Narrated in the manner of the Arabian Nights, albeit over thirty nights, the engaging dialogue between the clown and the playwright unfolds the course of Marathi theatre which has a rich, vibrant, and diverse history of over 175 years.
Beginning with the staging of the first Marathi play, this volume looks at the period from 1843 to 1947. The period witnessed the commencement of renaissance in Maharashtra; the encounter with the European project of modernity and the intense anti-colonial struggle that followed; the social reform movement in Maharashtra; and the overthrow of the British rule.
Translated from Marathi Rangbhoomichya Tees Ratree, this three-volume compendium is a historical analysis of Marathi theatre from a socio-political perspective. It attempts to understand the lives and relationships of mainly the middle-class people in Maharashtra-and, going beyond, even the working classes and the so-called lower castes-during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
An architect by profession, Makarand Sathe has been writing plays, novels, and articles in Marathi for the last two decades. His plays have been performed at national and international festivals. His plays and novels have been translated in English, French, Russian, Hindi, Kannada, and Urdu, among other languages. Some of his plays include Charshe Koti Visarbhole (1986), Roman Samrajyachi Padzad (1986), Thombya (1996), Surya Pahilela Manus (1999), Sapatnekaracha Mool (1989), Chowk (2004), Te Pudhe Gele (2007), and Ashadh Bar (to be staged in 2015). Achyut Athawale Ani Athawan (2003) and Operation Yamu (2004) are a couple of his well-known novels. His works have received many prestigious awards. He directed his first documentary Samadhan Ityadi in 2007, which was selected for international video festivals in the competitive section.
He is on the selection panel of the Pune International Film Festival and has been associated with University of Pune's Department of Performing Arts. He has also been invited to deliver lectures at the Heidelberg University, Germany.
Makarand now devotes his time to writing through which he expresses his wide range of concerns-from the socio-political scenario of the present day to the philosophical aspects of time and space; from human existence and ethics to the impact of science and technology on the postmodern society and the absurdity in the modern urban life. He is known for his different sense of humour. He is also interested in sports and has played competitive sports in his youth. Presently, he lives in Pune with his wife Dhanmanjiri, an economist working at the University of Pune, and their daughter, Mukta, to whom he has dedicated this work.
Let me start by tackling the question, why did a creative writer like me write a socio-political history of Marathi theatre?
I am fully conscious of the fact that I am neither a historian, nor a political or social scientist, and certainly not a philosopher. I am a creative writer. But, at the same time, I do not subscribe to the view that a creative writer should avoid intellectual pursuits and stay away from a theoretical understanding of, or intellectual engagement with, socio-political concepts and history. However, the perspective of a creative writer is somewhat different from that of a social scientist. As a consequence, this history is not a treatise written by a social scientist using his professional competence and tools but is a review undertaken by a creative writer, driven by an inner urge. I have tried my best to follow the intellectual discipline. I do not wish to hide behind the excuse of being a creative writer. However, not being a historian or a social scientist, the form of my narration will differ from the forms of narration that stem from those disciplines. I would, therefore, make a plea to intellectuals, who are used to that style of narration, as well as the general reader who is interested in reading history, to make a special effort to understand this book and the form in which it is written. That said, I would like them to bring to my notice any mistake that might have crept in, and I will take cognizance of it with gratitude.
The reason why I am so keenly conscious of my limitations is because this history is not confined to Marathi theatre alone. It extends, to some extent, to the social and political spheres. It had to because it is not possible to talk about the history of Marathi theatre without referring to its social and political backgrounds. This has expanded the perspective of the book and added to my responsibility. Hence this explanatory note.
Even if we accept that a creative writer need not keep away from intellectual pursuits, the question remains, why did I undertake this task which is somewhat outside the normal scope of a creative writer? The answer will reveal itself in the volumes; but I thought I needed to clarify certain key issues here. This project started with questions that arose in my mind as a creative writer and these were not extraordinary questions. They were questions that probably trouble all creative writers and artists. One was why do I write? And the other, what is good literature? Naturally, deeper issues arose from these ordinary- looking questions. I am a writer living at a particular stage in this historical process. What are the traditions I have inherited and what do I intend to do with them? These questions led to a deeper, more fundamental, multidimensional question, who am J? This history represents my quest in search of the answers to these questions.
