Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla cuts through the cloud of hagiography surrounding the warrior king, says Meena Menon.

If the title of the play grabs you, the events that unfold on stage go a step further. Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla dares to take on the aura surrounding Shivaji Maharaj, a brave task, considering the myths surrounding the warrior king propagated by political parties.

The play starts off with lord Indra asking Yama to go and fetch Shivaji from earth along with his ideas. And Yama scoots away from the place and gets Shivaji who cleverly manages to dupe him into returning to earth, leaving his trademark turban as security. For most part of play Yama is running around with Shivaji’s turban trying to fit it on to the nearest person to ascertain if he was the departed king. Indra keeps calling him from heaven egging Yama to bring back his prize catch.

On earth Yama has little luck but in a small village the greatness of Shivaji is being debated by a family which questions the real character of the king. We learn Shivaji is not anti-Muslim as he is often portrayed to be, but a leader who insists on honouring the enemy he defeats, and a conqueror who respects women. Shivaji also had a large number of Muslim soldiers in his army and he even allowed his enemy Afzal Khan to be buried on Pratapgad fort, allotting a special spot. Those who want this tomb to be removed from the fort should try and remember this history — the play seems to be saying.

Shivaji was from the Sisodia clan and was not a Bhosale. His coronation was performed by a brahmin from the north after the local priests refused to do it. The play brings up his progressive policy and administration and his deep regard for all religions and castes.

Written by Rajkumar Tangde, and directed by actor Nandu Madhav, the play uses satire and comedy to good effect and lampoons political leaders who come across as an ill-informed, manipulative bunch. It is performed by Rang Mala from Jamsamarth, a small village in Jalna district in Maharashtra. Madhav says he was drawn to directing the play because it exposes the political parties who have literally “kidnapped” what Shivaji stood for. It is a drama which seeks to destroy symbols, here the symbol of Shivaji. “The public perception of Shivaji Maharaj is exactly the opposite of what he was as a king. If he were with us today, he would wonder at what’s being attributed to him,” remarks Madhav who is primarily an actor and had starred in the award-winning film Harishchandrachi Factory based on Dadasaheb Phalke’s life story.

Madhav got to know about Rang Mala ten years ago when he saw one of their plays in a competition. “They are a group of farmers who are constantly debating, writing and staging plays. One of their short films made it to Cannes and they asked me to direct this play,” he says.

The play opened in May 2012 in Mumbai and has crossed 110 shows. The concept and music are by Sambhaji Bhagat who won an award for his compositions which uses traditional folk forms. Madhav says the play has not met with any opposition from political parties, though it exposes how some of them used the myth of Shivaji for their own ends. With the play running to packed houses, most of the appreciative audience is already familiar with its dialogues and the music.

After Yama’s unsuccessful forays to find the king, in the end, he offers the royal turban to the audience and hopes that it will fit all of them — a symbolic gesture to show that Shivaji’s ideas remain on earth, with all of us. Especially in Maharashtra, where all kinds of stories about Shivaji’s prowess abound, the play has a special significance. It brings back the importance of debate, the need to revisit history and search for answers and rebukes political propaganda. It also exposes the false historians who have created a larger-than-life figure of the warrior-king and the complete lack of debate on history and political issues. In the play Shivaji’s ideas are alive in a Dalit and Muslim locality i.e. Bhimnagar Mohalla, which has studied and appreciated his qualities as a benevolent king, tolerant towards all his subjects and not the majority community as some make him out to be. For the small group of farmers from a village in Jalna, the play must come as a triumph of their attempt to bring back the best traditions of debate and demystification in theatre, and the play’s popularity proves that such subjects are not taboo and more than welcome.