Anew Marathi play is running to packed houses in Mumbai. Titled Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla, it debunks parts of the Hindu nationalist narrative on Shivaji, which, in the past few decades, has become so dominant that it has obscured all other narratives. These narratives had been healthy during the freedom movement, with Phule calling Shivaji the raja of the ryots, Tagore extolling him as king of kings, Tilak seeing in him the symbol of nationalism and Left-wing activists looking at him as the hero of the proletariat. The play makes it clear that Shivaji did not want universal Hindu rule, was not only not anti-Muslim but had Muslims in his army and navy, that he was not merely a go-brahman pratipaalak, a protector of cows and Brahmins, and that, unlike what RSS adherents and orthodox Brahmins say about Amavasya being an inauspicious time for travel, Shivaji undertook most expeditions on moonless nights.
This is a salutary enterprise, because alternative narratives need to be revived, myths demolished and a dialogue restarted on Shivaji’s vision, a dialogue that goes beyond the political slogan of ‘Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji’, in which he’s been imprisoned by those who’ve appropriated him.
In so doing, we need to take care that we do not introduce new distortions. Unfortunately, the play, not in its entirety but in many, critical spots, goes down another kind of reactionary route that recently resulted in the removal of Shivaji’s tutor Dadoji Kond-dev’s statue from Lal Mahal. While upholding the identity of Dalits and the dispossessed, it targets Brahmins in all the wrong places and even where there’s no reason to do so.
For instance, it says “Brahmins were having a good time doing clerical work” before Shivaji arrived on the scene, while most other communities were in trouble. Not true. Constant warfare between the Mughals, the Adilshahi, the Nizamshahi and Qutubshahi had disastrous consequences for the Maratha countryside early in the 17th century, making life difficult for everyone.
Then, it says Afzal Khan couldn’t have razed the Tuljapur temple because it wasn’t on the route he’d normally take from Bijapur to Pratapgad. But the most neutral of historians say he “detoured to desecrate Hindu sacred places” and that this reflected the sectarian orthodoxy then growing in Bijapur (Stewart Gordon: The Marathas: 1600-1818, part of The New Cambridge History of India, and GS Sardesai, New History of the Marathas, Vol 1).
Painting Brahmins as traitors, the play talks of how Krishnaji Bhaskar, the Kulkarni of Wai, sided with Afzal Khan. Marathas, Brahmins and all other communities of the time, however, served various masters, and Shivaji’s emissary who intelligently got the Khan to agree to a meeting at Pratapgad was also a Brahmin, Pantaji Pant Gopinath.
Another fantastic theory is that the killing of Shivaji’s son Sambhaji may have been “a Brahminical conspiracy.” A character in the play says, “Sambhaji was tortured and killed. Aurangzeb wasn’t known for doing such cruel things.” Aurangzeb, in fact, was known for his cruelty: he imprisoned his father, killed his brother, and his religious fundamentalism is well-recorded (so is Shivaji’s response to him asking him to respect all religions). And Sambhaji was not killed alone: his minister, Kavi Kalash, a Brahmin, was killed along with him.
The play states “the real book is one that goes beyond caste and community.” Sadly, its own narrative replaces Brahmin prejudice with anti-Brahmin bias and seeks to replace the intolerance of the Shiv Sena and of upper-caste balladeers posing as historians with the intolerance of some of the self-proclaimed defenders of the oppressed.