A book about the evolution of Marathi theatre, written by Makarand Sathe, explores the roots of an art form that became an integral element in the cultural map of Mumbai.
On a deserted hilltop in Pune, a clown and a playwright make a pact to spend 30 days and nights discussing the tale of their beloved Marathi theatre. This is the premise of Makarand Sathe’s A Socio-Political History of Marathi Theatre: Thirty Nights.
It is a pact born of desperation. The two men, lost and adrift in an increasingly complex time, are desperate for an audience. Blocking out the world that so confuses them with its globalisation, virtual realities and fractured identities, and armed with the blessings of an ancient, restless deity named Vetal and a bottle of liquor, they resuscitate storytellers and ghosts of prosceniums past.
The clown, funny and intelligent as tradition demands, is the speaker. “He speaks directly to the common man,” says Sathe, himself an experimental playwright.
Over three volumes, the book — translated from the Marathi by young playwright Irawati Karnik and writer and theatre critic Shanta Gokhale — unfolds layer after layer of rich academic content.
AN EVOLVING TRADITION
Marathi theatre has always been regarded as one of the most culturally rich theatre traditions in the country.
For centuries, Marathi theatre had been represented solely by the folk forms. In the 19th century, modern Marathi theatre was born.
Male lavani artist Pramod Kandalkar (in white) performs at Yashvant Natya Mandir, Matunga, in 2014. These song-and-dance routines are part of tamashas, the Marathi folk theatre form. (HT file photo)
“The Peshwas’ rule ended in 1818; 25 years later, in 1843, the Brahmins from Maharashtra who had lost some of their power with the decline of that rule, reclaimed it through Pauranic or mythological theatre,” says Sathe.
At the behest of King Patwardhan of Sangli, Vishnu Bhave wrote Sita Swayamvar, which was performed on November 5, 1843, in that princely state. It was inspired by Karnataka’s folk theatre form of yakshagana, brought to the region by travelling troupes.
By the time Bhave died from the plague in 1909, the art form was supported by market forces. “The idea of a glorified past was thus preserved in the Marathi theatre tradition, and it helped resist the influences of the British and other Christian missionaries later in that century,” says Sathe.
Sathe’s account of the origin of this regional art form focusses on three kinds of plays — mythological, political and historical.
For research, he pored over copies of plays, newspapers, books and periodicals such as Vividh Dyanistar, Gatha Tisri, and works by Eknath Maharaj and Lokmanya Tilak, all published before 1952 and some dating as far back as 1899.
Makarand Sathe is a Pune-based architect who has been writing for 20 years and is part of the selection panel of the Pune International Film Festival.
“Although the oldest Marathi play is Sita Swayamvar, based on the Ramayana, Sathe’s is the first book that mentions Truteeya Ratna by Jyotiba Phule as one of the first Marathi plays,” says eminent playwright Satish Alekar. Written in 1855, that play is considered the first consciously political play in India, while noted Marathi playwright Datta Bhagat also calls it the first Dalit play.
“Marathi theatre was always dominated by the upper castes and middle classes. And, their experience being limited, a lot just did not come into the ambit of the plays they wrote, and naturally this limited Marathi theatre too,” Sathe says.
In the 1860s came plays like VJ Kirtane’s Thorale Madhavrao Peshawe, which Sathe calls a byproduct of India’s tryst with modernity, because it was the first play published in Marathi, and written by a young playwright with a university education. Kirtane wrote it at age 20, just after graduating from Mumbai’s Elphinstone College.
The status of women became a point of discussion by the 1870s, with lesser-known plays such as Swairasakesha propagating the shaving of hair by widows. “By the 1890s, this had changed. Plays like Sharda were much more pro-women, addressing issues such as child marriage, widowhood and girls’ education,” says Sathe.
SETTING THE STAGE FOR BOMBAY
With its own multiple personalities and struggles with issues of identity, language and social structure, it was just a matter of time before Bombay became a hub of commercial Marathi theatre.
“Inspired by the proscenium setting at Grant Road Theatre, Bhave staged his play Gopichand in Bombay in 1853,” says Gokhale. This was the first Marathi play staged in the city. Meanwhile, the first mills began to go up around the same time, and migrant workers from rural Maharashtra, defined by their working class status, began staging plays that dealt with class conflict, socio-economic change and eventually the independence struggle and Samyukta Maharashtra movement that sought to keep the state united.
In the 19th century, actors in Marathi plays written by Vishnu Bhave dressed in costumes and make-up inspired by the Yakshagana folk theatre form of Karnataka.
(Photos courtesy: Painted Sceneries: Backdrops Of The Nineteenth Century Marathi Sangeet Natak By Nissar Allana)
“Bombay was the place where the seeds of professional Marathi theatre were sown,” Gokhale adds. “This could not have happened in any other place but the city of commerce, because Bombay had the money and the infrastructure, the formal performance spaces to help it grow. And the fact that it grew as it did has to do with the central position it came to assume in the cultural lives of the Maharashtrian community in this growing commercial capital.”
In Mumbai’s chawls, where the workers lived, free time was spent in shared verandahs, entertaining one another with folk traditions such as keertans, pravachans, powades, gondhals, namans and kheles. The nascent metropolis became not just a home but also a subject, reflected in productions such as the lavani titled Mumbai Nagarai Badi Banka (A Very Interesting City Called Mumbai) by Patthe Bapurao and Annabhau Sathe’s lavani Mazi Mumbai Arthat Mumbai Konachi (My Mumbai Or Whose Mumbai Is It?).
In his final chapter, Sathe discusses how today’s world is more difficult for the playwright than any of the decades that came before. “Arguably, the last 25 years have seen more social and political change than the thousand years before that,” he says. “Globalisation has led to a loss of coherent identity,” Sathe adds. “There is no singular ideology that can be called the philosophy of the times.”
Earlier, Sathe adds, debate was linear. It would rage between capitalism and socialism, colonialism and independence. Now, there are multiple frameworks that spark multiple overlapping debates, such as that between capitalism and fundamentalism.
“These crises should be perceived as an opportunity for theatre,” he says. “And all the while, the soul of the theatre, which lies in live performance, should not be lost. We are practically surrounded by images. The strength of theatre lies in the fact that it offers a real-life experience.”
A staging of the 20th-century play Ekach Pyala, which dealt with alcoholism. Written by Ram Ganesh Gadkari, this production starred Bal Gandharva, the legendary stage actor and singer. (Photos courtesy: Painted Sceneries: Backdrops Of The Nineteenth Century Marathi Sangeet Natak By Nissar Allana)