Satish Alekar’s best plays are like jigsaw puzzles in which not all the pieces are designed to fit in exactly. Some do, some don’t seem to, but no piece is random. The action often proceeds at a tangent to what the words are saying; the narrative gets refracted through subplots which seem unrelated. But the total effect is unified and disturbing. Alekar’s sensibility is shaped by his Brahminism with all its certainties as well as lacerating self doubts, by the vibrant heritage of his Pune ransacked by politicians, and by the rich lore of the musical theatre in Marathi which did not outlast its stars. Alekar exploits the multiple traditions he has inherited, wallowed in and resented to produce some of the most powerful plays of [the] modern Indian stage. This quote on the back of the volume of six plays by veteran Marathi playwright Satish Alekar (b. 1949), from fellow playwright Girish Karnad, points to an interesting position occupied by one who, though recognized as one of the leading Marathi playwrights, at the same time presents a bit of a puzzle to those who would like to categorise his work.
Are his plays social critique or black comedy? Surrealism, farce or theatre of the absurd? Part of the tradition of musical theatre or subversions of the form? Hard to pinpoint, as Karnad indicates. Alekar himself traces his theatrical lineage with precision. In the interview in this book he claims a closeness to the playwright Diwakar (Shankar Kashinath Garge, 1889–1931), known for his dramatic monologues and black humour. Childhood exposure to the children’s theatre of Sai Paranjape, which he describes as ‘urban fantasies’ and P.L. Deshpande’s short plays for children, left a lasting impact, as did the fantasy world of children’s literature and Hindi cinema. Next came the Sangeet Natak, films at FTII and the National Film Archive, and intercollegiate short play competitions. Alongside this was the input provided by his maternal uncle Vitthal Gadgil, an avid theatre fan who introduced him to Olivier’s Hamlet, performances by Alec Guinness and John Gielgud, and plays by Joe Orton and Harold Pinter.It is possible to see all these influences in his plays.
Alekar’s induction into theatre was as a backstage worker; he was also an actor and director before he became a playwright. Alekar claims that, ‘Watching these plays from the wings, I had an image of them that remained with me when I came to write plays; so I could always construct my plays from the reverse end; that is probably one of the reasons why my plays have this dimension of fantasy’. He developed a strong sense of theatre as ‘non-realistic, false. In theatre everything has to be arranged and made up’.
Alekar soon came to take his place in the pantheon of modern Marathi playwrights, along with Tendulkar, Elkunchwar, G.P. Deshpande, Achyut Vaze and others. His plays have been produced by leading directors in several languages across the country. There are six plays in this volume. Mickey ani Memsahib (Mickey and the Memsahib, 1973), his first full-length playscript, is a cutting satire on the nature of power relations within relationships. Mahanirvan (The Dread Departure, 1974) turns death and its associated rites and rituals into an irreverent farce laced heavily with irony. Mahapoor (Deluge, 1975) explores the confusion and angst of middle-class youth. Begum Barve (1979) is a powerful and haunting tale of the power of dreams, approached through the nostalgia of the sangeet natak. Atirekee (The Terrorist, 1990) focuses on the prevalence of terrorism and violence in everyday life. Pidhijat (Dynasts, 2003), Alekar’s last play to date takes up the troubling question of corruption and the erosion of morals and values in our times. He says, ‘Though I have not written a new play since 2003, I have been writing regularly all along just for myself. I have by now accumulated many written scenes, half-completed scenes, and I play with them, rewrite them, occasionally read them out to my students in the classroom.
I think this is my kind of riyaaz of playwriting’.There is no doubt that the ridiculous, the irreverent and the downright fantastical all play an important role in Alekar’s theatre. Serious critique is brought on stage disguised as cheeky impudence. Most often, this critique is aimed at age-old religious beliefs and rites. In ‘The Dread Departure’, for example, the dead Bhaurao, talking about the wilful demands of his son Nana, says, ‘Now giving in to such childish demands and fulfilling them by hook or by crook is our ancient tradition, as you well know. In the Ramayana Rama demanded the moon and though it took this century to really fulfil his want, his smart mother showed him the moon in a mirror and satisfied him. Which was all to the good because then the rest of the Ramayana could proceed as written down by old Valmiki’. Throughout the play, the elaborate funerary rites surrounding death become the subject of farcical horseplay and ironic commentary. In ‘Mickey and the Memsahib’, the attractive young wife who dominates her husband appears as a spear-wielding goddess before whom he abjectly prostrates himself. In ‘Dynasts’, the garlanded portrait of the late grandfather, a time-honoured object of reverence in Indian homes, takes on a life of its own, with the ancestor climbing in and out of the frame at will, at times being replaced by his own son.
