Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Creating while Performing: Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal

“I have more questions than answers, more problems than solutions.
As long as you don’t know the problem fully, it is easy to find solutions.”[1]
-          Vijay Tendulkar
Theatre has always been a social hub of any community. Since its inception, drama has championed the task of entertainment as well as teaching. However, when Bertolt Brecht introduced epic drama it emphasized mainly on the didactic role of theatre. The stage became a platform for a free flow of ideas and thoughts, trying to refine the society that was against such exchange of ideas because the society has been enmeshed in chaotic situations. Modernism in Indian Drama could be attributed to changes in the structure as well as the form of the plays. It is true that the influence of Western theories have also helped towards this process of modernization.
Vijay Tendulkar is considered a pioneer of Modern Drama in Vernacular language. His most celebrated work Ghashiram Kotwal could be seen as the harbinger of a new heights attained by Indian Drama. This paper will try to see the logic behind Tendulkar’s merging of traditional folk form and the modern form. There is a return to primary orality in using the traditional form in theatre. There is an excessive use of music in the play which nonetheless assists the performance of the play. These marked experiments could be seen as an endeavor to re-create historical facts which otherwise are formulated in the hands of privileged few belonging to the upper class. This is worth exploring is some detail. The playwright is trying to raise contemporary questions in the backdrop of an idealized past where he rigorously questions the validity of that past. The play has been successful according to Tendulkar because it raised certain controversies; leading towards thought process. I would examine the various facets that combined together to give the play its desired effects and much earned success.
Ghashiram Kotwal has been seen as an entrance of Indian drama in a newer arena of modernity in theatre. Vijay Tendulkar has brilliantly transformed the Marathi folk forms while imbibing it in his drama. The fusion of the Dashavatar Khel and the Tamasha could be seen as providing a desired effect to the play having a modern flavour. The Dashavatar form is used ironically in the play as it is a folk dance drama where ten incarnation of Vishnu would destroy the evil. What one witnesses in the play is just the opposite. Even Tamasha is a dance drama where the story is mainly about the adventure and romance of the protagonist. However, the playwright has even twisted this form by using it to spin a tale of misadventure of Ghashiram Savaldas and lustful indulgences of Nana Phadnavis. This amalgamation even helps in creating a plot which has to be justifiably historical for the audience should feel transported back in time. The musical and rhythmic structure of the play gives it a racing speed as desired. So, the folk forms — pantomime of the Dashavatar and the wit of the Tamasha — give a historical ambience to the play. However, it is obviously not a folk but a modern drama owing to the fact that it juxtaposes the past forms with the present concerns. This unison results in a chaos that is traced back to human psyche presented through the characters of the two protagonists. Besides, the centrality of the plot where the story seems to have gone through a vicious cycle gives the play an altogether different structure.
The Sutradhar has a very important role to play in the drama. He could be seen as an alienation device used by Tendulkar. His role has been extended by the playwright from merely introducing the play to the audience to a state where he is almost always present on the stage. It is through him that we find the play moving towards primary orality which is but impossible in a society based on literacy, where people know how to read and write. Therefore, the play creates such a surrounding where one could partially experience such primitive and pure form of oral art. The repetition is a keyword here because it is a pivotal feature of an oral literature which facilitates memorizing. In this light, even the chorus has an important role to play in association with the Sutradhar as it repeats what he speaks. It is to be noted that the chorus reiterates only a part of the line spoken by the Sutradhar and at times slightly changes it. This gives a prophetic dimension to the utterances, acting as dramatic ironies. The chorus even mimes many actions which could be seen as an instance where the playwright is trying to avoid even language to stay away from its politics. The chorus even acts and sings incoherently with the action. For instance the torturing of an innocent Brahmin is masked by the loud chanting of God’s name. This leads to an added stress on the deteriorating condition of the society which not only errs but knows how to conceal it under the garb of goodness and nobility. Thus, the chorus with the Sutradhar emerges as the third most important presence on the stage after Nana Phadnavis and Ghashiram Kotwal.
Vijay Tendulkar has claimed that Ghashiram Kotwal is not a historical play. However, one cannot overlook the historicity of a play which is set in the period of Peshwa Rule in eighteenth century and even the title suggests a person who actually lived during that era. Besides, the plot presents a parallel history which challenges the historiography; attacking the belief that history is a collection of fact and so it should be authoritative. The playwright presents an altogether different character of Nana Phadnavis than perceived by most of the people. During the Peshwa rule the Brahmins were at the apex of power. The play shows that instead of leading towards progress they indulged in carnal pleasure. Nana Phadnavis, instead of being a great statesman and ruler who resisted the British in Poona, is portrayed as a lustful and manipulative ruler who is excessively self-indulgent. This was seen as an attack on the iconic figure of Nana and an insult upon the image of Chitpavan Brahmins. The treatment of history in the play unsettles the stability of its agency itself because one is led to think that history is after all a subjective entity. It is about point of view and not facts.
History is important because it is considered to be concerned with one’s past which gives one a sense of identity. The colonizers tampered with native’s history so that the aborigines began to think of their culture and past as primitive. This belittling gives an upper hand to the colonizers’ culture as standard and superior. The playwright is still not so much concerned with this act of colonization. His main target could be summed up in what Vibha Saxena mentioned in her essay elucidating a postcolonial perspective of the play:
“Significantly, with the onset of colonialism and the arrival of a new and more sophisticated form of exaction and rule — founded on Capital and industry — older injustices and hierarchies were strung together into a form of servitude which the colonised solely attributed to the coming of the coloniser.”
