Asmita brought Premchand’s Moteram to life in a musical comedy

The Viceroy is visiting Benares. The colonial administration leaves no stone unturned in its preparations to impress the Viceroy. Slums are evicted and green paint procured to make them look like lawns from afar; beggars, lepers and the unemployed packed off in a boat that sinks in the Ganges; hoodlums are brought in from neighbouring towns to wave the Union Jack and raise slogans to welcome the Viceroy; and even nautch girls are hired to entertain him after the day’s festivities. But a clandestinely organised nationalist strike threatens to throw a spanner into the works of the district administration led by the comical ‘Magistrate Sahib’, the British administrator of the district. On the advice of dependent royalty, the Magistrate avails of the services of gluttonous priest Moteram Shastri to go on hunger strike to scuttle the nationalist strike planned on the day the Viceroy visits. The play, replete with folk songs and Banarasi banter, takes on a number of issues — casteism, nationalism, corruption and communalism. Acclaimed writer Munshi Premchand’s story “Pandit Moteram Shastri ka Satyagraha” was adapted into a play by master dramatists Safdar Hashmi and Habib Tanveer. Asmita staged the play at Shri Ram Centre in the Capital last weekend.

“Moteram ka Satyagraha” wins with its wit, that instant repartee that comes naturally to the urban working class. The blundering magistrate, played marvellously by Ishwak Singh, makes a fool of himself with his over enthusiasm to get the job done. His effeminate manner and pitch and nervous attempts to seduce Chameli (the nautch girl played by Shilipi Marwaha, distinguished by her strong presence and expression) left the crowd in splits. Yet, it wasn’t derogatory. That fine line of criticism tread by Premchand and drawn in theatre by Tanveer and Hashmi, was respectably upheld by director Arvind Gaur. Shiv Chauhan played Shastri, a rotund and revered priest of Varanasi with the potential to split the nationalist ranks with the threat of ‘Brahmahathi’ or the murder of Brahmin. Shastri jumps upon the offer of a thousand rupees to offer ‘dharmagraha’ (insistence on faith and duty) in opposition to the ‘satyagraha’ (insistence on truth) the nationalists have organised against colonialism. If he dies of hunger, thunders Shastri, the blood of a Brahmin will be on the heads of all those who oppose the Viceroy’s visit.

Shastri dancing around the stage making supernatural claims of his powers was a treat for the audience. The play strips communal leaders of their garb of self-righteousness and exposes the farce of communalism in a creative and hilarious style.

Asmita celebrates the authenticity of culture-specific sarcasm. Shastri tricks a sweet seller (Manoj Yadav) into leaving his products unguarded, before he gorges on them unable to maintain his fast. When the seller catches him red-handed, he yells at him before leaving, saying, “Chalein ant shant karne” (Off he goes to do nonsense), a play on the word “anshan” or fasting. The large cast, their lively songs and funny lines bring the stage alive. They engaged the audience with colour and humour, yet never for a moment departed from the serious critique of the hypocrisy of the elite.

The creativity though, was absent in the lighting, which this play had ample opportunity to exploit. Also, the emphasis on Banarasi daav-pench or debate may have seemed to slow down the tempo of the plot for modern viewers used to a quicker sequence of events. In a season in which theatre companies are vying with each other with adaptations of writers Saadat Hassan Manto and Premchand, Asmita has stood out due to its ability to bring literary characters alive.