NCPA’s annual Pratibimb festival of Marathi plays opened with Awishkar’s production of Aaydan. To carve a stageworthy script out of the dense 271-page autobiography on which the play is based, would have made most theatre directors quail. Not so Sushama Deshpande. Her plays for the venerable theatre group Awishkar, have been nothing but high-risk experiments. Deshpande and Arun Kakade, who heads Awishkar, appear to love barging in where angels fear to tread. And most times, they come up trumps.     

Urmila Pawar’s Aaydan was published 11 years ago to resounding acclaim. It traced the rocky journey of a plucky and hugely gifted woman from a deprived childhood in a direly poor Mahar family in the Konkan, to her determined pursuit of a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mumbai, to becoming a celebrated writer of fiction in Marathi. Glowing at the centre of the tale was her family’s Ambedkar-led conversion to Buddhism, which brought enlightenment into her life and a release from the casteist bonds of Hindu society. She married the man of her choice but later discovered that he was as much part of patriarchal society as anybody else. She realised then that the dalit woman was twice oppressed, first for her caste and then for her gender. The problem could only be addressed by consciousness raising and solidarity. So she became a dalit-feminist activist.

Aaydan is full of beguiling detail. It sparkles with Pawar’s sharp wit, disarming candour and ability to laugh at herself. There is a hilarious description for instance of the day after her wedding night when she thinks she has started her periods and is quietly instructed to “sit out” as is the custom in Hindu society. But of course, it’s only her broken hymen. Her real periods start six days later, completely baffling her in-laws. Some of the most sadly amusing moments in the story spring from women’s angry cursing of their lot as they go about their never-ending chores.  A husband comes home drunk and beats the daylights out of his wife. Next day, as she drags her bruised, aching body up a hill to sell a headload of firewood on the other side, her tongue lashes out at him in absentia: “May fire consume the bastard’s mouth. May the son-of-a-bitch’s hands wither and fall off.”

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. Weaving together the most significant scenes of Pawar’s life, she delivers a seamless narrative that is completely faithful to the original in all respects. Deshpande’s direction too is dynamic. She keeps her three actors, who play multiple roles as Urmila Pawar and the other characters in the story, constantly moving, never once allowing the stage to remain empty. This gives the play a nice zippy pace. What causes misgivings, however, are parts of the first act where the actors perform Pawar’s childhood. Playing children has become so trapped in clichéd conventions of expression and movement, that even child actors playing children fall into the same routine. So the actors in Aaydan make the required faces, skip about ‘innocently’ and cry in cutesy ways.  

Barring this small reservation, the actors’ performances were zesty and convincing. Urmila Pawar’s language is not the language of theatre but of literature. In Aaydan she peppers a chaste Marathi narration with dialogue in the colourful dialect of the Konkan. That the three young actors spoke this blend convicingly, without once muffing their lines, bore witness to the painstaking rehearsals that Deshpande must have put them through. This isn’t something one takes for granted in today’s theatre.

In Pawar’s dialect, Aaydan is the word for baskets of any size, shape or function that are woven from bamboo strips. In Maharashtra, the craft is generally practised by a nomadic tribe called the Buruds. But in the Konkan it was reserved for Mahars. Since Pawar makes basket weaving a metaphor for life in Aaydan, the play gives concrete shape to the idea with a symbolic set made of bamboo.

The play ends movingly with Pawar’s quiet assertion of selfhood. “Life has taught me much,” she says. “It has also thrashed me till I bled. Who knows how long I will live. Who knows what shape my life will take. I only know that the life I have lived has given me enough strength to face what comes my way with equanimity. My life…Me.” 

Published On : 06-08-2014