GPD, who scripted plays, penned columns and expounded on India-China relations with casual brilliance, was a true Renaissance Man

Many worlds sustained a major blow with the passing of Govind Purushottam Deshpande at 8.15 p.m. on October 16, 2013 in Pune. Teacher, scholar, author, political commentator, literary critic, editor, playwright, scriptwriter and even actor — he was all this and even more. He was hailed as GPD in the groves of academe alike by his colleagues and by the thousands of students who were fortunate to have been taught by him — the Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi), from where he retired in 2004 — providing the perfect multidisciplinary foil to his equally multifaceted intellect and personality. These are of course also extremely familiar initials to the global readership of his weekly column “Of Life, Letters & Politics” which appeared for over three decades in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai).

Schooled in ancient Indian history, equally at home in the world of Sanskrit texts, medieval Bhakti poetry, and modern Indian and European thought and philosophy, GPD crossed boundaries with panache and indeed, insouciance. The cultural, literary and theatre worlds venerated him as GoPu — his stature as an eminent Marathi playwright best exemplified by his introduction of what can be called the “discussion play” to Marathi and Indian theatre audiences. He created a modernist theatre, which explored the ways in which politics permeates our life, and in turn shapes it.

His first play, Udhwastha Dharmashala (appropriately set in a university), was first read at a Theatre Academy workshop in Pune organised by the director Satyadev Dubey in 1973. Dr. Shreeram Lagoo took it up for production, and gave one of the defining performances of his career in it. These were creative friendships that were to last several decades. Udhwastha Dharmashala saw many important productions all over the country. Dubey directed three plays by GoPu: Andhar Yatra, Chanakya Vishnugupta and Raste.

In 1992, GoPu converted an episode he had written for Shyam Benegal’s television series Bharat Ek Khoj into Satyashodhak, a bio-play on Jotirao Phule, for Jana Natya Manch. His interaction with Janam had begun when the young communist theatre activist Safdar Hashmi sought him out, and after Hashmi’s killing, GoPu was among the founder-trustees of Sahmat. Satyashodhak was restaged in a new production by Atul Pethe, with actors drawn from the Pune Municipal Corporation’s sewage workers’ union. This production took Maharashtra by storm, notching up 103 performances in the course of one year. No wonder the awards just kept flowing his way, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and, most recently, the Tanvir Sanman.

Insights into China

To those who were studying/watching China’s domestic politics and international relations, GPD’s interventions provided fresh and unencumbered perspectives. One particularly recalls his discursive framework in connection with two momentous upheavals in post-1949 China — the Cultural Revolution of 1965-69 and the Tiananmen incident of 1989. These are easily the most perceptive and incisive analyses of contemporary China in India. At a time when our papers and journals were full of western reportage and commentaries, GPD’s assessments helped one step away from the clamour and commotion and deconstruct the events in all their complexity. This was neither easy nor without repercussions — politically and academically. At a particularly memorable public discussion organised at JNU in the wake of Tiananmen, after the usual arguments on democracy and human rights were done with, GPD shifted the focus to the roots of the demonstrations — the contradictions inherent in the economic reforms undertaken by the Communist Party and was possibly the lone intellectual from the Indian left who categorically stated that such events were bound to occur again and again.

GPD was also a founder member of the China Study Group in 1969 — along with China scholars/academics in Delhi. This group has gone on to become an independent Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi — of which he was also the director.

But there was one thing, which all these worlds that GPD straddled, would agree on — the quintessential brilliance of GPD’s approach to or treatment of any issue — it was fresh and unexpected, rooted yet not insular or parochial, political but not politicised — which imparted a certain timeless quality to his writings. There was wit, irreverence and candour; a blithe disregard for prevailing literary or political fashions and a huge dose of humour — all of which went into creating a style that became GPD’s alone — clear, unforced, often with colloquialisms and quotations that seemed to be tailor-made for his argument. The prose flowed easily — no hint of carelessness, and yet, the erudition of his essays — particularly his ability to scatter references and parallels from all nooks and corners of the Indian political and cultural history left one feeling rather stunned. And “the elements were so mix’d in him” that it seems more than apt to consider GPD as our very own “renaissance man.”

(Professor Alka Acharya is director, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.)

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