Life As Message

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The Marathi play Satyashodhak stages the other Mahatma, Jyotiba Phule’s negotiation of the contradictions of caste and class, says Sunalini Kumar

Staging history A scene from the play, Photo: Garima Jain

IT IS apt that a landmark production of GP Deshpande’s play Satyashodhak, on the life of the 19th century anti-caste crusader Jyotiba Phule, be performed the week that the head of Bihar’s Ranvir Sena was killed — a stark reminder that the bitter legacy of caste still lingers. It is unusual though, that the performance should be held at the recently opened May Day Cafe in Delhi — a space dedicated to the very different legacy of the international working class movement, located close to the heart of a former industrial district, in a city that practises careful amnesia about its working classes. It is more unusual still that the performers were both Dalits and me mbers of the Pune Municipal Safai Karmachari Union. While the ancient and poisoned streams of caste and class have often overlapped in the subcontinent, they rarely produce unified or even similar political responses.

Within this confluence of resonance, Satyashodhakmade its 52nd appearance on stage. Over a year ago, Mukta Manohar, the deceptively diminutive organiser of the Pune Safai Karmachari Union, asked director Atul Pethe to put together a production performed by members of the union. Jana Natya Manch had staged the play in 1992 in Hindi, but Deshpande had long nursed a wish to revisit it in its original Marathi. Pethe and his mostly amateur cast began workshops early last year, putting on their first show in January 2012, earning acclaim for elegant incorporation of folk theatre and its powerful performances. After the play, Pethe shared his surprise at the incredible “felicity with music” shown by the inexperienced cast, the revelation of working with diff erent voices and instruments used by local communities around Maharashtra (for instance in the Konkan region) and expressed hope that these performances may challenge the stagnation that afflicts parts of mainstream Marathi theatre.

BRINGING A full-length Marathi play to Delhi and other non-Marathi-speaking parts of the country is an intriguing choice. My wild guess is that only about 20 percent of the audience understood the nuances of the dialogue. But if there were signs of flagging interest in the jam-packed Studio Safdar, I missed them. From the moment the performers walked onstage to the beat of drums and Pethe’s powerful voice, I was mesmerised. Whether it was the guttural pull of the Marathi intonation, the quality of the singing, or the supreme ease with which the actors slid in and out of different roles, I found myself straining every nerve, sinew and synapse to keep up.

The storyline runs thus, in its bare bones. One stormy night, in a fit of rage, an ancestor of Phule’s murders the leery, exploitative Kulkarni landlord for grabbing his land over a petty debt. He then runs away to Satara district, managing to escape detection. His descendants become successful flower vendors — indeed Jyotiba’s own grandfather earns a generous land grant from the ruling Peshwas for his miraculous talent with flowers, including an ability to weave garments from them! Though Jyotiba grows up relatively privileged for a shudra in the 19th century, even receiving an education, he cannot escape the taint of caste. His life is shaped by his experience of Brahminical dominance, including an incident in which the family of his Brahmin friend humiliates him for attending the friend’s marriage. He decides to fight what he sees as the Hindu orthodoxy’s irrational suppression of women and the ‘lower’ castes. With a willing ally in his wife, Savitribai, Phule starts a girls’ school and an orphanage in which widows are placed in charge of abandoned infant girls. Towards the end of his life, Phule recognised the power of working class organisation, encouraging his followers to join the many unions being formed in Bombay and other cities at the end of the 19th century.

The play rescues Jyotiba Phule from being relegated in conventional historiography to a ‘social reformer’

The play ends on questions of caste and class, paying homage to the vastly important political relationship between these two. We are reminded of the truth of revolutionary poet Gadar’s claim that, in India, caste and class remain mutually reinforcing. A caste occupation is still binding on most of its members, especially as you climb down the varna-jati system. A discussion at the end of the play for instance, coalesced around the use of the term ‘Mahatma’ to describe any complex historical figure. On the politics of doing so, and the potential dangers of blinding us to his faults as well as to the achievements of ordinary people around him. Plays like Satyashodhak rescue Jyotiba Phule from being relegated in conventional historiography to a ‘social reformer’, a label that gags his profound challenge to generations of self-avowedly modern Indians and the self-avowedly modern nation-state. Thus too, the significance of a troupe composed of unionised Dalit workers appearing on stage in a play on Phule.

The play and its script are by no means an authoritative commentary on his life. By no means do they ‘settle’ the intractable questions of caste, class or gender, even as they appeared in his time. Phule’s interactions with Brahmin friends and enemies are very well documented in the play, but his interactions with other Dalits remain sketchy. Looking back at Phule’s life now, a further irony emerges. The Brahminical neglect of Marathi, the vernacular, was the reason Phule lionised Shivaji. Given the aggressive claiming of Marathi and Shivaji by Maratha politics in recent decades, these complex legacies for modern Dalit politics are fraught.

The debates will continue, as they should. In one of my favourite feminist poems, a daughter chides her mother for speaking in one voice but singing in another. In whichever manner the words of Satyashodhak will be received, it may be wise to remember that if its actors appear to speak one language, they may be singing in another.

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