While making a documentary film titled ‘The Garbage Trap’ on the lives of sewage and sanitary workers in and around Pune, Atul Pethe found his calling. As he deftly puts it, “It was a life-changing experience for me. I realized my voice had changed. I was no longer talking like myself. I had begun to think and act with such lucidity, and felt a strange sense of power, but along with it came an equal amount of restlessness. It was peculiar in many ways”. It was then that Atul decided to hold a six-month long theatre workshop with the same sanitary workers he had formed deep bonding with.
Atul Pethe’s decision to reinterpret G. P. Deshpande’s play Satyashodhak (The Truth-Seeker), originally written in 1992 and first-performed in Hindi by the Delhi-based, legendry agitprop theatre group- Jana Natya Manch (Janam), is a manifestation of the collective desire of the sanitary workers to stage a play on the life and struggles of Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule (Apr 11, 1827 — Nov 28, 1890) - the fiery Dalit social reformer of the 19th century Maharashtra.
For our generation, it will be interesting to note that Jyotirao Phule (Jyotiba - as he was fondly called) is regarded as one of the most important figures of the Social Reform Movement in Maharashtra. Dhananjay Keer- his biographer, mentions him as ‘the father of Indian social revolution’. Even Mahatma Gandhi once hailed Jyotiba as ‘The Real Mahatma’- who, along with his wife Savitribai Phule, worked fearlessly and tirelessly for the liberation of the Bahujans, Shudras and Ati-Shudras, protecting them from exploitation and atrocities that they had to suffer at the hands of the then upper caste Maharashtra.
Playwright G. P. Deshpande, who has consistently been writing on socio-historical issues, took it upon himself to bring to light the lesser known achievements of Jyotiba. He states, “Phule lived in a period of history that was significant. But the entire literature of this period – penned by English educated upper class students and writers of history – ignored Phule. His works were not translated into English until after foreigners wrote on him.” Deshpande was quite taken by the achievements of this dynamic social reformist, and the social and political impact his reforms had on the 19th century Maharashtra. Thus, with the play ‘Satyashodhak’ that he penned in 1992, it was Deshpande’s committed endeavour to counter the academic and critical neglect of Jyotiba Phule.
Now with Atul Pethe’s production, G. P. Deshpande’s another ardent wish for many years, that this play be staged in its original language – Marathi, and watched by the Marathi audiences, has finally come true. Recently staged at Janam’s new space in Delhi - Safdar Studio, it was the 52nd show of the Marathi version. The play has been produced by the Pune Municipal Corporation Union; and its ensemble cast, currently on a hard-to-believe-but-
The play ‘Satyashodhak’, sticking to its biographical theme, retells the story of Jyotiba Phule in an informative yet gripping fashion, using the style that the reformist had developed to propagate his ideas in ‘Satyashodhak Jalsas. It was basically a didactic form which used a lot of poetry, tamasha and music; where the aim was largely to put across a message. Apart from the new songs that have been introduced and some minor deviation from the original script, the structure of the play and its presentation largely remains the same, as in the version that ‘Janam’ staged in 1992-93. What are truly commendable about the current production are its actors and their use of space. With no real set as part of the scenography, and just 3 real props - earthen pot, cushion and jute sack - used in the play, actors are able to effortlessly define, break and redefine spaces as per the demands of the script and the play design. The credit for the same also goes to the director, Atul Pethe – who, while designing the play, did keep in his mind the vital must, the need to travel extensively with the play in order to reach out to as many semi-urban and rural areas, to the audiences who, speaking in the context of this play, would genuinely, seriously matter. While the ensemble cast comprising of real-life sewage and sanitary workers live up to the expectations, the actors portraying Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule in particular are not just good but brilliant. They appear to be as skillful as professional stage actors, and are successfully able to generate awe and empathy for their respective characters.
Playwright G. P. Deshpande would have, in all probability, imagined so and even foretold it when this play was first staged in Hindi 2 decades ago. As audience whether one can understand the language fully or is able to get it only in essence, Satyashodhak in Marathi brings out the Marathi ethos with much more clarity that had otherwise got concealed in translation. Despite this, more theatre practitioners from remote parts of India should come forward to stage ‘Satyashodhak’ in their own native languages. For the oppressive powers against which Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule and his wife, Savitribai Phule fought all through their lives are after all still breathing fire in our country - widespread in the same old avatars in remote parts; and in others rearing their ugly heads wearing new, fancy masks.
Sunit Sinha is a Theatre Artist and an Independent Filmmaker.