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Satyashodhak: Brahminical Manoeuvre: Madhuri M. Dixit

July 7, 2012

Guest post by MADHURI M. DIXIT

G. P. Deshpande’s play Satyshodhak is currently being performed in Maharashtra and Delhi and has received positive reviews in print and electronic media1 .It is praised for portraying Jotiba Phule’s life and work, its relevance for dalit emancipatory politics and also for the participation of the Pune Municipal Corporation’s workers as actors. There is a mood of celebration and a congratulatory back patting tone in the appraisal of a supposedly qualitatively different production. In addition to that, the writer has claimed that the production means a ‘successful and meaningful experiment of political education’ 2 of the workers/actors who are dalits. However, the flaunted success of the play and claims about its political import are belied by a performance that offers a very brahmanised Phule. It is very interesting to see that the author claims ‘a meaningful experiment’ of political education of the workers by offering them a pro-upper caste version of Phule. The very choice of producing a play about Phule in 2012 after a shelf life of twenty years 3, the writer’s articulated positions regarding it and the knowledge of Phule delivered through it, involve, I suggest, an upper caste cultural politics embodied in the brahman friendly figure of Phule.

After watching the first show of the play on 8th January 2012, I again watched the performance on the birth anniversary of Phule (11th April 2012) at Shaniwarwada, the seat of Peshwa alias Brahmin power in Pune. The choice of the venue for that performance is significant since Phule’s character in the play performs against the backdrop provided by the twin towers of the building that constantly remind the audience of the brahmanical power ruling from the building since before Phule’s times. But the content of the play ironically (or very intelligently?) proved to be a manoeuvre designed to symbolically revitalise that very power. Though the play is advertised as performed by the workers of PMC, they are discredited in the newspaper advertisement and the poster/invitation brochures which show only the lead Brahman actors prominently who play the roles of Jotiba and his wife Savitribai 4. That the lead pair is Brahmin is one problem considering advertisement of the play mentioning PMC Kamgaar Union members (4th grade sanitation workers) who are dalits as actors while the lead pair is professional actors and not members of the union. The lead pair is found to be unable to transcend their caste expressed in their style of acting, certain gestures and language constitutes the other problem5. The worker-actors, on the other hand, appear de-classed/de-caste in a very contrary sense of the term because they speak a ‘standard’ variety of Marathi language, as is the norm in Marathi theatre. A brahmanical linguistic identity, thus, gets imposed on them in the performance.

Before examining the writer’s claim of political education, it is necessary to see how the play politicizes the figure of historical Phule. In this context the disclaimers made by the author, in the preface to the play’s new edition are interesting as they now, post production and post watching the play, appear to constitute a feeble attempt to defend the play. He asks us to perceive his text, first and foremost as a theatre performance, anticipating, as it were,   a certain critique of its politics. By explicitly stating so in the introduction to the new edition of the text which was released on 11th April 2012 after completing around 30 shows in its new avatar, probably he intends to point out that staged version of his text may not convey exactly what he wants to convey, since the performance becomes a collective activity outside the author’s immediate intervention. Yet this warning does not offer him any benefit of doubt regarding the conveyed meaning/message owing to the deep rooted tradition in Marathi theatre which considers the author’s words as highly sacrosanct. To make the play ready for staging this year he says, he has rewritten and edited some parts of the play. It means that the performance text as it comes across has undergone some editorial process, attended by the author and what remains after the processing is what the author wishes to convey to the audiences, fully aware of the fact that it is being staged in 2012. Hence the performance of this play appears a collection of certain well made choices by the author and director embodied by the actors and back stage workers.

In the same preface G. P. Deshpande also denies any prior understanding of the director, Atul Pethe’s political journey so far. He also explicitly denies to have engaged with the life of Phule in any comprehensive manner. In fact one of the English advertisements in Indian Express declares that the play is a ‘contemporary history’ of Phule. The words do not appear in Marathi language advertisements. Nor does he say that he has engaged with the entire range of Phule’s thinking and actions – all the more reason to ask the question about his choices of events and actions from  Phule’s life work , keeping in mind our intention of discovering  how a play or the process of producing a performance  politicizes the participant actors. One can not forget that history of theatre in independent India has ample examples of politicizing effect of theatre, of varying methods of arriving at the intended politicization, involving at times, at the cost of that very life, a life long commitment. Those attempts were far from a frivolous engagement with theatre.

