On Dec 16, one of the most controversial plays of Marathi theatre, Ghashiram Kotwal, completes 50 years since its first performance. Interestingly, what went on to become a successful commercial play across the globe in many languages was first performed as an entry in the Maharashtra State Drama Competition.
While Ghashiram Kotwal was just one of the many plays written by legendary playwright Vijay Tendulkar, it was the first to be acclaimed internationally as a political satire. The writer spoke unabashedly about how powerful politicians give rise to prodigies and ideologies to attain their own objectives and destroy the creation after their purpose is served, again to protect their interests.
Mr Tendulkar had once admitted that the play was triggered by the rise of the Shiv Sena around that time. And it was an accidental reading of a story from 1791 about a Kanoji Brahmin named Ghashiram Savaldas that prompted the play Ghashiram Kotwal, which is based on the rule of the Peshwas, Ghashiram’s rise and fall, and the atrocities of politicians. Mr Tendulkar has said the play was not an attempt to reiterate history but a theatrical representation of human nature, especially of politicians, in the backdrop of history.
For the uninitiated, the play is primarily about the chancellor of the Peshwas – Nana Phadnavis – and his use of Ghashiram Savaldas to satiate his lust. It is also about Ghashiram seeking revenge, once he had gained power, on the brahmins of Pune for having treated him badly when he first came to the Maratha capital. It is also about Ghashiram using his daughter to get that powerful position.
There was no denying the explosive potential of the play or the playwright. So much so that the chairperson of the PDA, the association that staged the play for the competition, Bhalba Kelkar, resigned, saying he didn’t agree with most of the things portrayed in the play. The group of youngsters who were involved in the play – director Dr Jabbar Patel, dance director Krishnakant Mulgund, music director Bhaskar Chandavarkar, actor Dr Mohan Agashe, and a few others – decided to form a new company called Theatre Academy on World Theatre Day, Mar 27, 1973. This was to save Mr Kelkar from all the court cases that would follow and, more importantly, to follow their heart and perform the play they so dearly loved.
Ghashiram Kotwal was a play written in a different format than the popular ‘sthal diwankhaana’ (living room location). It didn’t have a box-stage format. The director had full scope to experiment. And Dr Patel did exactly that. He refrained from using any set except a huge frame like the ones in Puneri wadas that symbolized Peshwai culture. The drama happened in and around the frame. Actors were used as walls, houses, etc. And it happened with utmost ease without the viewer questioning even once the utility of this device.
Live musicians and classical singers on the stage were not just singers, but they were actors who helped take the story forward with the use of myriad forms of Indian classical music and the folk music of Maharashtra. Mr Chandavarkar, the music director, often mentioned that it was a challenge to fill in the gaps in the script with music. He was aware that quite a few initially felt the music was taking away the glory of the words. However, it was soon obvious that the music helped the play immensely. It was the first time music was used in such a manner in Marathi theatre.
It was not just the music; it was the choreography as well. The play opened in the traditional way with Ganpati dancing and introducing the brahmins – the main chorus and artistes who played many roles – to the audience with ‘Shri Ganaray nartan kari... aamhi Punyache brahmanhari...’ The entry of one of the main characters, Nana Phadnavis, too, was marked by a distinct choreographed walk which is often used in the play. This walk and the choreography of brahmins singing ‘Bavankhani’ became popular and were used later in spoofs on Ghashiram Kotwal.
It was also a first where the protagonist Ghashiram Kotwal was, inadvertently, overshadowed by Nana Phadnavis’s character portrayed by Dr Agashe.
The Pune brahmins, Mumbai CKPs and politicians of Maharashtra at large were very upset with the script and the portrayal of brahmins. It, quite boldly, showed the brahmins indulging in alcohol and womanising. It also showed the most important office holder of the court – Nana Phadnavis – as a compulsive Casanova.
Ghashiram Kotwal was an acerbic comment on the current political and judiciary system and the fall of family values in society without naming the people concerned.
The play was banned. It was criticised not only by the public and politicians but also by the theatre fraternity who felt that Mr Tendulkar had gone too far this time in taking ‘theatrical/poetic liberties’. Mr Tendulkar, Dr Patel and their crew were taken to court. Their families faced public wrath. To record the struggles the team had to go through, Granthali Publications brought out a book — Ghashiram Navache Vadal — written by Deepak Ghare.
Ghashiram Kotwal was invited for an international festival and then for performances abroad. The team was not allowed to go as the matter was in court. The matter was taken to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She gave permission only because filmmaker Satyajit Ray had raved about the play, calling it the best thing that had happened to Marathi theatre in a long time.
The play went on become one of the most successful of Marathi theatre. The original crew stopped performing somewhere in the early 1990s after more than 650 shows. A new cast does perform the play even now, and social acceptance today is much more prevalent than earlier with even descendants of Shivaji Maharaj and the Peshwas organising private shows.
Shruti Pandit is Consulting Editor, Features, The Free Press Journal
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