Marathi Theatre: The Western Gaze

The resounding success of Vijay Tendulkar’s 1972 play, “Sakharam Binder”, staged in its English translation during the month-long Tendulkar Festival in New York in October-November last year, is the first sign that the west is willing to look at and find significance in India’s modern, secular urban theatre. Up until now it was always folk and traditional theatre that represented “India” in Europe and America. After all, went the argument, modern theatre was a western import and could have nothing “new” to offer them. But folk and traditional theatre had music, dance, colourful costumes and rituals that made it turly “Indian”. It didn’t matter to the west that folk and traditional forms were so mummified within their idioms and their ritualistic location in rural societies, that they had neither the language, nor the skills, nor indeed the urge to break out in order to engage with contemporary issues. Changing the world is even now the unspoken business of theatre. If theatre itself doesn’t change, it can bring about no change.  

Needless to say, when the west welcomes Indian folk and traditional theatres to its shores, it makes sure they come in a truncated form. Busy urban audiences cannot be put upon by the real thing, which goes on all night. What the west looks for is a lick of the real, a mere soupcon that will titillate without making unreasonable demands on its time and patience. Official India has been more than willing to serve up these exotic side dishes because politically it is a shrewd thing to do. The notion that India’s identity lies in its native, not urban culture, alloyed as the latter is by contact with the west, is easy to sell to its emotional voters. There are enough performing artists and cultural czars and czarinas too to support such a claim. It was for this reason that a scheme was launched in the early eighties by the central academy of the performing arts in Delhi, that sought to bring folk and traditional forms out of their birth-places onto the urban stage. The scheme encouraged young urban theatre directors to fan out into the villages to study native theatre forms. Returning, they were expected to incorporate elements of these forms into their modern plays.

With central funding available under the scheme, suddenly we suffered a rash of urban plays that arrived on urban stages wearing rural make-up. Mahesh Elkunchwar, a leading Marathi playwright, has commented repeatedly on the phenomenon. “This urban folk theatre,” he has said, “has become a kind of artistic kleptomania, a basically exploitative idiom that takes the songs and dances and colour from the village theatre and grafts it on to the urban theatre, decorating it to sell it to urban audiences.” This is not to invalidate the spectacular theatres of Ratan Thiyam and Neelam Mansingh Chowdhary, nor the intense theatre of Veenapani Chawla, nor Tendulkar’s “Ghashiram Kotwal”, all of which employ folk idioms in their presentation. The validity of these theatres springs from the fact that they are driven by a deep, long-term, genuine exploration of traditional and modern idioms resulting in a strong third idiom that is not a hotch-potch.   

Elkunchwar’s criticism is levelled at those who create hierarchies in theatre, placing folk over modern, ignoring the place that folk now has on its home ground. Born in a village himself, he laughs at the idea of authentic Indian theatre being located in villages where the electric pump has replaced the ancient water-wheel and Bollywood films, with stories lifted from American hits, have for years taken care of the rustic’s leisure time. He, more than anybody else, is aware of the changes that have taken place in rural life as a consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation and has refused to be drawn into the myth of the village being the more authentic reality of India than the city.

It takes only a single first-hand experience of this “authentic theatre” in its own milieu, for the pink shades to fall off one’s eyes. I have been through the experience not once, but twice and can see what Elkunchwar means.             

The first experience came nearly a dozen years ago when a group of us went in search of Chitrakathi, a story-telling form practised in a clutch of villages in south Konkan on the western coast of Maharashtra. We had heard much about the wonders of this form in which the story-teller used a set of paintings to narrate incidents from mythological stories. It took us all of half-a-day to track down one of these traditional story-tellers. When we did, he was most reluctant to show us his “art”, reminding us over and over again that it was now dead and he and his fellow villagers had moved on in life. But we were guests in the village and it wouldn’t have been nice for him to send us away empty-handed. So he agreed to perform.

He led us into a small, dark hut. A straggly group of idle villagers, more interested in us than in the coming performance, followed us in. The performer called for their help to fetch down his paintings from the loft where they had been gathering dust. We gasped in admiration as they were unwrapped from their red cloth binding. They were executed in muted colours and fine lines; depicting in great detail the events they illustrated. Our admiration was accompanied by shock too at their condition—tattered, falling to pieces, spotted and stained. The performer seemed not to feel any of our pain, but showed pleased surprise at our admiration of the paintings.