Over the years while I was engaged in creative writing, I was also trying to find answers to these questions. I realized that there is no book on the history of Marathi theatre written from the socio-political perspective with a critical historical analysis. Slowly, over the years, an idea of such a book developed in my mind. This started as a very vague concept, which slowly took on a more concrete form. I actually began to work on it when the need to fill this lacuna became stronger than my awareness of my limitations as a historian and a student of sociology; but the approach and analysis involved has been evolving over many years before that. In short, even though the research and writing took concrete shape only over the two years of 2009 and 20 I 0, the beginning was made years ago.
When I started, I had not planned to write a book, of this scope and size. What drove me to achieve this was simply the variety and richness of Marathi theatre traditions. Having undertaken the task, I have had no option but to deal with the vast expanse of material before me, despite often feeling that it was beyond my capacity to cope with these. I have tried my best to engage with all the currents of theatre history in all their variety, especially those which have been neglected or overlooked by the middle class and the upper castes, despite their importance. It is never easy to cross the boundaries, and I too might have fallen short at times. I accept this as another limitation, besides the one arising from my lack of formal training in social sciences. At the same time, I believe that I do have something worthwhile to say. This belief is what makes a writer write. I felt, and still feel, that despite my limitations, whatever they may be, I have discovered different meanings in, and interpretations of, the historical development of Marathi theatre, as well as society around me over the period of the last half of the nineteenth century and the whole of the twentieth century. Critical self-analysis was an unavoidable consequence of this study. I do hope that the readers too will discover something here that is important and different. A writer has to be essentially an optimist in this respect, and that I am!
There are a couple of other reasons for daring to undertake this study. Firstly, I agree with many thinkers that we are living in an era of all-encompassing and fast-paced change, socially as well as artistically. We are facing a crisis of sorts today. But a crisis, by definition, is also a big opportunity. The current times are, undoubtedly, very challenging for a writer, but for precisely the same reason they are exciting and inspiring too. These conditions compel one to find fresh, new interpretations of history. And this consideration has provided a strong impetus to this work.
Secondly, and this reason pertains to why such a book had to be written now, is that Marathi theatre seems to be gaining renewed strength again. The creative energy of young playwright today is a reason to feel optimistic. At the same time, barring a few exceptions, the new generation appears to have distanced itself from history and intellectual understanding. Occasionally, one even hears comments like, we want to do something new. What do we have to do with history? On the face of it, this sounds like a rebellion; and I not only sympathize with rebellions, but also feel that a rebellious sensibility is, to some extent, a precondition for a good work of art. Rebellion is, however, not born out of a disregard for historicity. Such a disregard only gives rise to status quoism and nihilism, and, consciously or subconsciously, the younger generation is largely succumbing to it. Those who wish to create their own future, wish to change the prevalent unjust hierarchies and harmful tradition; they cannot ignore history. Only those who find the present conditions convenient and wish for the continuance of the status quo, ignore history. If the young writers and theatre practitioners sincerely with to ‘do something different’, they must at least try to find out ‘different from what?’
Whether to rebel against traditions or to change their course, one needs to have a thorough understanding of them. It does not help to ignore history and critical analysis. The present generation has tremendous energy, an enviable imagination, and creative potential. However, they do appear to have developed an attitude which is against history and analytical theoretical understanding. I fervently believe that these perceptions must be challenged. I would consider my aim fulfilled if I have succeeded in taking even one step in this direction. I have, therefore, dedicated these volumes to my daughter, who is in her teens, and to her entire generation. I am making only a brief note of the point here because I have elaborated on it in the third volume of this study.
Anthropologists believe that the ancestors of the modern humans were Homo Erectus and they roamed the planet about 1.8 million years ago. But the anthropologists who advocate the ‘Great Leap Forward Theory’ say that the Homo Sapiens with what is known as ‘behavioural modernity’ are just about 60,000 years old. Current studies in behavioural sciences consider the Homo Sapiens as our ‘real ancestors’, and not the Homo Erectus of 1.8 million years ago.
Why go back to the prehistoric period in the introduction for a study which actually has nothing to do with anthropology or Home Sapiens? Well, the reason is that the author of this mega-book is trying to relook at that eternal mystery, of ‘who am I?’ Of course, his research project, on the face of it, is limited to the cultural history of Marathi theatre. But he deals with the theme at a fundamental level too; hence the question which he raises right at the start of the book, ‘who am I?’
