legendary ability to 'listen' to people for hours and give counsel.

When he discovered that there was no hope of his recovering from his final illness, he decided he would rather die. As actor Mohan Agashe emphasises, "It was not a sign of depression. As always with him, it was a rational decision." Satish Alekar notes Tendulkar wasn't a popular playwright. "But," notes the protege and director of the Lalit Kala Kendra, "his plays have been widely translated and staged. They have influenced the theatre in all Indian languages. He was the backbone of the movement that has shaped the sensibility of Indian drama during the last couple of generations."
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