The performance that followed was lack-lustre. The man faltered often and occasionally forgot his lines. He was out of practice he explained because nobody in the community was interested any more in inviting him and his colleagues to perform. There had been a time he said, when no important social or religious event in the surrounding villages could have started before a Chitrakathi story was performed. Now, even when the troupe was invited, they were expected to do their thing sitting in the corner of some temple while their hosts went about their own business. Under these circumstances it had been easy to slip into sub-standard performances. A local man belonging to one of the performing families, had been trying hard to revive the art by publicising its existence in urban centres like Mumbai and Pune. But what use was excitement generated by Chitrakathi in far away cities if the local community no longer supported it? Its life depended on local need, not on occasional export.     

My second excursion was to Melattur, a village in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. I had gone to see Bhagwat Mela, the ritual dance-drama of the region, performed annually to celebrate Narasimha Jayanti. This was not folk but traditional theatre, which meant that the music was classical Carnatic and the dance a cross between Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi. I was particularly interested in seeing Bhagwat Mela because it was said to have been the source of modern Marathi theatre. The Raja of Sangli is said to have seen a performance of it in 1843 and commissioned Vishnudas Bhave, a multi-talented young man at his court, to create a similar entertainment for the courtiers refining away some of its features which he considered to be crude.

Besides the scholarly purpose of seeing the beginnings of the theatre tradition that I was researching and writing a book about, I soon realised that I was also driven by the romantic urban notion of an unspoilt form of theatre edifying and entertaining an unspoilt rural audience. Despite my Chitrakathi experience, I found myself looking forward to being part of a community that had been performing and participating in this ritual drama for 300 years. I was also awed by the fact that many of the present members of the traditional performing families of Bhagwat Mela were clerks, lawyers, technicians and teachers elsewhere in the State, but returned unfailingly to rehearse and perform each year when Narsimha Jayanti came around. Finally, I was intrigued by the story of how the actor who played Narasimha in Prahald Charitam, the main play of the festival, often went into a frenzied trance when he “emerged” from the pillar to tear out Hiranyakashipu’s entrails. He had to be physically restrained by the rest of the cast to prevent him from doing harm to the actor playing Hiranyakashipu. Romantic notions apart, I was an unflinching rationalist waiting to prove conclusively to my credulous hostess that the frenzied actor was actually faking it.

Hurrying down the main village road as night fell, all primed for this never before experience, I was surprised to see that my hostess and I were the only people out. Peeping into the tidy homes that flanked the road, I saw families eating, resting, watching television and generally showing no signs of unusual excitement. “They’ll come by and by,” my companion said, leading me to the space in front of the Narasimha temple where a temporary stage had been erected for the performance. She was right. They did come, but in trickles, not in droves, with babes on their hips and toddlers in tow. Some chatted, some dozed off, some soon got up and left. In brief, it was nothing like the involved, attentive audience that I had led myself to expect, and certainly not a participative one, its thinness explained by the fact that most had stayed home to watch TV.

It was obvious that rural audiences could no longer connect with theatre forms that were once part of their collective life. If this had not been so, they wouldn’t have been dead or dying. So it makes no sense for anybody now, whether in India or abroad, to declare them more truly Indian than modern plays written by playwrights like Tendulkar and Elkunchwar, which command large audiences and make a significant difference to its audiences.

It is against this background that the reception given to “Sakharam Binder” staged by the Play Company in New York, comes as a long overdue break. Considering that the scheduled number of shows had to be extended by a further six days, the audiences must have related very strongly to the play; and so surely did the actors, because otherwise they could not have entered the play as intensely as they are reported to have done. The New York Times theatre critic, commenting on the play, called it an “excruciating yet absorbing work”, that was “wonderfully clear and superbly acted”. He went on to say that “Sakharam Binder” deserved “to be much better known in the United States than it is.”

There are other Marathi, Bengali, Hindi and Kannada plays that also deserve to be better known in the west. However, this can happen only when the west gives up its notions of what is and isn’t “truly” Indian. Rather than paint theatre into a corner labelled “Indian”, it must open up, as it has done in the case of “Sakharam Binder”, to the fact that “city India” is as real as “village India”. Only then will it discover that the theatre of city India differs as widely from the theatre of the west as does their cheese from our chikki.

Published On : 19-07-2006