45 years on, Ghashiram Kotwal lives on in the memories of theatre lovers
Vijay Tendulkar was accused of turning cult hero Phadnavis into a Marathi Machiavelli; the play was banned after 19 performances and revived latermumbai Updated: Dec 17, 2017 15:36 IST
On this day, 45 years ago, a few theatre lovers who had assembled at Bharat Natya Mandir, Pune, to watch a play as part of the Maharashtra state drama competition were left stunned, the judges confused. “Is this a play, the judges asked,” says Dr Jabbar Patel, the play’s first and most popular director.
This seemingly historical musical about Nana Phadnavis, a prominent minister in the court of the Peshwa in Pune and Ghashiram Kotwal, a poor Brahmin who rose to become city’s police chief, was anything but. Playwright Vijay Tendulkar was accused of turning a cult hero, Phadnavis, into a Marathi Machiavelli — who was corrupt, scheming and sexually exploited women — and many could not understand why. “The judges didn’t want to be part of any controversy and eventually gave us the second prize,” Patel says.
But this wasn’t a historical play, as Tendulkar said so himself once, in an author’s note. Its theme is how men in power (Phadnavis) create puppets (Ghashiram) to serve their own purpose, and later destroy them when they become useless. “It is a story, in prose, verse, music and dance set in a historical era. Ghashiram’s are creations of socio-political forces, which know no barriers of time and place. The decadence of the class in power (the Brahmins, incidentally, during the period which I had to depict) also was incidental, not accidental,” Tendulkar had said.
But the powers that be in 1970s Maharashtra did not get it and after 19 performances, the Progressive Dramatic Association banned the play. After much protest, it was revived in 1974. A movie followed in 1976. But there was another controversy when the troupe was invited to perform abroad and Tendulkar’s critics moved the Bombay high court to try and stop them from going. The attempt was unsuccessful. “But before every performance, we had to read out a few lines on the greatness of the actual Nana Phadnavis,” Patel said.
Four decades later, memories of that time are still fresh for those who were at the centre of the storm. “We were a bunch of 20-something-year-olds whose primary aim was to have fun in life. Money wasn’t important. We couldn’t understand why people were reacting the way they were to the play,” says actor Mohan Agashe, whose depiction of Nana Phadnavis has been appreciated the world over.
“We were all raw and learning how to sing and dance. In fact, we set the last 20 minutes of the play the night before our first performance. The controversy definitely brought us all closer,” he says. Patel, one of the freshest and most exciting directors of that time, was also studying to be a doctor when he took on the play. “The play was only 35-36 pages long, but Tendulkar had meticulously written down crucial directions that helped me visualise the play into a two-hour production,” Patel said.
Since then, however, there have been several instances of operational forces trying to curb creative freedom. Actor Amol Palekar, who has challenged the pre-censorship of theatre performances by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board under various provisions of the Bombay Police Act, 1951 in the Bombay high court, has a grim view of the current situation. “No lessons were learnt from Ghashiram. We fought then, and we are still fighting. Things have only become worse,” he says.