Looking For Ibsen in Maharashtra

(Paper presented at the Ibsen Seminar, Delhi)

If one is looking for Ibsen any where in the theatre world, one looks for him in the following forms:

1) In knowledge and critical assessment of his work in other cultures
2) In translations or adaptations, merely published or published and staged
3) In plays that are not translations or adaptations, but that acknowledge his influence.
4) In plays that are not translations or adaptations but that show his influence in the opinion of critics

I propose to examinine the phenomenon of Ibsen in Maharashtra under these heads,
adding to these vertical parameters, the following three horizontals:
1) The socio-political environment in Maharashtra around the time that Ibsen came to be known.
2) The condition of the theatre industry.
3) Playwright-audience relationship.  

Knowledge of Ibsen: A playwright's testimony

There is one prominent playwright who has recorded in detail how he heard about and became acquainted with Ibsen. This is B V Warerkar, who wrote 37 plays between 1914 and 1955 of which 16 were produced by professional companies. He had grown up watching professional companies perform plays in the sangeet natak form. He was driven by an obsessive ambition to be a playwright and to have his plays performed by professional companies. So, although he became acquainted with Ibsen at the age of 15, and saw his importance as a playwright of the modern world, he himself wrote music plays though not on mythological or historical, but contemporary themes. Critics have not spared him for this apparent dichotomy between what he praised and what he practised. I translate here a short passage in which he describes how he came to know and understand Ibsen as a boy of 16 when he was appointed in the local medical service as a medical pupil under the guidance of one Dr Kanitkar, who was a voracious reader and responded to Warerkar's love of reading by opening his library to him and actually reading out plays to him since Warerkar's English at that age cannot have been very strong.  In the course of these readings, Kanitkar took pains to show the young man how irrelevant Shakespeare had become to their age and how Ibsen was the playwright to read and understand. At the end of the year the surgeon-general terminated this post because he was underage and slightly built. He then joined the postal service but remained in Ratnagiri and continued his association with Dr Kanitkar. I translate the relevant passgae:

"He was the first to hand me Ibsen's plays. In comparison with Shakespear, I founf them pallid. When I said so to Dr Kanitkar, he began to read them out to me himself. Read by him, I began to see the essence of Ibsen's work. Ibsen's plays gave me a new vision. In those days his name was hardly known. When I spoke of him to my friedns they laughed and said, "Shakespeare's the great playwright. Dr Kanitkar is crazy if he finds Ibsen better. And you are even crazier for listening to him."

A critic's testimony     

The erudite critic Madhav Manohar whose reviews in a literary weekly from the mid- sixties became the nucleus of such critical discourse as there was in the maharashtra of the sixties and seventies, had ealier written a series of articles under the heading, "Why is Marathi theatre stunted?" Of the sixteen answers he offers to the question, three are titled, "Because Ibsen's plays were not understood."

These three short essays are devoted to explaining where Ibsen's work stood in the theatre landscape of his times. In the first he addresses the surface aspect of technique which relates to the structuring of his plays in acts consisting of single scenes, in the abolishing of asides, intricate plotting with pre-ordained climaxes and carefully devised entries and exits.

The second essay goes to the heart of Ibsen's plays, that is their realism. Manohar demonstrates how all the technical aspects of the previous essay were adopted to further the cause of realism. Since he is writing at a time when the Marathi theatre has accepted the ideals of realism entirely in theory and partly at least in practice, he poses the rhetorical question, "You might ask, so what was so special about what Ibsen did. If such a question is asked today, the reason for it is again Ibsen himself. If today's plays attempt to picture reality, the credit for this objective presentation of reality belongs to Ibsen alone. If people today do not feel there is anything wrong in plays dealing with reality, then the responsibility for people not thinking this way is also Ibsen's. History tells us that when Ibsen first revealed reality through his plays, the wonder and fear that filled people who saw it was not very different from Arjun's state of mind when the vision of the universe was opened before him."

