Madhav Vaze [1]

Marathi is the regional language of the State of Maharashtra on the West Coast of India. This article will discuss the new generation of playwrights in the Marathi theatre. However, let us first glance at the theatre in India at large, in order to have due perspective of the Marathi theatre.

The Sanskrit theatre (200 BC-10 AD) was considered synonymous with Indian theatre as no other theatre existed then. However, the Sanskrit theatre waned because of foreign invasions from the tenth century onwards. It was then that the regional folk theatres, which by nature were improvised, emerged in different parts of the country. Under the colonial rule of the British in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, theatre in India took to the proscenium theatre and psychological realism. Theatre in India today embodies all the three theatre traditions: the Sanskrit, the Folk and the Western. The wide variety of existing theatre traditions and forms makes what Indian theatre is today. Since the theatre here is not confined to any single specific form—as Kabuki in Japan for instance—the scholars and theatre practitioners seem to find it difficult to define the unified national identity of Indian theatre.

The Marathi theatre is arguably the most progressive in the country thanks mainly to the galaxy of social reformists and activists in Maharashtra in the nineteenth century. The theatre here is twofold: professional and experimental. Though the professional theatre is more relevant to its times than any of its counterparts in the country, it is the experimental Marathi theatre that has made its mark at the national level. Unlike the other regional theatres in the country, the modern Marathi theatre has dared to ask uncomfortable and embarrassing questions concerning religious, social and educational institutions. It has sought to hold microscopic examination of the mythological and historical idols. It has probed deep into violence and sexuality as the primitive drive of mankind. Besides, it has taken due notice of a number of contemporary socio-economic and cultural problems. The Marathi theatre, thus, has always been literally “here and now.”

The free market policy as initiated and implemented by the government of India in 1991 marked a radical transformation of socio-economic and cultural scenario of the country. The multinationals swarmed in and cast their net wide across the country. With the entry of the foreign investors in the market, and the then existing rigid rules and regulations waved off, industrial development gathered momentum, resulting in a boom in information technology sector in particular. A job in the IT industry implied handsome salary, perks and possibility of business tours to the United States in future. Thousands of aspiring youth fell for the Promised Land and found themselves glued to computer in call centers day in and day out; consequently, they knew no other world than their family and the call centers where they worked. Now money was flowing. Next to flourish was the automobile industry. Thousands of two- and four-wheelers screeched along the streets twenty-four hours a day, causing traffic congestion and leaving no space whatever to pedestrians. The horrifying pace of the development forced retailers to give way to dazzling malls. The fancy malls gave one the thrill of riding on a giant wheel on the one hand, and reduced man to a commodity on the other. The awesome socio-economic and cultural transformation reminded one of Irving Washington’s Rip Van Winkle, who awoke one fine morning from deep slumber only to find that the world had undergone a sea change; the world he had known didn’t exist any longer.

The three post-90 young playwrights of the Marathi theatre who are discussed in this article—Himanshu Smart, Manaswini Lata Ravindra and Dharmakirti Sumant—have all strongly reacted to the times they belong to. Identity crisis, consumerism, individualism, man-woman relationship, non-communication, generation gap are among the themes common to them all.

Himanshu Smart

Himanshu Smart
Himanshu Smart

Of the three playwrights, Himanshu Smart is the senior. He is also a poet, and has quite a few plays to his credit. The action of his play Piper (Pungiwala, 1999) takes place in a common open space between a hospital and a wedding hall. The anxious parents of a child who is in an incubator seek to spend time in the open space, whereas the young boys who have come for the wedding ceremony are single-mindedly bent on playing loud music on their audio machine. For them, the wedding rituals are as important as the incubation of the child. They insist that the majority have their say. However, everything comes to a standstill as the mayor of the city is reported to be assassinated and the curfew is declared for three days. All of them find themselves confined to the cramped space.

Time stands still. Nothing “happens.” Consequently, they get bored to death. And there appears a Piper from nowhere who with sweet melodious notes on his pipe and equally sweet words on his tongue first lures and then mesmerizes them and finally makes the whole lot plunge into the colorful virtual world. Now that the humdrum of life is permanently left behind, people feel extremely excited and exhilarated. In a frenzy of having recaptured the “lost paradise,” the whole crowd begins to regard the Piper as the Messiah (where would he take those people?) Himanshu’s Piper is obviously the descendant of the legendary Piper of Hamelin.

Himanshu used this device of virtual reality quite skillfully and effectively in his yet another play, The Light under the Lamp (Divyakhali Ujed, 2007-08). Four persons have come together in an apartment at night. As they are chatting, electricity goes off. They are greatly disturbed and begin to revile the system for the inconvenience. To their relief, the supply is restored sometime after. As they are about to go to bed, one of them notices that the lights don’t get switched off. All of them try all possible means to switch off the lights but in vain. They go crazy and helplessly hurl abuses at the system again. The distant voice of Big Brother may be detected in their utterances like these: (1) “Light or dark, we have no choice; we have to accept that,” (2) “How to live if there is no freedom to have darkness at least for yourself?” (3) “Your likes and dislikes, your personal and private choices, your desires, everything is now traceable. You are totally crushed!” (4) “Dazzling light is gushing out of everybody,” (5) “The light causes worse blindness than the darkness itself” (my translation).

