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Writing performance

Gowri Ramnarayan

"I write a performance, not a play. That is my strength and also my limitation," says playwright, director and actor Satish Alekar, in an interview in Chennai.

THE MAN sits all day at a hotel lobby in Chennai, talking to theatre persons from Tamil Nadu, collecting information on their productions for the Sangeet Natak Akademi's golden jubilee theatre festival in October 2003. Tired? "Not at all. It is exciting to meet directors and actors, and learn about the theatre scene in other parts of India." There are surprises too, as when he found that Chennai has staged a play on the Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar. "I'd like Pune to see it," he says, breaking off to help the photographer taking who's who notes, "The man with the moustache is Na Muthuswami. I am Satish Alekar, the balding man."

You may not find Satish Alekar (54, playwright, director, actor), among the top ten Makers of Modern Indian theatre. But unquestionably, the two plays he wrote in his Twenties, are among the best contemporary plays ever written in this country. "Mahanirvan" creates a bizarre genre of its own with the ritual of death and the music of kirtans. A runaway hit for over 28 years in Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali, its Tamil version (K.V.Ramaswami, Tamizhini) has not been performed, but retains the heat. As for "Begum Barve", special performances last year by the original cast, brought in nuances unknown to youth. Other Indian texts on trans-sexuality may have drawn national/international attention, but they seem simplistic before the "Begum's" coils-within-coils. Both plays are as visual as they come, but also full of aural magic, and the insouciance of a wacky humour. Both are must-see cult plays for thespians, theatre buffs and drama students. As for "Begum Barve", its special performances last year by the original cast, showed how ageing had brought in nuances unknown to youth.

Though he started early (at 19, the chemistry undergraduate had published short plays), Alekar is not a prolific writer. "It is quite a responsibility to write a play, you have to take at least one step forward." After 20 years with the famous Pune Theatre Academy, he became Head of the Department of the Performing Arts, Pune University. He also generated three Ford Foundation funded theatre projects in small towns across Maharashtra.

The year 2001 saw Alekar breaking a decade's silence with his ninth play "Pidhijaat" (Generation and Caste, Englished in "Theatre India", the journal of the National School of Drama, 2003). This is a `tribute' to independent India's enthusiastic cultivation of corruption. Premiered in Kolkata in its Bengali version (Apr '03, directed by Sohag Sen), and the Marathi original staged in Pune in May '03, the play spans three generations to frame a post modern reality. With grandfather as conscience and chorus, the RSS activist son plays his own game when he is brought into mainstream politics after the Emergency. His socialite wife has an affair with his friend who is waiting to be sworn in as the next OBC minister. With so much drama around him, the grandson learns lessons of a different sort than what is supplied by the school text. "Teach me the dynamics of corruption," he tells his dad. "I will help you." The play has everyone observing everyone, as father and grandfather take turns behind the picture frame. The tone fluctuates between realism and fantasy.

"Pidhijaat" was initiated in the exercises Alekar devised for a 1996 theatre workshop. "Listeners at play readings immediately spotted the irony of the BJP-RSS groups mired in the same slush that they had trounced from the opposition bench." Can theatre initiate social awareness? "I don't know. Even those who indulge in corruption enjoy the play! Awareness... maybe we have gone beyond that now. Earlier young people were shocked and disillusioned when they discovered their elders were corrupt.Now they say corruption is their legacy. They have clubs to discuss their parents' swindling techniques."

Alekar prefers to direct his plays, monitor all aspects of production. "My play becomes clear to me only when it is rehearsed. I write a performance, not a play. That is my strength, also my limitation."

Limitation? "Yes, my work does not have the literary quality of a (Vijay) Tendulkar play which is close to literature in its definitive form." Others too will say that an Alekar play can be obscure in structure and tangential in form. That does not prevent him from being a major source of inspiration to the younger playwrights in Maharashtra.

Has Alekar's rootedness in Marathi culture cost him national reach? "My job is to write and direct for my theatre company, my audience. Anything more is left to chance." He does perceive that each of his plays is an extension of the one before. The characters are generic types, mostly male. "Actually, the only character is the playwright, to accept or discard." He began his first play with a woman protagonist after "Pidhijaat." Scared? "No!" is all that he will say — with a shrug for the Kanjeevaram saree and the mysorepak that he did not have the time to buy in Chennai this time.

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