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The Arts

Long After His Death, Vijay Tendulkar Returns to Upset the Republic of Hurt Sentiments

One of his less controversial plays has now provoked the Bajrang Dal because of its title.

The Marathi playwright and screenwriter Vijay Tendulkar (1928–2008), a giant of modern Indian letters, is again in the news. A play of his has incurred the wrath of the Bajrang Dal. Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki (‘Birth Alone Matters’), which was to be staged in the IPTA festival at Chhattarpur in Madhya Pradesh angered them because of the title.

The Bajrang Dal found the title of another play, Besharammev Jayate (‘Shamelessness Triumphs’), by Prema Janmejaya, to also be objectionable. Predictably, the police and administration refused to provide assurance of safety, effectively siding with the aggressors.

The objectors had neither seen nor read the plays. They were, however, convinced that the plays were ‘anti-Hindu and anti-Indian culture’, handiwork of the ‘tukde tukde gang’. All the familiar tropes of hurt sentiments, religious pride, law and order, and threat to peace were deployed, with predictable results. The festival was cancelled. Yet again, as is now normal, brutishness, ignorance, violence, and ugliness triumphed over empathy, tolerance, understanding, humour and art. Shamelessness does indeed triumph.

Vijay Tendulkar was no stranger to controversy. His life’s work, of over a dozen screenplays, nearly 40 stage plays, a couple of novels and short story collections, and hundreds of newspaper articles and columns, was dedicated to calling out the hypocrisy and duplicity of the middle class.

At least half-a-dozen of his most famous plays angered sections of the audience when they were first performed. Three plays, in particular, earned the wrath of the conservative Hindu middle class – Gidhade (‘Vultures’, first performed May 29, 1970), Sakharam Binder (‘Sakharam, the Binder’, first performed March 10, 1972), and Ghashiram Kotwal (‘Ghashiram, the Police Chief’, first performed December 16, 1972) – leading to debates around censorship, court cases, and threats of violence. The Shiv Sena, in fact, attempted to prevent a tour of Ghashiram to the US and Germany, and the tour could only proceed after the court directed that a disclaimer be read out before each performance.

The play now under attack, Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki, is one of Vijay Tendulkar’s most popular – but not, till now, considered ‘controversial’.

The Marathi original was first performed in 1976, with Nana Patekar as the lead. It opened a couple of years later in Hindi as well, under Rajinder Nath’s direction, with S.M. Zaheer as the lead. I don’t have numbers for the Marathi production, but Rajinder Nath’s production had more than 200 shows between 1978 and its final performance in 2004. Ank, a Mumbai-based group, has done some 500 shows of the Hindi version. Dozens of productions of the play in multiple Indian languages have logged literally thousands of performances all over the country in the past 45 years.

Poster for Ank’s play ‘Jaat Hi Puchi Sadhu Ki’.

A young man, Mahipati Porparnekar (Mahipat Babruvahan in the Hindi translation), completes his MA and is desperately looking for a job. He finally lands one as a lecturer in a back-of-beyond provincial college. If handling the rowdy rustic lads in class is one challenge, negotiating the local politics of caste, as reflected in the college appointments is another. Caught in this vortex of local politics – he is even beaten up at one point – Mahipati finds himself falling for a junior colleague, whose uncle is chairman of the college. In the end though, the young man loses both the girl and his job.

The play refers explicitly to caste a couple of times. First, when Mahipati is interviewed for the job, we learn that he is neither upper-caste nor Dalit. The second time, when his beloved jilts him at her uncle’s instructions, she tells him that people of his caste used to live off the leftovers of those of her caste; moreover, his ancestors were grooms to her ancestors’ horses.

On the face of it, the play is a farce – it has little to do with caste. Mahipati fails in love because he has no skill in the intrigue that it takes to marry the niece of an influential man. This lack of skillfulness also results in his losing his job, even though he is actually best qualified for it. In other words, the double whammy experienced by the protagonist underlines, satirically, Indian society’s complete disregard for merit. All that counts is birth. At a deeper level, then, the play is all about caste.

The content of the play is, however, immaterial to the self-proclaimed protectors of Hindu culture. According to press reports, they were convinced that it would insult the Hindu religion because of the title – why does it have the word ‘sadhu’ in it, they asked. Without a doubt, the ‘tukde tukde gang’ was at work here.

Let us then, spend a few moments with the title of the play.

The Marathi title, Pahije Jatiche, literally translates as ‘Wanted, of Our Caste Only’. However, it is not Tendulkar’s phrase; he borrows it from an abhanga (devotional poetry) of Tukaram’s, the 17th-century poet of the Bhakti movement, specifically connected to the egalitarian, subaltern Varkari tradition. The original abhanga goes:

नका दंतकथा येथे सांगो कोणी । कोरडे ते मानी बोल कोण ॥
अनुभव येथे पाहिजे साचार । न चलती चार आम्हांपुढे ॥
वर कोणी मानी रसाळ बोलणे । नाही झाली मने वोळखी तो ॥
निवडी वेगळे क्षीर आणि पाणी । राजहंस दोन्ही वेगळाली ॥
तुका म्हणे येथे पाहिजे जातीचे । येर गबाळाचे काय काम ॥

Don’t bring us fairy tales / Empty words have no value
Hard experience counts / Pretensions won’t do
Glib talk can’t cover up / for lack of knowledge
Even a swan can tell / water from milk
Says Tuka poetry calls for truth seekers /
This is not work for casual versifiers

When translating to Hindi, Vasant Deo (himself a well-known translator, lyricist, and screenwriter) turns to the 15th-century poet and mystic Kabir:

जाति न पूछो साधु की, पूछ लीजिये ज्ञान।
मोल करो तरवार का, पड़ा रहन दो म्यान ॥

Ask not the learned person’s birth
Appreciate their knowledge
Value the sword, not the sheath

In both Tukaram and Kabir, then, the reference to jati carries a wider resonance than ‘caste’ – both urge us to value wisdom, knowledge, character, ability, not birth and the privilege that comes with it. In both Marathi and Hindi, moreover, the poets’ phrase has transcended their work and entered language itself as idioms.

All this, though, is immaterial to the Hindutva vigilantes. According to them, presumably Kabir, Tukaram, Tendulkar, and Deo are all members of the ‘tukde tukde gang’. Tendulkar would surely have smiled sardonically. And sat down to pen another venomous satire to slay his critics with humour.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch and editor with LeftWord Books. He is the author of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi.