Behind the “Obscene”

On Saturday at Yeshwant Natya Sankul, Matunga, the loudest laugh came when Girish Pandurang Kulkarni, playing Maharashtra’s birth control and family welfare pioneer RD Karve said, “If our bigots had their way, they would insist on people covering their minds with a thick layer of stupidity.” In Marathi, the word for stupid is “matthha”, which onomatopoeically suggests a hammer hitting a hard wall. Nice.

Samajswasthya, written by Ajit Dalvi and directed by Atul Pethe, had its premiere show at the recently concluded Vinod Doshi Theatre Festival in Pune and had travelled to Mumbai with its cast and crew of 25 to play to a packed auditorium. Most hearteningly, the audience comprised a very large section of enthusiastic young people to balance the large contingent of greyheads.

The play, and so consequently the direction, are dated in form and style. It’s a problem that often besets plays that seek to inform. However hard the playwright tries to theatricalise information, it sticks out stubbornly for what it is. This affects the credibility of the dialogue. The conversations between characters are meant to sound natural, the mode of the play being realistic. But they sound contrived and stilted because the characters are speaking to an agenda of information and all characters are subservient to this agenda. So the eminent playwright, novelist and translator, Mama Warerkar (Abhay Jabde), sounds over-the-top jolly in the scene that establishes him as Karve’s friend, and overthe-top angry when his Gandhian sensibilities are hurt. Karve has said in a public speech that sex was a natural human instinct and if Gandhi practised celibacy, it was only after he was 35.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (Ajit Sable) is treated a little better. Although he too is a mere pawn in the first scene, he comes into his own in the court scene when he defends Karve against the second charge of obscenity. For, as a barrister, he is in his element. Karve’s wife Malati (Rajashree Sawant-Wad) is gentle and dignified, which is the most she can do given her underwritten role. The character who comes off the worst is Ahitagni Rajwade (Ranjit Mohite) who represents the Brahmin orthodoxy. This is the man whose complaint against Karve has been that he buys condoms in Paris to distribute here. Karve says he’d be perfectly willing to buy condoms from Ahitagni if he ever thought of manufacturing them. With this as background Rajwade comes to court with daggers drawn. Understandable. But what his loud facial gestures and overbearing dialogue delivery do is to make him a villain from a melodrama rather than a strong opponent in a realistic play.

The onus is thus on Girish Pandurang Kulkarni to engage and hold our attention; and he does so with an eloquence of delivery often reminiscent in its inflections of Dr Shreeram Lagoo, and a quietly selfassured bearing that carries the suggestion of the steely core of conviction that a man ahead of his times must possess. Indeed, he’s so far ahead of his times that the moral brigade of our times still hasn’t caught up with him.

Back then he was hauled up for an article he had written in Samajswasthya (Social Health), the monthly magazine he edited, entitled Vyabhicharacha Prashna (The Question of Adultery), in which he had defended adultery in certain circumstances. He had to resign from Wilson College where he taught Maths, and was charged with obscenity. His argument was that obscenity was not the property of a piece of writing or a work of art; it was the property of the human brain that saw it as obscene.

For me the validity of Samajswasthya lay in the timing of its writing and staging. We are living in an age when ideas that don’t belong to the currently powerful religious and political orthodoxies are being systematically gagged after being labelled as anti-national. To see Samajswasthya was to know once again that the conflict we are engaged in began a century ago; or perhaps even earlier, with Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram and the Bhakti movement that spread across the country.

Samajswasthya’s validity also lay in its being the latest production in a repertoire of plays Pethe has directed over the last decade or so that speak of his position on the side of progressive thought and action.

For me personally, it was a chance to say thank you to the man who helped my parents and many others like them, who were bearing children in the 1930s, to limit their families to two children.

Published On : 09-03-2017