Other targets for critique in Alekar’s plays are: the corruption practised by those who are meant to work for the public good (politicians and bureaucrats, for example); the crumbling of ethical values, the growth of violence at all levels of society and the disillusionment of a younger generation with the failed idealism of their elders. ‘Deluge’, The Terrorist, and Dynasts, all take up these concerns, with the typical insertions of the absurd and farcical that one has come to expect from Alekar.
In the interview with Samik Bandyopadhyay included at the back of the book Alekar says, ‘You can read a hidden performance in my plays rather than a literary text . . . My intention is to write my performance’. He stresses that he comes to playwriting as a theatre practitioner, someone who acts, directs, produces, and manages theatre, rather than from a literary perspective, and describes himself as primarily ‘an organizer’. ‘It is an essential part of my creativity. I learn a lot while watching my plays or for that matter any play, again and again, from the wings’. This performative approach explains much about his form, which moves from sequence to sequence with shifts of tone and texture that create a sense of continuous movement and give it a marked visual character.
The two strongest plays in the collection are ‘The Dread Departure’ and ‘Begum Barve’ (1979). The former revolves around the attempts of Nana to cremate his dead father Bhaurao as per his wishes and desires, and is replete with hilarious farcical subplots. The latter moves between the sordid real life of two browbeaten clerks and the fantasy or dream world of the opulent but tawdry sangeet natak, threaded through with exploitation and violence. The pathos-laden figure of Barve, who yearns for a glorious past of romance in the midst of the squalor of his current life, gives the play its powerful impact.
To turn to the editorial aspect of this volume, the blurb on the jacket describes it as ‘a collector’s item’, and a ‘valuable addition’ to scholarship in the field. Clearly, it is positioned as an academic publication. With insightful and analytical introductions to the two parts of the book by senior theatre scholar Samik Bandyopadhyay—whose interview with the playwright is also included here—notes on the history of the productions and photographs, it could well have been all it claims to be. However, it is marred by some unfortunate omissions and blemishes. One notices, for example, that two of Alekar’s works—‘Shanivar-Ravivar’ (Saturday-Sunday, 1982) and ‘Doosra Samna’ (Second Confrontation, 1987)—are not included. What is the reason for this exclusion? There is no explanation provided. Each of the plays in this volume has a different translator. This leads to a noticeable unevenness of tone, style and standard. Although this cannot be helped, given that a single translator for all of a playwright’s work is well nigh an impossibility, the unevenness is further emphasized by the seemingly arbitrary approach to glosses and notes: some plays have them, others do not, though they would have benefited from their presence. Further, the volume is divided into two parts. Part I contains ‘The Dread Departure’, ‘Deluge’, ‘The Terrorist’, ‘Dynasts’. Part II has just two plays—‘Begum Barve and Mickey ani Memsahib’. Again, there is no editorial note explaining the division. Since it is clearly not chronological, what is the rationale? The division does not appear to be based on stylistic or thematic grounds. In the absence of any other strong reason one wishes for a chronological arrangement which, when studying a playwright’s oeuvre, is helpful in tracing developments and changes, and helps one form a historicized perspective. Finally, one cannot help but mention the appallingly numerous typos and proofing errors including the astonishing gaffe of two different citations for the same quote, just two pages apart.
Very unsettling in an Oxford University Press publication, given that this publishing house helped set the standards for editorial excellence.[All quotes from Alekar are taken from the interview included in the volume.]
Anjum Katyal has been Editor, Seagull Theatre Quarterly and Chief Editor, Seagull Books, Calcutta. She has overseen the publication of the New Indian Playwrights Series, which includes playscripts by Satish Alekar, and several other theatre titles, and translated Habib Tanvir’s Charandas Chor and Hirma ki Amar Kahani (The Living Tale of Hirma) as well as Usha Ganguli’s Rudali.