Vijay Tendulkar, who died on May 19, will be remembered as one of the greatest influences on modern Indian drama. In fact, along with Mohan Rakesh in Hindi, Badal Sircar in Bengali and Girish Karnad in Kannada, the Marathi playwright is regarded as one of the founders of the genre. And more than one critic has gone the last mile and declared him to be its definitive founder.
Tendulkar used drama as a critiquing tool to analyse the Indian middle class, which had evolved rapidly during his
life. His most important work deals with its most problematic issues: sex, violence and power. In the hands of this gifted agent of public conscience, the staple of popular cinema becomes the vehicle of dramatic catharsis. The power games revolving around sex are the subject matter of Sakharam Binder (1972) and Kamala (1981), stories whose themes are still played out, decades later, all over South Asia. Ghashiram Kotwal is about power per se, and the violence which is its native medium of expression.
Today, the middle class is growing so rapidly that soon, it will dominate national affairs. It will decide who goes to the legislatures, what issues they address, what norms of behaviour they set down for the nation. It already decides which books are to be banned and which artists are to be lynched, and in the future its influence will extend far beyond people who read books and visit galleries. In that perspective, Tendulkar’s work will grow in relevance even after his death, instead of diminishing with time.
What set Tendulkar’s world-view apart was his ability to look closely at this class both from within and from without, as a passionate external observer. Raised in Mumbai, he became interested in the world beyond the cities at an early age, making landfall at the far end of India’s social spectrum, among the tribals. When he was a boy, he chanced upon a copy of Verrier Elwin in his father’s bookstore and lending library, and his imagination was fired by the awesome cosmologies of tribal India.
About the same time, he watched his father and his elder brother put up amateur theatrical performances. They rehearsed after work and because theatre was not a respectable calling at the time, it was in seedy rooms lit by hurricane lanterns. Men played women, making up for their moustaches with a laughably feminine gait and mannerisms. And then there was the real performance, where the same players moved the audience to tears. “The whole experience had a mystical look... This was my first experience of theatre — or the mystique of theatre,” he wrote later.
These two influences armed Tendulkar for his calling — early exposure to theatre and a glimpse of the other India beyond city limits. At 14, he dropped out of school, joined the Quit India movement and later wandered into journalism, the traditional haven for people with no identifiable skills and a lot to say. He was dissatisfied with the Marathi press of the time which, still following British standards, reported extensively on international affairs — by translating from English wire services — and ignored what was happening under their very noses.
He tried his hand at professional play-writing but the catcalls at the first production of Gruhasta (The Householder) convinced him never to write again. But as he would note exactly half a century later, “Theatre is for the thick-skinned and the stubborn... Every effort is looked at as a possible offence. Offence against someone’s good taste, against the good old norms of theatre, against society and the critics... You are, to quote Tennessee Williams, a cat on a hot tin roof. You must learn to relax as your behind gets scorched, if you want to be in this art.” (‘The Play’s the Thing’, Sri Ram Memorial Lecture, 1997.)
Tendulkar took the heat, established his reputation with Shrimant (1956) and achieved national recognition with Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe! (1967) and Sakharam Binder (1972). And then he got a Nehru Fellowship, ostensibly to research growing social violence and its impact on theatre, which allowed him to set second-hand journalism aside and see reality for himself. He used the fellowship to return to his childhood interest in tribals, visiting and living among the Warlis near Mumbai, the Madias in Chandrapur, the Bhils of Khandesh and the Pardis, who were declared a criminal tribe in early British times and are still hunted like feral animals by the police.
He was not out there to romanticise the noble savage. His itinerary explored urban, upper class India’s determination to keep tribal culture safely limited to Republic Day parades and backdrops for Bollywood song-and-dance sequences. In Secunderabad, he witnessed the hanging of two tribal bonded labourers who had killed a neighbouring landlord on their master’s orders, and had no idea that they had committed a crime. “A word in the judgement still haunts me: ‘Hair-raising’,” he wrote in 2001 (‘The Painted Indians’, The Little Magazine, Vol II, issue 2). “Why hair-raising?... Because they refused to leave the scene of the killing. They were waiting when the police arrived at the spot. They owned up to the killing instead of trying to escape. This made the murder ‘hair-raising’ to the honourable His Lordship, and the murderers fit for the rope." Later, at an all-night Holi festival in the Satpuras, he saw a ‘witch’ beaten to death by her neighbours at dawn, while her husband and children, in all probability, danced on in the throng.
It is this unflinching gaze on the theatre of life, looking even-handedly upon the India he wrote on as well as the other India — that informed his work and was the source of its ethical vision. Playwright, fiction writer, essayist, columnist, journalist and social observer at large, Vijay Tendulkar has been one of the most powerful radical voices of our time, speaking from within the class he critiqued. With his passing, we have lost a critical mirror of society — and perhaps a bit of our conscience too.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.