Socio-political contexts of the performance of the play at different points of time determine how a thought or point would probably be received by the audiences and it is not difficult for the writer-director duo to anticipate the circles of meaning a particular scene may create among the audiences. The procession scene from the play showing Punekar Brahmans in the play, shouting slogans in favour of Marathi language and demanding the colonial Dakshina Prize to be given to Marathi language texts rather than texts written in Sanskrit, is a case in point. The scene easily recalls Raj Thackeray’s fanatic linguistic and social politics. The insistence on ‘protect Marathi’ by all those Pune and Mumbai elites who have already enjoyed the power of English for perpetuating their social capital, is a part of contemporary Maharashtra’s cultural politics. If it is true that Marathi language was not a point of political contestations when the play was originally written in 1992 as it is now, thanks to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s politics of the sharpened Marathi identity in recent times; it is equally true that the producer, author and the director choose to uphold the issue in a subtle way, as their respective social positions vouch for it. Imagine for a moment, that we replace the scene with another which shows Phule in front of the Hunter Commission (1882) demanding compulsory education for all up to the age of twelve and the appointment of dalit 6 teachers in place of Brahman teachers to teach dalit children. Or we can even think of dramatic version of the support he offered to the contemporary, revolutionary, anti patriarchy essay written by Tarabai Shinde who has received a prominent place in the history of women’s writing in India. Substituting the choices of actions of Phule, even on the level of imagination, clearly delivers an entirely different version of Phule revealing the politicised choices made by the writer.

The choice of content made in a play decides how, what and to what extent a type of politicization can be expected from it. Perhaps the questions of political choices are well explored situating them in the post Mandal context. A major, elaborate and piercing critique of the play written in Marathi by Vijay Kunjeer7 traces the subtle strategies employed by the author to re-establish brahmanical dominance. They include presenting Phule in ahistorical manner, appropriating themes close to Phule’s politics, emphasizing only the co-operative relations and transactions with contemporary Brahman figures, overlooking influences of Christian education on Phule, instead, making him cite Sanskrit sources and thus claim a Brahman legacy, etc. All this amounts to not only distortions of historical facts and figures, but insults the fundamental politics Phule played in his struggles against the unjust and exploitative nature of the caste system. By moulding Phule’s character in a Brahman-friendly way, the play bereaves Phule of the credit for his lifelong mission and the influence he had on originating the historical non Brahmin movement and perception of modernity. The reasoning behind establishing a Satya Shodhak samaj (Society in Search of Truth), rejecting the concept of God and the agency of priesthood which makes Phule an original social thinker and anti caste figure, find no place in this play. Phule’s emphasis as shown in the play on differentiating Brahmanya (Brahmanism) from the Brahman (the caste person) is an imposed anachronism. Many similar instances originating from a 20th century postcolonial theoretical premise are to be found in the play. The question is what prompts such a delineation of Phule?

The chain of events leading to the production of Satyashodhak throws light on the absence of any intention to ‘educate’ the workers politically; at the most it has educated them in the other epistemic direction. The subtext of Sandeep Morey’s representative article 8 - a testimonial to the workers’ experiences of the process of production – proves absence of their agency in the making of the play, thus refuting the writer’s claims. The workers did not ‘talk’ with the text. They did not have that space open to them. The emotional obligations expressed in the article leave nothing to be deconstructed in the claims   of the author regarding   their successful political education or politicisation.