The testimony of a passionate playgoer  

S V Vartak's "Andhalyanchi Shala" (School for the Blind) is acknowledged, with several reservations, as the first Ibsenian play in Marathi, though it was an adaptation of Bjornson's minor "Gauntlet". Dr D. R Gomkale writing about the plays he had seen, in his theatre autobiography "Mee pahileli natyasrushti" (The theatre world that I have seen) claims that the place for the first Ibsenian play should go to V. B Bhole's play "Sarladevi". Bhole claims not to have known anything about Ibsen's new playwriting technique when he wrote the play, and Gomkale supports this claim. He also points out that Bhole had not followed the one act-one scene structure that was taken as a sine qua non of the Ibsenian technique by contemporaries. Yet, he holds to his contention that Sarladevi was the first Ibsenian play in Marathi, justifying his contention as follows:

"Ibsen's technique is more a question of the internal constitution of his plays than external aspects like the one act-one scene structure. William Archer describes it thus: 'The whole drama of the past, indeed both its facts and emotions, may be said to be dragged into the light in the very stress and pressure of the drama of the present. When young theatre practitioners who had read Ibsen and though about him appeared on the scene with the idea of doing Ibenian plays, they discovered that "Sarladevi" which had been written by Bhold according to his own lights was in fact an Ibsenian play."    

Translations and adaptations staged and unstaged

The most popular playwright with translators and adaptors in the last decade of the nineteenth and first two decades of the twentieth century was Shakespeare. Standing way down from him in ranking but still with a considerable number of his plays translated or adapted was Moliere. The first Ibsen play to be translated into Marathi but not staged is "Doll's House" in 1927 by S V Gore under the name "Banavat Sahi" or Forged Signature. Then there is S V Vartak's "Takshashila" an adaptation of Warriors of Helgeland, which, along with his earlier adaptation of Doll's House "Gharkul" (Cosy Home) was never staged by Natyamanwantar, the theatre company for whom they were done. Then there is eight years till we have another "Gharkul" also an adaptation of Doll's House by Anant Kanekar, also unstaged. In 1943 we have an adaptation of Ghosts titled "Jalte Sharir (The burning body) by Hari Vitthal Desai, again unstaged. One must assume that these  translations/adaptations were read; and one must also assume that the thirties and early forties were not the right time for Ibsen. Yet two plays that critics claimed were Ibsenian in intention though their writers strenuosuly argued against any such assumption, proved to be immensely popular. They fall under my 4th heading of plays that are not translations or adaptations of Ibsenian plays but that show his influence in the opinion of critics. Before we come to them, I must deal with point three

Plays that are not translations or adaptations, but that acknowledge his influence.

This third point in my vertical grid, comprises a single play, the much cited "Andhalyanchi Shala". This was in a sense the default production of a company that had set out to do Ibsen's plays. A translation of Doll's House by one of their member S V Vartak was ready. For reasons unknown but suspected (we will not go into hearsay here),  it was set aside in favour of an adaptation of Bjornson's "The Gauntlet". The chief point of departure from the original was the conversion of philandering men into men who deserved the sympathy and continued love and support of their wives and fiances. Both men are made objects of sympathy. The husband by being made guilty and ashamed of his deeds and therefore deserving forgiveness and the fiancee by being unfairly treated by his otherwise reasonable fiancee by not being given a chance to defend himself. When the truth of the matter is revealed in the denouement, it transpires that he did what he did entirely out of sympathy for an unfortunate woman who needed support.

However, even while defaulting on actually putting his work on stage, it was important for Natyamanwantar to demonstrate the obligation they felt towards. It was towards this end that his portrait in oil was hung on the wall of their protagonist's living room although there was nothing in the play to indicate that he was an admirer of the playwright. There was also a bust of Shaw alongside Ibsen's portrait for good measure. Gomkale comments amusedly on the confusion that their presence on the set caused in the audience, who wondered what these two old foreign-looking men with flowing beards were doing in an Indian profligate's house.
Writing about "Doll's House" in the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Eleven plays by Ibsen, H. L. Mencken says, "It didn't caress and soothe; it arrested and shocked. It didn't stay discreetly on the stage; it leaped out over the footlights." "Andhalyanchi Shala" did nothing like this. It was not meant to. We shall soon discuss the reasons for its containment within the conventions both of society and of theatre decorum.