Surely, those very early humans could not have experienced identity crisis the way it is understood today. It is impossible for them to have brooded on that philosophical question. However, one need not dig into prehistory to trace the origin of this psycho philosophical inquiry. Perhaps, followers of Jesus Christ or Gautama Buddha could have wondered about who they were and what their identity was, though not in the same way as today. The great poets of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, Valmiki and Vyasa, indeed have discoursed on this mystery, and the question ‘who am I?’ has its epistemological roots in their epics. Therefore, it is not out of place to digress and go beyond the narrow precincts of the subject of the study.
Makarand Sathe too is occupied, and even obsessed, with that intriguing question which surfaces again and again in his fantastic narrative. The narrative is partly like a discourse, partly like a keertan. This form gives tremendous liberty to the narrator, as he can wear multiple roles easily without disturbing the flow of the story. Here, our keertankar-the narrator and the writer-has chosen to narrate the story and history of Marathi theatre in an engaging manner, and also as objectively as possible.
Perhaps that is why he has invented a Clown who appears and disappears on a hill, which is mysteriously known in the Pune region as Vetal hill! All over the world, there is a strange belief in god and ghosts, draculas and angels. In all the great works of Shakespeare, ghosts materialize, share an exchange with real people, and vanish once their role of giving a tilt to the play is over. Ghosts and witches appear and disappear at the wishes of the Bard. Sathe has brought a clown who is more like a ghost, who speaks, but has no body; who converses with strange but curious people on the Vetal-possessed hill, but is really not seen by anyone. Actually, the author of this study himself is the clown (or ghost, if you like) who confronts that strange, small but curious audience, and narrates the fascinating story of Marathi theatre.
Well, most poets and playwrights, novelists and artists live and struggle with that question of ‘who am I?’ and leave this planet without receiving an answer. The same angst has possessed Sathe as well. It is that angst and mystery which lead creative writers to inquire into their soul. That search often becomes their inspiration. However, Sathe’s quest is more complex. He is exploring deep into psychological and ideological roots of playwrights and directors likewise troubled with these questions. However, the haunting question for our narrator-author of this three-volume compendium is not just ‘who am I?’ but also ‘whose am I?’ and indeed, ‘why am I here in the first place?’
For the author of this giant history of Marathi theatre, the question ‘who am I?’ is not a spiritual or metaphysical inquiry. He is dealing with human relations. Indeed, theatre is an artistically recreated manifestation of fascinating and kaleidoscopic interactions of human relations. Therefore, Sathe’s exploration in the personalities on the stage, their characters, and their complex relationship with each other is actually a study of the question ‘who am I?’ in the context of sociology and, importantly, even politics.
Quite often, academic studies like this do not take the political and ideological dimension of literature into account. Some academicians also feel that such sociological and historical studies should avoid overt references to politics and ideologies. Sathe breaks himself free from that conventional wisdom. While exploring the cultural history of Marathi theatre, he transcends the limits of the two centuries in which the research is set, and takes a swing into the philosophical universe. Greek and Indian thinkers coalesce in this quest!
From Karl Marx to Charles Darwin, from Sigmund Freud to Michel Foucault, and from Marshal McLuhan to Noam Chomsky, all philosophers and writers, artists and scientists have made magnificent contribution to understanding the human mind and its interrelationship with other people around them. Also, they explored how people relate themselves to the nature and the world surrounding them. However, it is the litterateurs, play- wrights, and novelists who recreate the multidimensional conflicts and concerns of the people by projecting that reality in an artistic format. It is reality converted into fiction, and yet fiction mirrors reality. Naturally, any study of such dialectical composition should have a wider perspective. Relatively new works in the field of historiography have attempted this and have studied the themes differently. But the academic establishment has yet to give these new ways of interpreting history the recognition and status they deserve.
Sathe quotes Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk in Volume I on the relationship between the writer and the real world, and the role of fiction in depicting reality. Pamuk has said the following in his speech at Frankfurt in 2006:
it is by reading of novels, stories, and myths that we come to understand the ideas that govern the world in which we live, it is fiction that gives us access to the truths kept veiled and hidden by our families, our schools, and our society; it is the art of the novel that allows us to ask who we really are...
It is this view of the literature that has shaped this study, in which Sathe attempts to understand the lives and relationships of people in Maharashtra during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maharashtra and Bengal have been at the forefront of the ideological and cultural evolution of modern India with all the dialectical dimensions.