The Light under the Lamp (Dvyakhali Ujed), Nirmiti-aawishkar, Mumbai
The Light under the Lamp (Dvyakhali Ujed), Nirmiti-aawishkar, Mumbai

The image of ghastly light seems to have led Himanshu to his next play, The Giant Wheel in a Fair (Jatretala Giant Wheel, 2010-11). The play takes you to a three-storied mall—the Miracle Bazaar—with a hundred and fifty counters. A young couple, Chinmay and his wife Ketaki, enter. Lured by hundreds of the most coveted commodities on display all around, they soon inadvertently part company with each other. Chinmay seeks help of a sales girl to find Ketaki, and Ketaki that of a sales boy to find her missing Chinmay. With this amusing situation at the beginning of the play, the playwright goes on to explore all situational possibilities, thereby taking the play to a surrealistic level.

Now, Ketaki admits that missing her partner was a blessing in disguise for her as she could at least “see” any number of varieties of goods for the first time in her life. She manages to get a binocular to try to find her partner. She urges the sales boy to hide her somewhere so that she could spend the whole night there once the shutters are pulled down. Chinmay also wants to move among the goods once the mall is closed. Ketaki says that she has forgotten that she is missing her husband. Chinmay plunges into virtual reality, where he decides to become a business tycoon; he meets a stranger who asks him if he is interested in buying a big chunk of land.

It’s a play which evokes laughter only to underline the moral and intellectual insolvency of the urban middle class in the Free Market era. Whereas Himanshu’s earlier plays sound rather wordy and linear, The Giant Wheel in a Fair is theatrical in that it contains a series of amusing situations with unexpected twists, interesting characters, crisp dialogues and above all humour characteristic of black comedy.

Manaswini Lata Ravindra

Manaswini Lata Ravindra’s plays strike a great contrast with those of Himanshu Smart. The young playwright prefers to write about the world she herself is a part of. Her characters are mainly boys and girls in their twenties. When necessary, she also brings parents into the picture. So, whatever happens in her plays is only between herself, the friends and parents. However, nothing happens in the conventional sense. The boys and girls just talk to each other in consecutive scenes, in which you find them gradually develop their perception of life as they live it. The whole talk is overtly in an impressionistic manner, the characters’ sincerity and involvement notwithstanding.

The theme of Manaswini’s play, Cigarettes, is well suggested by her protagonist Neha, who has had an affair with a boy prior to her friendship with two boys, Ashish and Gautam. While casually talking to her friend, she refers to three parts of human mind: Id, Ego and Superego. She explains that Man’s basic needs and the moral values always conflict with each other. A number of utterances in the play hint at this theme. Neha fails to understand why she didn’t feel excited while having sex. She wants to find out the reason. Whereas she says that you don’t enjoy sex only because you consciously pre plan it, her own remark doesn’t fully convince her. There is a liberally-minded part of Neha which wants to refuse asking a boy his caste and income before settling for a love-cum-arranged marriage. She wonders how come Ashish could claim to have ownership of her body and mind only because he is her boyfriend. “Premarital sex still is a taboo for the older generations. They had no scope to sort out the kind of sexual problems,” she ponders on. So, Neha begins to ask questions to Draupadi, a protagonist in the great Indian epic Mahabharata who became the common wife to all the five Pandava brothers. Obliged to live with each of the Pandava brothers in rotation, wouldn’t she miss the one who she loved most and who she desperately yearned to be with? It’s pity that Draupadi had to repress her urge. The play revolves round man-woman relationship without making any value-based statement. Apparently, the playwright does not want to sound judgmental. Whether the title of the play “Cigarettes” hints at a short-lived relationship is anybody’s guess.

Manaswini’s another play, Adieu/Good-bye (Alwida, 2006) also points at the nebulous nature of relationship in the urban middle-class society of the 1990s. Sai and her mother Neela live together. Neela and Prakash’s is an inter-caste marriage; but they are about to divorce. As Neela wants to talk about that to her daughter, Sai also wishes to share her thoughts and feelings with the mother. At times she talks to herself. Here is what she says:

Mother, please get out of my head. Leave me to myself. Let there be occasions when my thoughts and feelings are absolutely mine, and not yours—dirty woman, snatches my friends also—seeing mother become helpless, I feel wretched. What bloody feeling is that?—those who take all this in their stride and accept the social order, the orthodoxy and also the modern orthodoxy which is in the offing, are all happy of course!—I am confused. . . . (my translation).

All friends also talk to one another on a number of subjects, on many occasions. Going abroad for further education, what distances people from one another, the reserved seats for the backward class in different walks of life, alternatives to the prevailing lifestyle are but a few of those subjects. They fall in love, some successfully, others in vain. The time flies. Now, Neela is about to go to Africa for good. Friends also would part company with one another soon. All of them say goodbye to the past and buckle down to face the future. The play ends up with a song which says, “Don’t consider me as your ‘Life,’ because life is not eternal. We can’t hold it with us perennially” (my translation).