How do we see a performance educating actors, participants in a political way? What is the meaning of the phrase ‘political education’ or ‘politicisation’ in the context of theatre? What route should the process of production take if the text wants to politicise actors? Are persons or texts capable of politicizing people if they do not share the same class and caste interests of people? G. P. Deshpande opines that without the dialectic of uniformity and opposition a political play can not take shape. What is the location of this dialectic? Are we to look for the opposition and uniformity of opinion only in the play or also outside it to see whether the play is a political play or not? If plurality of voices is the element nourishing the politics in and out of the play, does the said production involve that type of plurality?

We find Tryambak Mahajan summarising very well the political function of theatre, when he explains the maturity of dalit theatre 9. He says that it is not simply a literary event. It provides a language for a way of life based on new values and an attempt to search for the self. It asks such questions which demand a fundamental transformation in the frame of reference and point of appreciation. If our point of reference is the politicisation which argues for a serious change in social conditions, the claim of politically educating the actors appears to be an attempt to create Brahmanical knowledge or at the most a brahmanical brand of delivering Phule in the neoliberal world without of course, bothering about the fundamental transformation in the frame of reference. Phule, who struggled all his life to bring in that fundamental social change, is used to perpetuate interests of the same exploitative forces which he had opposed all his life. When he wrote the play Tritiya Ratna, (1855), he clearly aimed at unpacking the exploitative nature of the Brahmanical patriarchal caste system. Phule, says G. P. Deshpande in an article 10, thought of writing a play since he very well perceived the importance of tradition of ‘dialogue’. Even after acknowledging this fact about Phule, it is sad that the same form of dialogue is used by the author to safeguard Brahmanical interests.

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Endnotes:

1. Sunalini Kumar, one of the non-Marathi audiences of the play happened to see the performance that took place in Delhi in May Day Café, a place run by Sudhanva Deshpande who also happens to be G. P. Deshpande’s son. In her admiring review on Kafila (and in an earlier abridged version in Tehelka) she puts the percentage of audience that understood Marathi language and its nuances at 20%. Language is the important aspect and a key to understand the play because the politics of knowledge about Phule, as constituted in the play, arrives through way of language and the aural, rather than the visual, has a significant role in the design of the play. Further, Marathi theatre practice has historically been a text based practice as is evident in the title of the book written by Shanta Gokhale, ‘The Playwright at the Centre’.(Seagull, Kolkata, 2000) G. P. Deshpande is no exception to it and his earlier plays have also been termed as discussion plays.

2. Deshpande G.P., in Introduction to the play, Satyashodhak, Lokvangmaya Griha, Pune, 2nd edition, 2012 and Maharashtra Times (Marathi Newspaper), Sunday 8th April 2012

3. It was first written in 1992 in a post Mandal scenario and performed in the same year in Hindi language in Delhi, directed by Sudhanva Deshpande. A year later it was performed in Marathi in Kolhapur by Pratyay Group, directed by Dr. Sharad Bhuthadiya. The separate contexts of genesis of the play, performing it then and performing it now invite us to peep into the undercover cultural politics of Brahmanism operated through an apparently entertaining art form of theatre.

4. Jotiba is played by Omkar Gowardhan and Savitribai is played by Parna Pethe, both are professional actors and not PMC workers. Both of them come from upper caste families and Parna happens to be the daughter of Atul Pethe, the director of the play.

5. For instance, the way Savitribai folds her hands in a gesture of greeting or Namaskar and the frequency of it in the performance, the words she uses to talk to Kashibai, the widow, for instance, ‘prakriti’- a Sanskrit word used instead of the colloquial boli bhasha word- ‘tabyet’. (If the word prakriti has to be used instead of tabyet then why not use dharmaadnya instead of fatwa in Jotiba’s speech?) A 19th century house wife from mali-caste would not greet people in and out of her house by saying ‘Namaskar’ the way the actor does in the performance. And if we are to leave the choice of variety of language to the author’s/director’s discretion, respecting their freedom of expression, how are we to understand as to why a rural (gramin) variety of Marathi is employed in case of certain characters like Gorhe – the ancestor of Phule and the Ramoshis who come to kill him.