Plays credited with showing Ibsen's influence despite the playwrights' disclaimers

The first play to earn critical disdain for pretending to be an Ibsenian play while going against the essence of Ibsen, namely stark realism, was "Gharabaher", by P K Atre, first staged in October 1934. The tenth edition of the play appeared as recently as 2004. This is what the playwright has to say about its genesis as recorded by him in his autobiography "Mee kasa jhalo" (How I became what I am).

Gharabaher deals with a young wife and mother Nirmala whose father-in-law expresses doubts about her chastity and threatens to throw her out for dishonouring the family. Her husband Shaunak is a spineless wastrel incapable of standing up against his father. In disgust, she breaks her marriage necklace and leaves the house,. However, she discovers that life is not a bed of roses outside and returns home, not as a wife, but as a mother. Atre is at great pains to prove that the source of the play was the true story he had heard about an unfortunate woman who had had to leave her home because of her in-laws' cruel treatment. His account proceeds thus: ""I went to sleep that night thinking of this story. Around three thirty that night I saw the entire story in my dream in the form of a play. Not just that, I myself had to play an important role in this heart-rending play. The very difficult work of persuading that wretched woman to return home had fallen to my lot. I was also watching this play as a member of the audience. I said to the woman, "you will have to rewturn home for the sake of your child." I was able to strike water in her heart with this single sentence. I got up from that dream overhelmed with emotion, with tears in my eyes after I had seen the woman back to her rightful home. I took out my writing implements that very moment and feverishly wrote the entire draft of the play "Gharabaher" (Out of the home)"

Further on he writes, "When Nirmala breaks her marriage necklace and leaves the house, the audience gets very scared wondering if the play was going to have a sad end. But when, in the last act, the angry wife turns into the tender-hearted mother and the stroy takes an unexpected turn, all the villains are washed away and the joy and happiness of the audience knows no bounds."

The play got full houses. The phrase "Houseful" was first coined for Gharabaher. A private radio company relayed an entire show of it live. A well-known magazine ran a special issue devioted to the play in which opinions favourable and unfavourable were invited. Some conservatives protested against Nirmala breaking her marriage necklace. But a womn in Pune announced publicly that women don't attach as much sanctitiy to the necklace as men appear to do. As final proof of the worth of the play, Atre writes, "The key line of the play has become a permanent part of the treasury of quotable quotes in Marathi. The line is: "A woman is wife for a moment but mother for eternity".  

The second play to be dismissed by critics but acclaimed by playgoers was M G Rangnekar's "Kulavadhu" (Daughter-in-law of a respectable family). Rangnekar had begun life as an editor, having edited some half-a-dozen magazines in twice the number of years. Aroun the end of the thrities, he decided to give up journalism and set up his own theatre company. He was an ambitious but practical man. After knoocking on several rich men's doors, he came across a clerk who was willing to put all his savings, amounting to Rs 2000 in a theatre company at a time when the theatre was supposed to have been crushed under the popularity of cinema. "Kulavadhu" was the company's 2nd production after the first had run them into debt. Rangnekar makes no claims for "Kulavadhu" as a modern play. On the contrary he is pleased to report in his autobiography ""Asaa dhari chhand" (Holding on to a pursuit) that, "The natyarasikas declared this the second phase of the sangeet natak after Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar's "Swayamvar"." He is also pleased to report that in the opinion of rasikas "Kulavashu" had put life back into a theatre that had beocome moribund before Natyaniketan was set up.

I must here dispel the impression some scholars have that the theatre of Natyamanwantar and Natyaniketan were amateur activties which stood in conscious opposition to the professional theatre that had collapsed. Rangnekar was a completely professional theatre company owner. Asked by an interlocutor to comment on the death of professional theatre companies because of cinema, this is what he says in his autobiography: "Theatre companies closed down because of their impracticality and lack of foresight. Could they not see that prices of everything were rising? Should they not have cut down on  their troupe and kept only the most essential numbers on their rolls?"