Such was the scenario in the nineties when family set-up became fragile and the youth spent most of their time out of the home, either at their friends’ or at a favourite hang-out. This was the period when the young generation became independent in its true sense. It was the very decade when the youth desperately sought to know what relationship and morality actually meant. Manaswini candidly expresses the sensibility of her generation without sounding sensational. She skillfully weighs the pros and cons of arguments, thereby making you realize the confused state of mind the youth in her plays are undergoing.

Cigarettes and Adieu/Good-bye hardly have a story line in the conventional sense. The mindset of the characters and the subtle emotional tensions of varying degrees are at the centre of the plays. The plays contain a series of scenes which shuttle between the past and the present as the playwright finds fit. At times, scenes run only a few sentences, making a subtle point without too much impact. However, the shifting of the scenes and the action is in tune with the play, wherein relationship keeps changing kaleidoscopically.

Manaswini Lata Ravindra is perhaps the first ever playwright in the Marathi theatre to have written unabashedly about sexuality. Yet nowhere in her plays has she appeared to cash on the subject. However, the self-pronounced custodians of culture targeted her Cigarettes and prevented performances by force. The agitators wondered how come a woman playwright could write “that sort of a play.”

Dharmakirti Sumant

Dharmakirti Sumant
Dharmakirti Sumant

The young playwright was in his twenties when he first invited attention of both the public and the critics by his short play Water (Pani), a fierce debate play between a field worker and an intellectual who is a member of a think tank. His political inclination as reflected in Water was immediately noticed as what sets him apart from his contemporaries, let alone his predecessors. His Charu, Aaro, etc. (Charu, Aaro Ityadee) examines how male dominance remains even between a cohabiting couple.

However, it was his Last Twenty-one Years (Geli Ekvees Varshe, 2010) that actually made his presence felt. A young boy is taking stock of his last twenty one years. His name is “Young” (Tarun), which suggests that he represents the youth. The neck-breaking pace of life, innumerable contradictions one is forced to live with and the chaotic atmosphere that the political and social structure is responsible for have made him feel wretched. His excruciating pain is precisely reflected in the following lines:

We hardly have any time in the streets even to shake hands with somebody. Tell us, when are we going to discuss one another’s theatre? While shitting? We are not alone there also. Pune International Film festival, Asian Film Fest, Painting exhibition, State Educational Test, National Educational Test, admissions, interviews, YouTube, Marx, Lenin, Orkut, Facebook, manners, cars, traffic, “Heal your body,” positive energy, useless holy Sermons. . . . I feel a shooting pain from within . . . how could I explain? Bombs blast within with terrific wham and turn into energy that waits to explode. . . . I feel afraid when I see a beggar in the streets, I feel afraid in the government office, in a temple, in a church, while asking a difficulty to the teacher, while sleeping, while in the bathroom . . . the bomb can blast anywhere. . . .

History fixed our identity, gave us property, taught religion. Study of history makes us sentimental. So, history must be destroyed. Relationship, religion, politicians, industrialists, philosophers and the God—set all on fire! (my translation)

Dharmakirti’s new play Useless Conversations (Bin Kamache Sanwad, 2014) was performed in Pune and Mumbai recently. The play could be described as a hilarious and pathetic social chaos. It brings before us people’s pitiable effort to make sense of life in the virtual world where technology reigns. They are blissfully ignorant of contradictions they live with. They talk a lot, but the conversation leads nowhere. The playwright mocks at people’s wish to have “something to say.” Here is a specimen:

One day I bought “something to say” from the market. So much so that its stock in China went down. Some people hid “something to say,” and that led to black marketing. However, I have had a lot of “something to say.” So, I didn’t have to worry. I divided my stock into portions and started selling them at different places and in different forms. I turned some into apps for iPhones and Androids. I put some on Wikipedia. I prepared synopsis and uploaded them. I made quotes out of them, made coats out of them, tried them on myself. (my translation)

We can see that this little paragraph devastatingly underscores the kind of prattle the entire society pathetically indulges in, and the devaluation of language the technology has caused in the postmodern world.

A word or two about Dharmakirti’s political inclination. He is perhaps the first ever playwright who is conscious of political dimensions of a given situation in the Marathi speaking region. It is noteworthy that in one of his stage notes he refers to Bob Dylan, the American singer and songwriter whose songs chronicled social unrest. Dharmakirti mentions Che Guevara, the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary who was considered the symbol of rebellion. He also refers to Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher. The cited references could give us a fair idea of the playwright’s politics and his worldview.

Indeed, Himanshu Smart, Manaswini Ravindra and Dharmakirti Sumant’s plays present us with intense pictures of the post-ninety socio-political scenario in its totality.

Madvav Vaze

[1] Madhav Vaze is an Indian actor, director, theatre teacher and theatre critic based in Pune in the Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is situated. He has also been active in films and television. In December 2009, he received the State Government Literary Award for his book Rangamudra (2008), which contains in-depth interviews of several eminent theatre personalities in India.

Copyright © 2015 Madhav Vaze
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Maharashtra, India – New Generation of Playwrights in the Marathi Theatre