G.P. Deshpande speaks on Satyashodhak.
Playwright and scholar G.P. Deshpande whose earlier work Uddhwasta Dharamsala came in for much critical acclaim some years ago, has chosen to reflect the turmoil in Indian society in his latest Marathi play, Satyashodhak, based on the life of Jyotiba Phule, the dynamic Dalit social reformer of 19th century Maharashtra. The Hindi version of the play was staged by Jana Natya Manch, the Delhi-based street theatre group, in the Capital recently.
The play – finished in record time for the annual proscenium production of Janam – is set in a period of questioning and reformist movements. The central character is Jyotibha Phule, the fiery Dalit social reformer from Maharashtra. The dramatic element of the play comprises the conflict between the orthodox high-caste Hindu brahmins and the repressed masses – the sudras and the women, whom Phule tried to educate and enlighten.
Phule, (1827-90), had launched a scathing attack on the oppressive practices followed by Brahminism that denied dignity to low caste men and women. The Dalit renaissance man lived to challenge religious orthodoxy, preached egalitarianism between castes and classes, and fought a protracted war for the edification of social norms.
His achievements were many. He started the first workers' magazine, opened schools for Dalit children and women and zealously campaigned for widow re-marriage. With his wife, Savitri, he launched the country's first women's magazine. Recognising the tremendous significance fo the reformer's achievements, Gandhi had also saluted Phule as the real 'mahatma'.
A historical, biographical play, Satyashodhak, nonetheless, becomes splendid theatre material in the hands of Deshpande who seeks to transcend the leaden weight of history through the medium of lilting music, humour and strong dialogue.
There are those poignant moments of emotion, too. A lump comes into the throat as one witnesses Phule's wife, Savitri, being humiliated in public merely for wanting to learn to read and write.
There is another incident that makes one hang one's head in shame to think of our society only half a century ago. A sudra father brings his little daughter to Phule's school tied as a bundle because he is afraid of censure.
In yet another magic momnet, Phule's father dismisses his son from his household for breaking social taboos. As Phule takes leave, his father embraces his son but lacking in courage fails to give him any support. Deshpande's play talks about a social malaise that continues to exist even to date. Excerpts from an interview with Deshpande:
Why did you decide to write on Jyotiba Phule?
I have been wriing on socio-historical problems. 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. This is a very surprising fact for Phule had made a tremendous impact on the society of his time. I have merely tried to make this point.
A biographical play rooted in history runs the risk of turning top-heavy. Presenting a historical personality through the medium of theatre is a challenging task as the essence of drama is conflict/ tension. How have you tackled this problem?
There were basically two kinds of problems. One was the question of how to communicate the personal aura of a historical personality without unduly glorifying him. The other problem was how to present the normal moments of dramatic tension, which are not there in a biographical narrative.
I have tacked the first problem by presenting Phule, a crusader, not as a larger than life figure, a 'hero' not a man with a vision who had his own limitations. I have done this through episodes, like the one in which Phule's friends question some of his ideas.
The other problem – that of creating dramatic tension – was circumvented by highlighting the two schools of thought current at the time of Phule that were at loggerheads with each other. The tension between these two sets of thoughts, which I call “felt thoughts”, provide the necessary dramatic tension. And I feel it is this tension, which sustains the drama. I have also used this tension to show Phule as a human being with his moments of humour, little concerns, disappointments and his mission.
Why have you called your play Satyashodhak?
Satyashodhak means a seeker of truth. The reformist movements of this period were all addressed to the babus or members of the bhadralok class. The Brahmo Samaj of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal as well as the Prarthana Samaj in Maharashtra, were movements related to the upper class and did not touch the masses. Phule started the third Samaj for the education and liberation of the sudras, ati-sudras and women. He preached Satya Dharma and a Satyashodhak is a person who is a seeker of Satya Dharma. Phule launched his dalit movement in 1873, which survived until the early 20th century.
Satyashodhak is a musical play. Why did you use this form?
This is the first musical play I have written. Phule wrote plays and his followers developed a theatre form called Satyashodhak Jalsa (ceremony). This was basically a didactic form which used a lot of poetry, tamasha and music. But the basic aim was to put across a message. I have tried to revive this important historical form and to enable non-Marathi audiences to see it.
The folk music tradition is not only Marathi, however.
No. I have used a mix of various traditions. There are elements of qawwali as well as classical elements like kedar and abhanga, a common metre used between 12-19th century by the bhakti poets.
How would you rate Satyashodhak in comparison to all the plays you have written thus far?
I have written eight plays since I first started writing in 1973. I consider this play to be among my four successful plays and as significant as Uddwasta Dharmsala, Andhar Yatra and Chanakya Vishnugupta.
If you were to re-write the play what changes would you make?
Don't ask me to re-write so soon! And I would not want to do it until I see it produced in Marathi, the language in which it was originally written.
In the next six months or so I hope to see a Marathi production of this play.
This interview was first published in The Economic Times (New Delhi) on 3 Oct 1992.