The complex process of colonization[2] allowed the native leaders to absolve themselves of any evil that were attributed to them. They were simply shifted to the colonizers. The local people re-invented past as glorious by creating idols and icons to give a sense of superiority to the indigenous culture. The artists — a historiographer is also one of them — have tried to rationalize their fictional accounts to create icons. Tendulkar seems to be challenging this through demystification where he falsifies this creation of icons by the privileged upper class.
There are many who agree to what the playwright has said. They don’t see the play to be dealing with a historical setting. They consent to what Tendulkar has said in the interviews that the play is mainly about the foul play of power. That it is only incidental that the setting selected for this play happened to be Poona of eighteenth century. He says that his focus “was on human tendencies, human frailties”, in an interview given to Mukta Rajadyaksha for Frontline. The play might have depicted Ghashiram as a cruel Chief of Police but it is mainly trying to highlight him as a representative of those common people who become puppets in the hands of the powerful groups and are used and thrown away for their selfish ends. It is important to note that destruction of this Ghashiram does not ensure the end of their production. It is about Ghashirams — used as a common noun — according to the playwright. They will continue to raze the society because the ones who create these monstrous characters are unscathed. The spiritualized politics is a menacing presence in our society where one like Nana will always find ways to justify their foul deeds. One such occasion is where he has been able to subdue murderous Ghashiram with his ambiguous and illusory speech. Tendulkar is trying to rationalize the politics here.
Ghashiram Kotwal is not a protagonist of the play as the title suggests. It is mainly about the Nana Phadnavis. One can see the logic when seen in connection with the episode where Nana has bestowed Kotwali to Ghashiram. He speaks when alone, “What’ll happen is that our misdeeds will be credited to your account. We do; our Kotwal pays.” Such relocation is also happening with the title. Though Tendulkar attacks Nana, he conceals it behind the name of his Kotwal. Ghashiram is only a plaything in the hands of his superiors. He is the name given to the invisible face of power. He is only a scapegoat who works as an insulator for the corrupted head of the state. The evil in the society is credited to him, his being an outsider is profitably used by Nana to let lose terror in the city and finally he is destroyed. All these are done so that Nana could maintain his sanitized status in the public.
 The play could simply be seen as an attack on the barbarity of the human being itself. The human beings who considered themselves to have developed since they were conceived were shown to be still directed by their baser and raw passion and desires. Thomas Hobbes’ speculations about human still exist that every man is every other man’s enemy; that the world is directed by selfishness. Nana Phadnavis is worried only about his lustfulness where even his seven wives and the various concubines are not enough to satisfy his passionate self. On the other hand Ghashiram Kotwal could not content himself where he sacrificed his daughter to gain power and exercises it to take revenge from the common people. He seems to enjoy the scenes of macabre and bloodshed. When he says, “Feels good” on seeing blood on his hand, he falls below the stature of animals that resort to violence only out of necessity. The act of marginalization of Ghashiram Kotwal and other minor characters well reflect the way the society has been working since time immemorial. On a deeper analysis, the play is trying to show the working of the invisible but the most potent phenomenon; power itself. It is power alone that makes this world go round as every action is directed towards assertion of power of one kind or the other. The play sheds light on many relevant issues which are important in the analytical study of any society. The character of Lalita Gauri and the British officer leads one to think about them just because of their silent presence where both portray the two extremes of power.
These universal issues concerning human are aptly dealt with by the playwright. This makes Ghashiram Kotwal relevant in all times to come. This play always seems to be open to sundry new interpretations which suggest the infinitude possibilities provided by it. The performance of such a play in front of a large audience would certainly create havoc by destroying the stable base of their life. The play gives a sense of groundlessness where one is led to think that what appears as truth might only be one of the many possible versions of the same. Tendulkar has unveiled the working of power that is generally hidden from the people, has explored the human psychology, and displayed how this power could be used to mold human psyche into subservience. The play was banned and the playwright was assaulted as an initial response to the play. There lies its success. After all, what’s the use of a play which does not raise controversy for it is controversy alone that leads people to think and action can only emerge out of thought processes.
Ø    Tendulkar, Vijay, Ghashiram Kotwal. Trans. Jayant Karve and Eleanor Zelliot. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1984. Print.
Ø    Bhalla, Neela, ed. Vijay Tendulkar: Ghashiram Kotwal. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2000. Print.
Ø    “Modern Indian Drama” Dec, 2011.   Online.
Ø    Tendulkar, Vijay, Ghashiram Kotwal: Sampurn Natak. Dec, 2011. Online.
Ø    “Traditional Theatre Forms of India” Dec, 2011. Online.
Ø    Rajadyaksha, Mukta, ‘My writing has always been honest’: Interview with Vijay Tendulkar. Vol. 22- Issue 24. Nov. 19 – Dec. 09, 2005, Frontline. Dec, 2011. Online.

[1] Vijay Tendulkar said this in an interview for Frontline.
[2] Cultural colonization is a passive yet the most effective means to subjugate natives.