Further on he says, "I have been obsessed by the idea of fighting films with their own weapons by producing plays of two-and-a-half to three hour duration like films and running them at three, six and nine every day like films."

As a professional theatre man, he took care to stage a judicious mix of plays, alternating between comedies and serious plays and later even producing revivals of the old music plays.

We come now to the three horizontals of my grid--the socio-political background, condition of the theatre industry and the company-audience relationship at the time when Ibsen became an influence in Marathi theatre.

Reformism was in the air. G B Deval's Sangeet Sharada had been written at the turn of the century, condemning the practice of old widowers marrying young girls. The women's question was very much part of the public socio-political debate. Playwrights located Ibsen firmly in this debate.

Let me turn for a moment to fiction. Hari Narayan Apte wrote "Pan lakshat kon gheto", a novel that became as significant in Marathi feminist literature as Doll's House was in English. Yamu, the protagonist of the novel tells the story of her life, interweaving the stories of other women like her mother and mother-in-law into it. She finds her individuality smothered in the restrictions of a large joint family. Release comes when her husband gets a job in Mumbai and she can set up her independent home for the first time. Unfortunately her husband dies soon after and although her brother supports her desire to continue her widowed existence in her own home, an elder in-law arrives and forcefully gets her head shaved. She comes through all these trials and finally remarries.

This novel leaped across social footlights so to say in 1896, a full 37 years before "Andhlyanchi Shala", Dr Ketkar's "Brahmankanya" appeared in 1930. Kalindi, the protagonist of this novel is so disgusted with the caste-bound market called marriage in which she finds no place because although her father is a brahmin, her mother is not, that she decides to live as the mistress of a local grocer. She is forced to leave his house when he becomes bankrupt and goes to Bombay. There she meets a trade union leader and marries him. Her brother meanwhile marries her Bene Israel friend Esther.

This novel too broke a whole lot of social taboos.

In 1937 Prabhat released a film called Kunku, starring Shanta Apte. It went back to the old question of old widowers marrying young girls. Like the marriage necklace, Kunku is also an auspicious symbol of the married woman. At the end the husband who is a decent man, commits suicide, thus freeing her to marry someone more suitable.

If bounds were being broken in fiction and cinema, what was holding theatre back?

The question brings us to the second horizontal in my grid. The condition of Marathi theatre in the early thirties. Despite Rangnekar's contention that the collpase of theatre companies was their own fault, it has to be admitted that the coming of cinema added to their rapid decline. Atre's account in this respect is very telling. When he wrote "Gharabaher", Bal Gandharva himself had shown an interest in producing it. Had he stayed with that idea, he might perhaps have seen better days. However, he was lured into the cinema. He played his first male role in Prabhat Films "Dharmatma" and put an end to his acting career. "Gharabaher" was produced by the Balmohan Natak Mandali in which the role of Nirmala was played by a young man.  

This was a moment in time when either of two things could have happened. Natyamanwantar, being primed to do an Ibsenian play, though they actually did Bjornson,  might have looked around, seen no future in trying to stage their plays professionally and opted for a niche audience of informed people. The second alternative was to stage their play professionally and take their chance with the audience, relying heavily on the newness of what they had to offer. Their choice of the second alternative did pay off in a way. The lay audience saw the play and were pleased by what they saw. For the first time in the history of the Marathi stage they saw women from respectable families playing the roles of women in the play. They also saw a set that simulated the living room of a well-to-do home. They saw, again for the first time, a play that did not have multiple scenes in every act. For the first time they saw acting that was close to how people speak and move in real life. Finally, they saw a play that did not go on for hours. It was short and tightly structured.

And now we come to the playwright-audience relationship. Given that Natyamanwantar occupied the same space that the erstwhile sangeet natak companies had done, they were compelled not to administer too rude a shock to their sensibilities. The important modifications that were made in the original play had to do with observing social conventions and ideas of stage decorum that had become ingrained in the minds of the audience. Women could speak their minds as Bimba the heroine of "Andhalyanchi Shala" doeas, but men must always be given the power to preserve the status quo.

