(A shorter version of this review appeared in Tehelka)
Writer: G P Deshpande
Director: Atul Pethe
Performed by Pune Safai Karmacharis Union
It was apt that a landmark production of G P Deshpande’s 1992 play Satyashodhak on the life of the 19th century anti-caste crusader Jyotiba Phule was performed in a week that witnessed the killing of the head of the Ranbir Sena – a week in which we were reminded that the bitter legacy of caste haunts us as strongly as ever. It was unusual however, that the performance should be held at the recently-opened May Day café and bookstore in Delhi – a space dedicated to the different and more hopeful legacy of the international working class movement, and located close to the heart of a former industrial district in a city that practices careful amnesia about its working classes. It is entirely unusual further that the performers were both Dalit and members of the Pune Municipal Safai Karmacharis Union. While the ancient, poisoned streams of caste and class have often overlapped on the subcontinent, they have not, as we are aware, produced unified or even similar political responses.
It was within this web of resonances then, that Satyashodhak made its 52nd appearance on the stage in Delhi this past month. Over a year ago, director Atul Pethe was asked by the deceptively diminutive organizer of the Pune Safai Karmacharis Union Mukta Manohar if he could put together a production with members of the union, working with the original Marathi script of G P Deshpande’s play. While Jan Natya Manch had performed this play way back in 1992 in Hindi translation, GPD had nursed a wish to see it performed in its original Marathi. Pethe and his cast began to work on workshops early last year, and in January 2012, the play had its first show, earning acclaim for its elegant incorporation of folk theater as well as its powerful performances. In a brief interview after the play, Pethe shared his surprise at the incredible “felicity with music” shown by the almost entirely non-professional cast during the workshop, the revelation of working with different voices and instruments used by local communities around Maharashtra (for instance in the Konkan region) and the hope that these performances may challenge the stagnation that afflicts parts of mainstream Marathi theater, especially its voice – both literal and metaphorical.
For Pethe and the performers then, bringing a full-length Marathi play to Delhi as to other non-Marathi speaking parts of the country was an interesting decision. My entirely wild guesswork would put the percentage of the audience that understood the nuances of dialogue during the performance at around 20%. One could ask legitimately then, what we (performers as well as audience) were really doing one sweltering Delhi evening at the May Day bookstore and café. I can’t say anybody had a clear answer, but if there were signs of flagging interest in the jam-packed Studio Safdar at any point in the performance, I missed them. From the moment the performers walked on to the stage to the beat of drums and Pethe’s own powerful voice, I was mesmerized. Whether it was the guttural pull of the Marathi intonation, the quality of the singing, the supreme ease with which the actors slid in and out of different roles or the effortless direction, I found myself straining every nerve, sinew and synapse to keep up.
The storyline runs thus, in its bare bones. One stormy night, in a fit of rage, an ancestor of Jyotiba Phule’s murders the leery, exploitative Kulkarni landlord over the latter grabbing his land for non-repayment of a measly amount. He then runs away to Satara district, where he settles, managing to escape detection. His descendants become successful flower vendors – indeed Jyotiba’s own grandfather earns a generous land grant from the ruling Peshwas for his miraculous talent with flowers, including an ability to weave garments out of them! Young Jyotiba grows up relatively privileged for a shudra in the nineteenth century. His father takes care to educate him, and even when he pulls Jyotiba out of school on the advice of a Brahmin benefactor, a Christian priest recognizes Jyoti’s intelligence and continues his education. The stain of caste never goes away however. Jyotiba’s future life is shaped by his experience of Brahminical dominance in childhood, including a particular incident in which the family of his Brahmin friend humiliates him for attending the friend’s marriage. He determines to fight Hindu orthodoxy in all its forms, especially what he sees as its irrational suppression of women, the ‘lower’ castes, and widows. With a willing, inspiring ally in the form of his wife Savitribai, Phule starts a successful girls’ school and an orphanage in which widows are placed in charge of abandoned infant girls. Towards the end of his life, Jyotiba Phule recognizes the power of working class organization, and encourages his followers to join the many unions being formed in Bombay and other big cities at the end of the nineteenth century.
The play then ends with the question of caste brought back to the question of class, taking head on the hugely important political question of the relationship between these. We are reminded of the truth of revolutionary poet Ghadar’s claim that in this country, caste and class remain mutually reinforcing. A caste occupation is still binding on most members, especially as you climb down the varna-jati system. This is the significance of a stalwart of the Left like G P Deshpande writing a play on Jyotiba Phule, thereby rescuing him from the dull bracket of ‘social reformer’ to which he has been consigned in conventional historiography, muffling his profound political challenge to generations of self-avowedly modern Indians; to the self-avowedly modern nation-state. Thus too, the significance of a troupe composed of unionised Dalit workers appearing on stage in a play on Phule.
The play and its script are by no means an authoritative commentary on Phule’s life. By no means do they ‘settle’ the intractable questions of caste, class or gender, even as they appeared in Phule’s life. A separate review could be written on the number of questions they open up, in fact. A discussion at the end of the play for instance, coalesced around the question of ‘greatness’ – of the use of the term ‘Mahatma’ or ‘great soul’ to describe any complex historical figure. On the politics of doing so, and the potential dangers of blinding us to his faults, as well as to the achievements of ordinary people around that figure. In a related vein, Phule’s interactions with his Brahmin friends and enemies are very well documented in the play, while his interactions with other Dalits remain somewhat sketchy, leaving us wanting more. Looking back at Phule’s life now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a further irony emerges. Phule’s struggle was against Sanskrit and the Brahminical neglect of Marathi, the vernacular. It was the reason he lionized Shivaji. Given the aggressive claiming of Marathi and Shivaji by Maratha politics in recent decades, the potential uses and abuses of these complex legacies for modern Dalit politics need to be thought through carefully.
These debates will continue, as they should. In one of my favourite feminist poems however, a daughter chides her mother for speaking in one voice but singing in another. In whichever manner the words of Satyashodhak will be received as it continues its marvellous run across this caste-ridden nation, it may be wise to remember that if its actors appear to speak one language, they may all be singing in another.