6. The phrase used by Phule was ‘Dheds and Mahars’.

7. Kunjeer Vijay, GoBhatta Virachit Satyashodhak: Eisa Joti Hone Nahi [There would be no other Joti like the one created by Gobhatta (G. P. Deshpande)] Anvikshan, Marathi Quarterly, April-June 2012. An edited version of the same is published in Pariwartanacha Watsaru, Marathi Bimonthly, June 16-30, 2012.

8. Morey Sandeep, Satyashodhak ani Adhunik Vasco-da-Gama [Satyashodhak and modern Vasco-da-Gama] Milun Saryajani, Marathi Magazine, May 2012.

According to Sandeep, the director Atul Pethe one day appeared in their organisation’s office and expressed his intention to ‘do something’ with the workers. For two months or so they did exercises of breathing and read biography of Phule. The workers did not know what it was all about. One day Atul Sir read the play with the workers and then he declared that they are going to ‘do’ it. The workers were surprised, excited, pleased and worried at the same time. Sandeep goes on narrating how the play slowly took a shape, where they faltered, how the director kept up their confidence and enthusiasm and finally how they came over all fear and stood there on the stage waiting for the curtain to go up. The workers are extremely obliged and overwhelmed by all the pain taken by the (upper caste) director, who literally showed them path (direction) Atul Pethe has been termed as the modern Vasco-da-Gama, the pathfinder for the dalit workers.

9. Mahajan Tryambak, In Phule Ambedhar Preranechi Rangabhumi Ed. Ranganath Dolas, Yugantar, 1999. Mahajan is a well known theatre personality in Dalit theatre movement in Maharashtra.

10. Deshpande G.P., Analysis of Varna / Class in Indian Society: Jotiba Phule and the Longest Century, (2009) reprinted in Satyashodhak, Lokvangmaya Griha, Pune, 2nd edition, 2012.

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Ms. Madhuri M. Dixt is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Pemraj Sarda College, Ahmednagar (MH)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. gouri patwardhan permalink
    July 7, 2012 9:42 PM

    The current issue of Parivartanacha Watsaru ( 1-15July,2012, pdf version) doesn’t have Vijay Kunjeer’s article on Satyashodhak. Has it appeared in any of the back issues?

    • Madhuri M. Dixit permalink
      July 8, 2012 9:07 PM

      Hi,

      The correct issue is June 16 to 30. It has been corrected in the text above. Thanks for pointing it out. Kindly excuse the mistake. Please also note that Parivartanacha Watsaru is published fortnightly from Pune.

      Madhuri

      • Rajab permalink
        October 8, 2012 10:15 AM

        madhuri i guess we need a translation of this article by Vijay Kunjeer for academic purposes. It would be good if it is published by EPW but kafila.org too would be good.

  2. July 7, 2012 11:20 PM

    Somewhere Gail Omvedt makes a similar observation: Phule is made to speak a Sanskritized Marathi; the play is silent on/does not present Phule’s actual interaction with Dalits of his time…

  3. Aarti permalink
    July 8, 2012 6:48 AM

    I am yet to see the play, but this seems like a serious charge and I hope the playwright / director will engage in a dialogue with it.

  4. Vandal Bhagwat permalink
    July 8, 2012 11:36 PM

    I appreciate all the points & mostly agree with them, yet the play needs to be seen the times of the writing as well as the history of cultural politics & it’s interpretation by the generation of the author. The challenge to that politics & the language of discourse has become a part of the contemporary interpretation. It is no doubt valid so needs to be presented in a way Dixit has done.

  5. July 11, 2012 10:31 AM

    Dear Madhuri, thanks for opening up this debate, especially to a non-Marathi audience. Undoubtedly, a play of this ambition, and especially one that is enjoying a successful run across the country needs to be looked at critically. Thanks also for mentioning Vijay Kunjir’s piece, which I’m hoping to read in English or HIndi translation soon.