The differecne between fiction and drama was of course the obvious one. Novels were read by an unseen reader. The novelist could therefore break bounds with impunity id s/he so wished. The reader, reading in the privacy of his own space was not likely to react violently by himself. In theatre, the audience sat before the actors. To offend them was to draw their instant ire. One protestor could set up a wave of them completely ruining a performance.

Another compromise was music. For fifty years the audience had been seeing and enjoying plays with songs. There had been some plays without songs but that lack was compensated by the subject matter which was often historical or mythological, with larger than life characters. "Andhlaynchi Shala" hasd human sized characters. Take music away from the play and there would have been nothing to charm the audience. And so songs were added, three only (Kulavadhu was to have six) but even one song would have been enough to destroy all pretensions to realism.

Yet realsim was the new direction in which Marathi theatre wished to move with whatever compromises were required along the way. In this enterprise, Natyamanwantar which comprised members of the educated elite with aspirations towards doing something new, finally compromised by making a ritual bow towards Ibsen and with him towards the elite amongst the audience and proceeded to mollify the others in the audience by stopping short of staging an Ibsen play and adapting another lesser play in a way that would not offend the prevailing sensibilities.

Atre's aims were totally different. I have already referred to his Gharabaher. But he was accused by critics of having stolen from Ghosts as well in his play Udyacha Sansar (Tomorrow's Married Life). In this play a gambling drinking husband blows up all his wife's money and feels he is propoerly punished when their son falls in love with a girl in college, who unknown to him, is the daughter his father has had by another alliance. As with Doll's House Atre tells us in his autobiography about meeting an acquaintance who  in a drunken state, told him this, the story of his life and urged Atre to write a play about it. Finding in the story the seed's of how marriages were going to be in the future, Atre felt impelled to write the play.

It is to be noted that he had just returned from England where he had seen the plays of Noel Coward who he professes to admire and Moliere who he claims as a source for one of his plays. In this context his refusal to name Ibsen as a source is baffling unless we assume that while in England he had caught a whiff of some of the prevailing anti-Ibsen opinion and thought it best not to mention him back home where the British ruled.

Why Ibsen then if not for the status attached to the name or for a genuine desire to write realistic plays for which Ibsen could be genuinely thanked?

Before I speculate on the answer to this question, I would first like to say the narrative part of Ibsen's plays, when removed from the context and from the form in which they appear, make excellent material for melodrama. Given the right twist at the end to turn it from black to bright, they also lent themselves to the sentiment beloved of the Marathi audience. The reaction of the audience that Atre relates of horror followed by euphoria while watching the beginning and end respectively of Gharabaher, shows that these were the pleasurable feelings he knew would spell success for his plays and he worked hard towards achieving this objective.

Interestingly, he had some aspirations to realism too. In telling the story of how Gharabaher was written, he says he began dictating the play to a student after he had put the frist draft down after dreaming the play. He asserts that dictating it gave it the texture of the spoken language. As illustration he quotes the opening line of the play ewhich, translated would read: "So that's what your daughter-in-law has been up to Abbasaheb. Now what do you say to that?"

In his last essay in the series entitled "Why is Marathi theatre stunted", Madhav Manohar names the only playwright who he considers is fit to wear Ibsen's mantle and that is Vijay Tendulkar. He sees a future full of significant plays. But he strikes a note of doubt when he says, playwriting is all very well, but will the audience rise to meet the new demands made on them?

Twelve years after he wrote his series on why Marathi theatre is stunted, he appears to have arrived at an answer to this question. Reviewing Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder, which he hails as a mature play of consummate realism, he ends by saying, "Sakharam Binder is a dark grim play. And yet the audience was laughing merrily all through it. Finally the tuth is that the new mature play must create its own new mature audience. When is this gap between intelligent drama and its unintelligent audience be bridged?"

After the shows of Sakharam Binder in New York a few years ago, Tendulkar said, finally my play found an audience that knew what it was about. They neither laughed nor cringed. They saw it as a depiction of reality.  

Published On : 12-12-2009