A powerful translation of three plays that are representative of Premanand Gajvee’s social concerns and caste preoccupations.
In the late 1970s, when Marathi playwright Premanand Gajvee wrote Ghotbhar Pani (A Sip of Water) — the first of his plays to receive recognition — the milieu was conducive to experimental theatre. The one-act play that borrows from the folk as well as absurdist was, in his own words, written “when the amateur stage was awash with the Ghashiram Kotwal wave.”
Now, nearly four decades since, Gajvee’s A Sip of Water, together with his later plays, Kirwant and Gandhi-Ambedkar, have been translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale and M.D. Hatkanangalekar, and are collectively titled The Strength of Our Wrists in English.
Representative of Gajvee’s social concerns and caste preoccupations, the three plays are a scathing indictment of the inequalities that continue to prevail within the Hindu religion and Indian society.
In the book ‘Playwright at the Centre: Marathi Drama from 1843 to the Present’ authored by Gokhale herself, she reproduces an interview with Gajvee where he divides his plays into three groups: “Those that deal with relationships between individuals, those that deal with relationships between the individual and society, and those that deal with relationships between societies.” The three plays selected for the publication are, perhaps, representative of each of these categories.
In A Sip of Water, two actors play multiple roles on a Spartan set, enacting the absurdity of the caste system that denies the Dalit even a sip of water. A system so dehumanising that “Shambuka is beheaded for learning the Vedas; but a four-legged buffalo becomes a revolutionary for doing the same.”
While A Sip of Water may be representative of the third group that Gajvee refers to — relationships between societies — Kirwant clearly outlines the relationship between the individual and society. The playwright’s note raises questions: “How is it that in the 700-year-old tradition of Marathi literature, no attention has been directed to the kirwants who perform cremation rites? Has no death taken place in their homes?” For Kirwant is the fascinating story of the ‘untouchable’ or low-caste Brahmin shunned by high-caste Brahmins and whose relationship with them is limited to death.
Simultaneously cognisant of the dependency of the kirwant upon the Brahmin community at large as it is of the rigidity of such a system that can only destroy the individual who seeks to evade it, Kirwant is as much the story of the conformist Siddheshwar as it is of his questioning, reformist brother Vasudeo, the renegade Brahmin responsible for bringing the family to ruin.
The third play, Gandhi-Ambedkar, deals with the relationship between two great individuals — indeed, the greatest political figures of our times. Its central figures are the very embodiment of the caste conflict that epitomises Gajvee’s work.
The play throws up complex questions that peel away the garb of politics to reveal uncomfortable questions of a deeply personal and religious nature. It brings down the two personalities from their pedestals and confronts them as flawed human beings.
Interestingly, Gajvee employs the technique of the vidushak or clown to examine the men behind their larger-than-life images — as sparring politicians and quarrelling husbands. The clown has a pivotal role, as Ambedkar himself points out in the play, in the folk traditions of jalse and khele. Here too, he provokes the two into discussion, acts as their inner voice, asks probing questions and eventually emerges as the voice of reason, concluding with the lines, “Your history is yours. Your country is yours. And the problem of what to do with them is also yours.”
The translation honours the strength of Gajvee’s wrist and this book of three powerful plays is an excellent way to acquaint (or reacquaint) oneself with one of the most significant playwrights of contemporary Marathi theatre.
The Strength of Our Wrists: 3 Plays; Premanand Gajvee, translated by Shanta Gokhale and M.D. Hatkanagalekar, Navayana, Rs.250.