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Off stage, on the page

"I AM first a writer and then a playwright," says Vijay Tendulkar in the 1997 Sri Ram Memorial Lecture that forms the preface to this collector's anthology. Whether as a journalist, a writer of short stories, a playwright, a scriptwriter, a translator, a ghostwriter or a copywriter, this path-breaking Marathi wordsmith helped to usher Indian theatre into its contemporary avatar since the 1960s, shoulder-to-shoulder with Badal Sircar in Bengali, Mohan Rakesh in Hindi and Girish Karnad in Kannada.

Personal glimpses into the mind of India's most versatile contemporary playwright — an icon to newer lights like Mahesh Dattani — form only one view from the wings into Tendulkar's world. What insights do we gain? He amazes us with the confession that he had sworn never to write another play after his first, "Grihast", was heckled off the stage when he was 22, only to find he has scripted 32 full-length plays over the past 50 years. What of his characters, who stun us with their sheer diversity and tangibility? "I could not proceed to write a play unless I saw my characters as real life people, unless I could see them moving, doing things by themselves, unless I heard them emoting, talking to each other. I was never able to begin writing my play only with an idea or theme in mind," Tendulkar says.

No wonder his plays are studded with unforgettable personae like Sakharam Binder, who spurns middle-class or brahminical morality. Or the power-hungry Ghasiram Kotwal in the allegorical adjudication of our times. Or the non-conformist Leela Benare in "Silence! The Court is in Session!" ("Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe!"). Or strong-willed Mitra in "A Friend's Story" ("Mitrachi Goshta"), which brings shades of love, including lesbianism, tumbling out of our collective closets. And dozens of others, whom we encounter on the page or the stage.

In addition to the highly-potent "A Friend's Story", the eight translations in this collection include the searing dissection of human venality in "The Vultures" ("Gidhade"), and a literary scanning of the modern Indian family through an unconventional marriage in "Kanyadaan". If that isn't aiming at the very heart of middle-class Indianness, what is? These selections buttress the body of Tendulkar's much-acclaimed, often-staged work, such as "Silence! The Court is in Session!", which deftly blends social satire with the classic case of an individualist who falls prey to social norms. That's in addition to the analysis of the making and breaking of power, with its attendant forces of sex and violence, in "Ghasiram Kotwal". And the indictment of our success-defined, male-dominated society in "Kamala", based on Indian Express reporter Ashwini Sarin's real life investigative exploit into the trade in women. Or the rare play propelled purely by political satire, "Encounter in Umbugland" ("Dambadwipcha Mukabala").

What characterises a Tendulkar play? His perceptive, non-judgmental treatment of characters, particularly women. That's besides his consummate use of language, which ranges from the delicately nuanced, crisp and ironic to the powerfully poetic, rhythmical, discursive and rhetorical. In page after page, Tendulkar reveals himself as a keen observer of the human plane, cued into the ways of the mind and the tongue. To him, violence is integral to the human condition, an aspect he studied in depth during his Nehru Fellowship.

The plays dramatically illustrate Tendulkar's complete mastery of theatre as an art form and his interpretative access to folk performing devices. They sear our consciousness, bring us face-to-face with our hypocrisies, lay bare the intrigues of political courts old and new, and hold us in thrall by their sheer narrative power, with each taut scene imbued with dramatic tension, seldom lapsing into the mundane. Their impact? Often spellbound, occasionally shell-shocked, we succumb to Tendulkar's verbal wizardry.

Censorship and social stigma have paved Tendulkar's path to success. He was accused of plagiarism — of lifting "Shrimant" from Pirandello's "Pleasures of Honesty" and "Ashi Pakhare Yeti" ("So the Birds Come Flying") from "The Rainmaker". While he was inspired by their basic insights, his expositions are rooted in our soil. Other charges were levelled at him, including those of obscenity and needless violence, crude exhibitionism of sexuality, anti-Brahminism and historical distortions. Yet, when perceived without the lens of conformity, Tendulkar stands vindicated. Each of his stances is propelled by the dictates of his narrative, though apparently radical for their time.

Tendulkar's plays remain a defining entity in contemporary Indian theatre and a microcosm of 20th Century middle-class India, reiterated through these excellent translations. His writing skills reign supreme. When the last page is turned, the reader — whether a scholar, a theatre buff or a curious browser — is left with a single wish, a raging desire to feast more completely on Tendulkar's theatrical oeuvre, only partially accessible thus far to the English-speaking Indian reader. Will that appetite be sated soon?

Collected Plays in Translation, Vijay Tendulkar, with an introduction by Samik Bandopadhyay, Oxford University Press, p.598, hardback, Rs.595.


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