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Sing along with Pune’s workers

PHEROZE L. VINCENT
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THEATRE “Satyashodhak” isn’t just different in form, but has also created a new passionate audience

SON OF THE SOILAtul Pethe in New DelhiPhoto: Pheroze L. Vincent
SON OF THE SOILAtul Pethe in New DelhiPhoto: Pheroze L. Vincent

What do you do with actors who have never seen a stage and can’t read? Those who can read, can’t mug up the lines. But they can sing, compose, emote and most importantly, understand the plot better than anyone else. Well, you find someone like Atul Pethe.

Directed by Pethe, the Pune Municipal Corporation Workers Union is performing G. P. Deshpande’s Satyashodhak , a play based on life of social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. Their performance at the 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, in the Capital, is the 101st show of the Marathi play since it opened in January last year. Based on Deshpande’s contribution to Shyam Benegal’s epic TV series Bharat Ek Khoj , the play was initially performed in Hindi by Delhi’s Jana Natya Manch in the ’90s.

Pethe, who had done a documentary film on Pune’s conservancy workers called Kachara Kondi in 2008, edited the script with Deshpande and adapted it for a contemporary Marathi proletarian audience. Most of the performances were under trees or in street corners, so he edited out the interval from the script. A street audience can be lost in an interval.

“More than 20, out of the 30 member cast, clean the sewers for a living. They understand grassroots politics better than anyone else, though many of them are illiterate. They are good at expression and have their own folk songs and music. I started a workshop for them in 2010,” explains Pethe.

The workshop wasn’t a conventional theatre workshop. Many of the workers suffered from chronic aches of the wrists and thighs. The workshops had exercises, excursions to the hills and discussions on politics and history. Phule is a revered, in the same league as B. R. Ambedkar, by Dalits, who form an overwhelming majority of India’s sanitation workers. While all of them are aware of Phule, explains Pethe, their knowledge was limited to anecdotes of his life.

“In this play we explain the relevance of his politics in today’s context. This is a historical play that is very contemporary. It is not a linear script. It consists of scenes from Phule’s life which depict his politics for equality, women, conflict and co-operation with Brahmins,” explains Pethe.

To convert a squad of professional cleaners to actors, Pethe uses music. There are 18 songs in the play. All are written and composed by the cast. “They are superb singers and you can remember the lyrics of a song even if you can’t read. We have daily singing rehearsals,” he says.

Another technique is incorporating physical movements specific to the dialogue. Every line has a particular gesture which prompts the actor to recite a line. Pethe’s experience in doing theatre with peasant and other rural groups in the past, came in handy.

“Not only do we have a different kind of actor, but also a new audience. In our recent screening on a road in Phulewada in Pune, there was a crowd of 3000. Pune is a theatre hub but most of our audience has never seen any other play,” he adds.

Behind the success of Satyashodhak , lies an untold story – that of an unimaginable leap in the self confidence of workers who carry night soil by day. From the margins of society, they now find themselves on centre stage.

PHEROZE L. VINCENT

More than 20, out of the 30 member cast, clean the sewers for a living. They understand grassroots politics better than anyone else, though many of them are illiterate

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