Manaswini Lata-Ravindra, 27, does not have a surname that denotes caste or community. Lata is her mother, an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and Ravindra, her father, a campaigner against female foeticide.
But being Marathi comes naturally to her. After she obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree from the Lalit Kala Kendra, Pune, Manaswini was drawn to theatre, an over 150-year-old tradition in Maharashtra. In her mind, she debated issues confronting youth and society, and the stage, she felt, would help her engage with the world on these.
She started writing in her mother tongue, and her plays — among them Cigarettes, which highlights the dilemmas of modern Indian youngsters — have won her critical acclaim as well as mass adulation.
“I write in Marathi because I’m comfortable with the language and enjoy writing in it,” she says. “Not to promote my culture.”
Manaswini is one of many new-generation Maharashtrians in Mumbai: young, comfortable in their own skin and as much a product of their culture as anyone else. They embrace the city’s cosmopolitan character, challenge narrow definitions of Maharashtrian identity and Marathi pride put out by political parties and are opposed to the politics of language and of conflict with “outsiders.”
Hemant Divate, 43, a Marathi poet, is an admirer of the city’s “accommodative spirit.” Born in Ozar near Nashik, Divate moved to Mumbai after completing his high school education in Shahpur. When he was in college, the city’s multi-cultural identity fascinated him so much that he cultivated his childhood hobby of writing poems into his profession.
“The city gave my work perspective. The result is that, just like Mumbai, my poetry has order in chaos,” says Divate, who has published a poetry magazine in Marathi, Abhidhanantar, for more than 15 years.
Dalit writer Yougiraj Bagul, 45, is more emphatic. He feels “the days of political parties representing the identity of Maharashtrians are long gone.”
Bagul inherited the state’s rich oral tradition. So fond was he of language as a child that he would use small sticks from the fields in his village Khandala (in Aurangabad district, not the popular hill station) to trace words on his hands. He learnt most words from his illiterate mother, who would sit on the veranda of their house and sing the famous songs of Bahinabai (a 17th Varkari woman poet-saint) while grinding flour.
“The words in the songs attracted me towards them. I would remember them and use them to write my own stuff. That is how I developed my vocabulary,” he says.
Bagul moved to Mumbai 21 years ago and works with the Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers Ltd. His newest book, Athavanitale Babasaheb (Memories of Babasaheb), features first-hand accounts of many close associates of Dr Ambedkar. Some of his writings are prescribed reading at universities across the state, and his biography of a tamasha artiste is soon going to be made into a Marathi film.
His success notwithstanding, he has his own concerns about writing, but they are different from those of political parties. Youngsters, he feels, no longer want to carry books along; they’d rather read online. The challenge for him, he feels, is to write for the new medium. “I am prepared to get into e-books. That is the future,” he says.
Scriptwriter Manisha Korde, who has written Bollywood films like Malamaal Weekly and Bhool Bhulaiyya, believes that being a Maharashtrian does not define her or the work, though she is very much a member of the community. But sculptor Sharmila Sawant, 43, is worried about wrong impressions. She was shocked when, on a visit to Bihar, people asked her why Maharashtrians were opposed to Biharis. “We don’t oppose them. It’s the political parties,” she had to explain.
These parties talk of language and culture only to fulfill their political aims, stresses Sanjeev Khandekar, 52, a visual artist, Marathi poet and writer, whose controversial art exhibition Tits, Clits n Elephant Dicks caused quite a stir in 2006.
Actor Atul Kulkarni, 45, straddles both the Maharashtrian and the non-Maharashtrian worlds and identifies with these sentiments. Praised recently for his role in the Marathi film Natrang (based on the life of a tamasha artiste), Kulkarni studied English literature and made his big-screen debut with a Kannada film. “Any language is a medium to enrich yourself as a human being with the help of knowledge,” he says.
Tabla player Aneesh Pradhan, a keen student of history, has a message for all young Maharashtrians in the cultural sphere. “Political parties would like to think that Maharashtrians believe in their perception of culture, so artistes who feel otherwise need to project a face of culture that they believe in. This has to be done unhesitatingly on every platform.”
Those featured on this page are already doing that.