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Other realities


Mahesh Elkunchwar

"I am not `reportedly' difficult as you once wrote," he frowns. "I am older now, mellow, no longer prickly or touchy. I've learnt to accept what one gets, give as much as one can." But say something he doesn't like and Marathi playwright MAHESH ELKUNCHWAR looks just like the angry activist he played in Govind Nihalani's "Aakrosh" way back in 1980. That is his charm.

Elkunchwar has always been self-critical. It made him stop writing for eight years after the initial success of plays like "Garbo" and "Vasanakand", and resume only when convinced that he could replace "shrillness" with substance. Belonging to the generation between playwrights Vijay Tendulkar and Satish Alekar, Elkunchwar has drawn more from personal experience, and from small town culture. His short plays like "Reflection" and "Bloodflower" strike hard. His best-known work is the Wada Trilogy (Seagull, 2004), starting with the classic "Old Stone Mansion". His recent "Sonata", a triptych of women, was produced not in Marathi, but in English by Amal Allana.

Though he retired as an English teacher from Nagpur University, Elkunchwar had to struggle with the language when he came to the town for higher studies from native Sirpur. His father made the son write letters in English, returning them with corrections in red ink. The boy's decision to study Sanskrit in M.A was changed to English by a teacher with the roar, "Do you want to starve?"

His country gentry family didn't seem to think much of his playwriting, though thespians Dr. Shriram Lagoo and Vijaya Mehta produced/ acted in his plays, while Ketan Mehta and Amol Palekar made films of "Holi" and "Party". After his death at age 83, a bunch of press clippings about son Mahesh were found under his father's bed. "We don't know how he got papers like Loksatta and Maharashtra Times in remote Sirpur," Elkunchwar muses. "Anyway, those plays must have shocked him!"

Excerpts from an interview with GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

YOU said that an intellectual problem becomes real for you only when it is linked to your emotional life. Does this connect with your present preference for lalitagadya (belles lettre) over playwriting?

Yes. I started writing belles lettre in 1990 as certain experiences cannot be cast into a theatrical form. Take the traditional concept of daana. I recalled how my elder brother sneaked away at twilight with his little grandson, from the noisy chaos of the ancestral house, and taught him classical music in a quiet spot. The eager child lapped up the phrases of Shyamkalyan. I was moved. Had it happened to me? Yes. My father used to wake me before dawn and teach me Sanskrit. I had a difficult relationship with my father, but now I realised that he had given me so much. Why had father been so quiet, and why morning?

My mother was an extremely quiet person. Only after her death did I realise that I didn't even know her favourite colour. It was all "I-I-I" and "my-my-my". For creativity this is pollution. My musings became "Maunaraag" (silent melody) where I travelled into the silence in the artiste, and in his work. Remembered Rimbaud... I began from a personal note and tried to figure out how silence contributes to evocativeness in art.

Isn't poetry a better vehicle for the personal voice? For introspection?

Poetry cannot raise these aesthetic, critical queries. In a play I have to think of craft, use the language of my characters which is never my own. I know I am writing when I write a play. There is craft in essay writing too, but I speak in my own voice, naturally. My training in music definitely helps.

You have retired from college teaching, still single, back in hometown Nagpur after a stint in Pune's Film and Television Institute, and writing a play about a man trying to negotiate with his years of accumulated baggage. Is this autobiographical?

(Testily) Everything I've written has been connected with my inner emotional life. You know my work, you should know that I can look at my emotional and intellectual growth objectively. I have tripped sometimes. But I can't run away from taking the risk. This play is about a man who is trying to find the joy within — ananda, not to be confused with transient happiness. It's a long monologue, punctuated with talks addressed to other characters who appear as masks, or in photo frames. Technically challenging for me, even more for actor and director. I don't know how it will end.

You've always kept away from activism and political causes...

(Cutting in) That's why I've not been accepted by certain groups. No complaints. There are also a large number of people not so vocal, living in cities and the remoter parts of Maharashtra, who tell me how deeply they share in my work. Some of my actors tell me that they are different people after working on my trilogy. I don't expect everyone to share my world. Bride burning, communal riots — these are major issues... But there's an eternally glowing reality that haunts me, I'd rather go there than be preoccupied with externals. It's a choice. Not something better or worse.

Do directors and actors have the time and patience to go into profundities? How often have you seen this infelt reality reached in performance?

Very rarely, but won't blame actors and directors. I've realised that words do not reach this goal. Language is such exhausted material. That's why I have been so impressed by Veenapani Chawla's work; I want to arrive at this mode of expression, which means I'll have to work night and day with my actor. Words can never deliver it, except perhaps in poetry. I've done it sometimes in my essays. I haven't still achieved it in my theatre work but I aspire to, hope to, maybe in what I'm writing now...

Which of your plays do you think will stand the test of time?

The trilogy. Detractors don't mince words when they tell me that the last part is stylistically different, it's pseudo philosophy and pseudo poetry. True, "The Pond" and "Apocalypse" came after an eight-year gap. In "Apocalypse" I forgot the craft elements, my characters say what they want in three monologues linked by dialogues. It boils down to this, those who cannot share my emotional world reject it; those who can, accept it.

Amrish Puri as Bhau and Varsha Kothari as Lilu in 'Aarakta--kshan' directed by Satyadev Dubey.

What attracts you to women with traditional values? You portray them with love.

I'm 64 ! I've been surrounded by such women. I come from that milieu. If you're implying that I subscribe to their value system you are wrong. I don't know modern young metropolitan women, I'd say we don't have any writers in Marathi who've written about them. My "Sonata" women belong to the 1970s generation. They have risked a lot to lead independent lives in a hostile world. I admire them.

What about the implication in "Sonata" that unless you have the `smell' of a man on you your life is incomplete?

Only one woman says that, it's her choice, while another says love comes and goes, I want to pursue a career. (Irked) Why am I being misinterpreted like this?

Did you enjoy playing your second screen role in last year's national award winner "Vastupurush"?

Waste of time. I'm no actor. All I had to do was (as the director said) be myself, reserved, occasionally moody and sad (chuckles). The first call came from (Vijay) Tendulkar. He said Mahesh, you are an actor...

Didn't he once say that you wrote fiction, not plays?

(Laughing aloud) Tried to compensate I guess. (Pause) Did he?

Let's end with a haunting experience.

My sister-in-law hardly wore any jewellery. At festive times when she did wear the family jewels at my mother's insistence, she took ages to put them on. When I teased her she explained haltingly, "I think they don't belong to me, I belong to them." I have used this in my trilogy where the character sees past wearers standing before her when she adorns herself with family jewels. (Mischievously) When you use haunting experiences in plays people like you find them sentimental.

But you're no longer touchy...

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