    I do share many of the concerns voiced in your essay. If I may just quote the last paragraph of my own piece, “The play and its script are by no means an authoritative commentary on Phule’s life. By no means do they ‘settle’ the intractable questions of caste, class or gender, even as they appeared in Phule’s life. A separate review could be written on the number of questions they open up, in fact. A discussion at the end of the play for instance, coalesced around the question of ‘greatness’ – of the use of the term ‘Mahatma’ or ‘great soul’ 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 that figure. In a related vein, Phule’s interactions with his Brahmin friends and enemies are very well documented in the play, while his interactions with other Dalits remain somewhat sketchy, leaving us wanting more. Looking back at Phule’s life now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a further irony emerges. Phule’s struggle was against Sanskrit and the Brahminical neglect of Marathi, the vernacular. It was the reason he lionized Shivaji. Given the aggressive claiming of Marathi and Shivaji by Maratha politics in recent decades, the potential uses and abuses of these complex legacies for modern Dalit politics need to be thought through carefully.”

    However, on the whole, my reaction to the play is certainly more sanguine, perhaps even ‘admiring’ as you have called it. Some of that may be because as a non-Marathi recipient, I missed many of the nuances that may have jarred a native speaker of the language. I also watched the play as a political scientist, not as a specialist in either literature or theatre. As I see it now, after having read not simply your piece but also Gaild Omvedt’s response, I remain interested in this production, in having it performed and watched. I would like to try and encapsulate why. One, as Anand Patwardhan’s most recent documentary Jai Bhim Comrade reminds us, it would be a loss, not to mention dangerous in the long run, if the Left and Dalit movements stopped being in conversation with each other. We still have too few intellectuals and artists on the Left engaging with caste, so when a stalwart like GPD writes a play on an anti-caste figure like Phule, it cannot but contribute to such a conversation. The fact that the play may be flawed (the text of which I’m clearly ill-equipped to comment on) may not be unhelpful either, as long as a debate such as the one we’re having right now is made possible by it. Second, the sheer power of the performances, and I’m speaking here especially of the non-Brahmin, non-professional actors. It is undoubtedly problematic that the Brahmin lead actors are unable and unwilling to “transcend caste” (in your words) in their performances, but to me the rest simply stole the show. While I entirely appreciate your point about the textuality of Marathi theater, as I said at the end of my piece, if the actors appear to be speaking in one voice, they may be singing in another. To me, the non-professional cast’s voices and their body language – so different from the rather formulaic, gimmicky or anodyne acting we are used to seeing on stage – really affects the tenor of the play. In a sense, their bodies convey beyond the actual words they mouth a kind of rage against caste – I recall a couple of scenes here, for instance the scene in which Jyotiba’s ancestor murders his landlord and the landlord’s mistress emits a scream of horror and liberation. Further, the fact that Dalit sanitation workers and union members are touring the country with a play on an anti-caste leader is to me with all its flaws an exciting experiment, one that must be also an incredibly complex experience for the workers. I don’t believe it can be subsumed neatly under the words of one of the actors – Sandeep More – who you quote and who appears to worship the director. On the topic of worshipfulness, I have something to say, but I will keep it for another time. But I must mention here that I heard a different account from the one you have narrated about how the play came about. Mukta Manohar – the union organiser – approached Pethe with an idea for the play after the two had previously collaborated on a documentary made by Pethe on manual scavenging. That is when Pethe began his exercises with the workers, who must have gone through the usual round of auditions and rehearsals afterwards. Finally, about Shaniwarwada. In my brief conversation with the director after the play, he specifically mentioned the Shaniwarwada performance as a hugely empowering experience for the entire cast and crew. As he saw it, performing a play on Phule against the backdrop of Peshwa power was a direct challenge to that power. Which brings me to my main point – the anti-Brahminism depicted in the play may be slightly musty – now in 2012 – but it IS anti-Brahminism. The 19th century Brahmins in the play that were Phule’s interlocters and enemies come across as narrow-minded and craven – recalling Habib Tanvir’s Ponga Pandit, and thereby again, creating a kind of performative, theatrical surplus beyond the words that the character of Phule utters when he says he is against Brahminism, not Brahmins. I really think it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of that old-fashioned anti-Brahminism, even if its tendency to be paternalistic needs to be watched out for. About Marathi politics and the inexplicable choices made by the playwright and director, now in 2012, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I indicate as much in my piece.