But what is absolutely stunning is the way the researcher Sathe has contextually brought out the nineteenth-century debate in Marathi literary community, as to who is superior-Kalidasa or Shakespeare. It is noted in Volume I that Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, the renowned social reformer, argued way back in 1881 that Shakespeare is greater because ‘Kalidasa’s imagination was very restricted ... Lack of historical understanding, writing wherewithal and no interaction with outer world were perhaps the reasons that his plays were inferior compared to those by Shakespeare.’ Sathe, re-paraphrasing Agarkar, states it succinctly: ‘The reason Shakespeare was a more accomplished playwright than Kalidasa was that he could sympathize with larger masses due to his capacity to involve himself in everything from looking after the horses to hobnobbing with the rich and powerful gentry.’
Makarand Sathe has scrutinized almost all major, and some not so major, playwrights of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries under his scanner. He has tried to penetrate their mindsets as well as the prevailing psyche of the audience. He also takes into account the mood at the time of the presentation of the plays. Indian society is extremely hierarchical, and castes as well as the status of the writer and actors acquire significance for such a study. Equally important is the role of the women (played by men in the early days) on the stage and off the stage. It is truly fantastic that the women in the audience would idolize the character of the woman played by a man. Acting in the plays was below one’s status, but with the emergence of musicals, the notion of status began to change.
Leading singer-actors like Balgandharva, Master Dinanath, and many others were acquiring stardom in the days when there was neither the film industry nor television.
Despite relatively lower incomes, the upper-caste middle class had begun to find time for leisure and pleasure. Women, other- wise subjugated and neglected in domestic Iife, had begun to take interest in theatre. It is paradoxical but true that women could find the ‘liberation fantasy’ not only in women characters in the way they were portrayed in the play but also in these characters that were played by men. Influenced by the modern ideas of women’s emancipation as well as by the ideas of artistic freedom, the playwrights had begun experimenting with such themes.
In real social and family life, the role of women was hugely debated in the nineteenth and even early twentieth century. On the one hand, the woman was glorified as ‘goddess’ or ‘mother’, but in actual life she was shackled by the patriarchal system. I n fact, her secondary status was defended in a very ‘compassionate’ manner. It is recounted in Volume I that playwright N.B. Kanitkar uses this compassionate logic when he argues, ‘Considering all the household chores that women must do, to add to their burden by expecting them also to study and tax themselves mentally is to ask for the impossible. Women are the glory of a household. They are by nature attractive, delicate, and beautiful. No need to say that the education given to them should match their nature.’ In effect, it was argued that they need not go to school. But it also must be stated that almost the same view towards women prevailed in England and in America in the nineteenth century. So it is not as if the whole of the Western civilization had adopted the modern and liberating view of life or society, Life in India was hierarchical and extremely discriminatory. This is not the place to go into historical reasons for that. But women and lower castes were at the bottom rung. How that happened and why it was sustained for centuries is a very contentious debate. Particularly because in Indian epics and mythologies, there were independent-minded and courageous women, assertive and aggressive mothers and wives, who challenged men in power or in the family. (In the plays by B.V alias Mama Warerkar, one meets them time and again.) And yet in real life, male supremacy and patriarchy were the ruling principles. In philosophical streams too there were various ideas and viewpoints, sometimes contradictory, sometimes complimentary. There were theists and atheists, just as there were sceptics and dogmatists. But in the final analysis, conservatives and reactionaries are seen to have prevailed.
When the British came, Indian society was stagnant in philosophy as ‘Nell as in practice. The confrontation of ideas and practices was inevitable. Progressive traditionalists argued that all that was good in the Western thought was present in the Indian ethos as well. On the other hand, those who were against the oppressive traditional practices embraced the Western, Renaissance thought. This ideological confrontation, triggered by the arrival of the British, began to reflect in Marathi plays. Some tried to synthesize the thesis and antithesis, while some felt that synthesis was not possible. The role and status of the woman was central to this debate.
Sathe has devoted a very large portion of his first volume in elaborating on the role of women in society and their depiction in play. The whole social reform movement, set against the backdrop of the political movement for freedom, has significant import as the author deals with the fiery writings and militant movements of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. He relates this issue not only to the plays of the nineteenth century, but also to the post-War plays, experimental plays, and the progressive plays by Mama Warerkar and Vijay Tendulkar. The conflict between modern and traditional became pronounced in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Maharashtra.
The British empire had brought with them the modernist legacy to India, in philosophy and politics, in technology and trade, and from poetry to theatre. Sathe has explained his position on the term ‘modern’. He writes in Volume I.
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