Sanitary workers shed their brooms and don the grease paint to perform the life and times of Jotirao and Savitribai Phule
Articulating the agony and emancipatory thoughts of Jotirao Phule, a group of 18 sanitary workers from Pune performed a reinterpretation of GP Deshpande's play Satyashodhak at various places in the Capital last week. Directed by Atul Pethe, Satyashodhak is a journey into the life and times of social revolutionist Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai who dedicated their lives to the service of untouchables, poor peasants and women. Jotirao was the first thinker and social activist of modern India to raise a banner of revolt against slavery in all its myriad forms and manifestations in the 19th century and stood as a militant advocate for the rights of many, noted scholar YD Phadke has said. The story of his stormy life is an inspiring saga of a continuous struggle which he waged relentlessly against reactionary forces. What was remarkable was his ability to stand up with conviction against all kind of pressure without faltering.
“Mahatma Phule – The greatest Shudra of modern India who made the lower classes of Hindus conscious of their slavery to the higher classes and who preached the gospel that for India, social democracy was more vital than independence from foreign rule,” Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar had said once.
Born in 1827, Jotirao's father Govindrao was a vegetable vendor in Poona. Originally from Katgun, Satara district, his father and uncles served as florists under the last of the Peshwas and hence came to be known as Phules, according to a brief life-sketch of Jotirao by Phadke. His mother passed away when he was a baby and his marriage took place
at 13. After completing his primary education he had to leave school and help his father by working at the farm. On the prodding of a Muslim and a Christian neighbour, his father allowed him to study in a secondary school. Here he made lifelong friendships with a few Brahmins and was greatly influenced by Thomas Paine's writings, particularly The Rights of Man. In 1848, when insulted and abused by Brahmin relatives of a groom in a marriage procession because he belonged to the lower Mali caste, he cried and made up his mind to defy the caste system and serve Shudras and women who were deprived of their rights as human beings under the caste system. He began educating his wife Savitribai at home and in 1848 opened a girls' school. Orthodox opponents were furious and started a vicious campaign against him but he refused to be unnerved by their malicious propaganda. When stones and brickbats were thrown at Savitribai, she resolved continue her pursuit. But when the reactionaries threatened his father, Jotirao and Savitribai were asked to leave home. But they continued to work for the downtrodden.
Though Jotiba is very much an icon for the Dalits and lower castes in their daily struggles, the play brings it alive in the minds of the more privileged upper castes in a telling manner. The play has songs written by the performers themselves and depicts the story through dance and drama. The performers are part of the cultural group of the 18,000-strong Pune Municipal Corporation Workers' Union and never once betray the fact that they are first-time performers. Leaving their day jobs of segregating garbage and cleaning sewage, Onkar Govardhan who plays the role of Jotirao, Ranjit Mohite and Prajakta Patil among others engaged in a workshop with Atul Pethe as he made his documentary- Garbage Trap or Kachra Kondi, on sewage and sanitary workers.
“While interacting with them, I decided to do this play as a manifestation of the collective desire to stage this play on Jotiba's life,” said Atul. Having already completed 50 shows in Maharashtra, the play is now travelling to other places, including to Kolkata during the international festival.
“These workers, majority of who are Dalits or from the lower castes have a high sense of working class consciousness, understand the pay commissions and contract systems due to their association with the union. The union is recognised by the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Union and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act and was set up in 1943 and has been very active. The commissioner saw the play on the first day and has granted a two-year paid leave to the troupe to travel the country with the play,” said union member Mukta Manohar.