Govind Purushottam Deshpande – or GPD as he was known in English and gopu in Marathi – passed away on the night of 18 October at his house in Pune after a brief illness. He is survived by a son and a daughter.
GPD belonged to the fast vanishing species of versatile intellectuals in the true sense of the term. He was one of the more prominent political scientists in India, a professor in the School of International Studies at JNU and an expert on China. A well-known playwright and poet, a linguist of sorts, a critic, an essayist and columnist – he wrote uninterruptedly for 3 decades in the Economic and Political Weekly of India, an amateur actor, and a ‘thinker’ in general. He was born in a small town called Rahimatpur in western Maharashtra, seventy five years ago, in a family which in earlier period was Tilkaite, active in freedom struggle, and later ideologically inclined towards socialism. However, GPD eventually became a confirmed Marxist. He never became a card holder of a communist party of any hue but was always considered to be an ideologue, committed to Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Along with his immense knowledge and study of modern European ideologies, he showed exceptional erudition in Saint Poetry from Maharashtra as well as old ‘Pant’ poetry. He was well versed in Sanskrit scriptures and philosophies also. Naturally his work was always full of references from extremely varied sources and his speeches were a treat to political workers, intellectuals, and artists-writers in equal measure. He was not only a good analyst – as many thinkers are – he was extremely good at synthesizing diverse elements. His sources were not limited to one ideology or tradition and he was at his best in dialectical thought. So even though he was basically a rationalist and revolutionary in thought, he was equally at home with the traditional and the modern. His work represented the perfect synthesis of this binary. As a result he was neither a blind follower of the West nor a chivalrous nativist. He had a vision of modernity and Marxist thought, which was relevant to Indian conditions, with a global perspective and accurate worldview.
His plays were a treat both as theatre and as political thought. His play ‘Udhvast Dharmashala’ (literally translates as Desolate Pilgrim’s Home), published in English as ‘A Man in Dark Times’, was arguably the first political play in Marathi in the post-colonial period. His theatre belongs to the genre of what is referred to in Marathi as ‘plays of intellectual discourse or discussions’. Not that such a theatre never existed in Marathi before him, but GPD raised the overall bar of intellectual engagement. For him reality was political and it represented a complex interlocking of social, political, and cultural forces. All his plays define politics explicitly in terms of the power structures in society, in terms of class, caste, and gender relations. This view of politics comes not from above or outside, but from inside. The deliberation in his plays was almost always double-layered. One layer was that of political-philosophical contemplation at the conceptual level, and the other involved reflection on the actual conduct in the relationship between all three elements – the individual, the society, and the system. Both these layers are inter-dependent. GPD’s observation on both these layers is extremely minute, implicit and piercing. He wrote elaborate forewords to his plays, which reveals his vision regarding both politics as well as theatre.
The overall subject of GPD’s plays has been the political crisis in India. What is this crisis born of? This crisis has been born of the defeat of leftist movements in India and of the individuals who worked for them. In a sense many of his plays especially ‘Udhvast Dharmashala’, are a critique on the failure of leftist movements in India from the inside and the predicament they find themselves in, and so at times he had to face the wrath of his fellow Marxist activists and thinkers. But he never wavered from his commitment as a leftist thinker, and went on writing what he felt was right.
As an individual he was a very simple person, and a connoisseur of the good things in life including the occasional drink. He had great sense of humour and a lovely, infectious smile that made one immediately comfortable in his company. I had the great fortune of being close to him for years. He and the late Prof. Ram Bapat were the last two bastions of thought, versatile and public intellectuals in the true sense, in Maharashtra. Both were close friends. Bapat passed away last July and we started a lecture series in his memory from this year itself, the first of which was given by eminent art critic Mr. Sadanand Menon. GPD was in chair then. We had planned to run this series at least for four years and GPD was to be the permanent chairperson! It is difficult to find a thinker and writer to replace him. For me personally, the loss is even more significant; I have lost a very close senior friend and philosopher. It is unfortunate that we don’t seem to produce the likes of GPD any more. I pay a tribute to his memory.