    You mention in your piece, “Socio-political contexts of the performance of the play at different points of time determine how a thought or point would probably be received by the audiences…” I couldn’t agree more. Personally I found this production of Satyashodak complex enough to make any overall assessment of its reception amongst different audiences impossible. Having said all that, since I’m neither from a literature or Marathi background, a close discursive analysis of the play – something that conveys the battleground that language can become in a topic like this – would be really enlightening.

  6. Kishore D. permalink
    July 11, 2012 11:50 AM

    I largely agree with the reviewer. She has nicely pointed out the problem of brahminised politicisation. When I saw the play, I felt that the play is glaringly brahminical. My main problem is about the tall claims made by the playwright.

    In the introduction to the text of the play published in April 2012, G.P.Deshpande (GPD) points out the problem of the Bengali intelligentsia. In an anguished tone he says that Phule did not get his due in the history of India. He adds “Parivartan in Bengal is so upper class/caste that the demands of the atishudras (lowest castes) needed some attention was not even considered (by the Bengali intellectuals). The reach of the progressives of Bengal and rest of India is limited and lacks in long term vision.” He further says that such ignorance (of history) at the national level is a big problem and he has been avoiding to assume the responsibility of solving the same. He further claims that “This play does not get involved in any such pledge (to remove the ignorance at national level). But significant and radical (mukhya ani krantikarak) portions of Jotirao’s achievements have been presented here.” And in spite presenting radical portions of Phule’s life, he wants us (audiences) to view it only as a play. [Both the quotations are from page 16 of the text published by LokwangamayGriha, Mumbai. Translations are done by me, emphasis added through red colour].

    It seems that one of the reasons of this endeavour of GPD – the stalwart of the Left (adjective used for GPD by Ms. Sunalini Kumar in her review of the same play on Kafila) – was to ‘prove’ Phule to the Bengali intellectuals. That the Bengali intellectuals lacked in analytical categories like caste is fairly established but why should one present Phule to these ‘ignorant’ elites? If one wants to achieve politicisation of the sanitation workers, why get it vouched by the bhadralok of Bengal? Is it GPD’s craving for the attention of the bhadralok of Bengal that forces him to present Phule in a Brahman-friendly (just like user-friendly) manner?

    Phule, as presented by GPD in Satyashodhak, seems to be a founder president of Bahujan-Brahman Mitra Mandal (Bahujan-Brahman Friends Circle). There is a scene of a rally in the play where Brahmans are shouting slogans for protection of Marathi language and the rally is protected by pahelwans from mahar and maang (formerly untouchable) castes ‘supplied’ by Phule. It seems like Phule was proprietor of a Jotirao Phule Security Services Pvt. Ltd. with ‘protection of Brahmans and their interests’ as a tag line.

    It looks like after pointing out to the lack of Bengal’s understanding of the atishudras, GPDs of the world serve us with four course bramanism in the name of Phule. The play portrays Phule as a keen protector and caretaker of Brahmans’ rights and GPD claims that these are significant and radical portions of Phule’s life. Anybody who understands Marathi language and is tenuously familiar with Jotirao Phule’s life, would say that the play, at best, is meant for insulting Phule. Employing the labour (only) of sanitation workers (coming from dalit castes) in this politics is the saddest part of the story.

  7. patil permalink
    July 12, 2012 1:19 PM

    Thanks for pointing out flaws in the play otherwise the play is largely applauded especially by Marathi media. Also thanks for drawing our attention at the fact that the lead roles viz.Jotiba and Savitribai phule are played by Brahmin actors whereas the others caste of the play are labors of Pune municipal corporation so, their acting looks more natural in the flow of the play.One can easily point out that the lead pair and other caste doesn’t fit together.
    Also, today Marathi main stream film industry and drama industry are dominated by upper castes mainly Brahmins so,its very easy for Brahmin youth acting aspirants to get entry in
    the main stream of Marathi film industry as compared to others who have to struggle to much greater extend.

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