Marathi Theatre: Its problems and tensions
Shanta Gokhale is an Indian writer, journalist, translator and theater critic. She was formerly the Arts Editor with The Times of India in Mumbai. She has written screenplay for several films and documentaries. She wrote the screenplay for Hindi film Hathi ka Anda (2002) directed by Arun Khopkar. She has also acted in Ardha Sathya (1983) directed by Govind Nihalani and a thirteen part TV series directed by Amol Palekar.
Sayan Dey: Mam, I am a doctoral research student who is working on the translated plays of Mahesh Elkunchwar and I believe that translation is a highly challenging task. Especially with respect to certain emotional connotations, it always finds the best expression only in its native tongue. What are some of the challenges you faced while translating Elkunchwar’s plays?
Shanta Gokhale: Elkunchwar’s language has a rhythm that is difficult although not always impossible to catch in English. His Wada trilogy in particular is written in the Varhadi dialect which has a pronounced lilt that English cannot carry. His urban plays like Party, Raktapushpa, Atmakatha, Pratibimb and Sonata lend themselves more easily to translation into English.
SD: Before venturing into screenplay writing, acting and translation, you started your career as a novelist and a playwright. Being a novelist and a playwright at the same time don’t you think these two literary genres, often thematically and ideologically overlap each other especially with respect to dramatics?
SG: Each genre of writing has its own rules. When you write a novel you are aware of the form in which you are writing. Your use of language, style and theme are dictated by the fact that a novel is an extended narration. When you write a play you are aware that it is neither a novel nor a thesis. The language has to lend itself to effective speaking. When you write a screenplay, you remember that words work along with image without duplication and that often is the image that speaks louder than words.
SD: You belong to a time when association with theatre and movies were regarded as socio-culturally degrading in Maharashtra, especially for women. How did you cope with the situation?
SG: By the time I was of an age to see films and plays on my own, there was no question of either medium being looked down upon. That era was long past. Women like Durga Khote and Leela Chitnis had broken old taboos and opened up both stage and screen to talented women.
SD: While going through the Marathi theatre history I have noticed that during Bal Gandharva’s time cross-dressing was prominent on the Marathi stage, as women were not allowed to act. Do gender hierarchies continue to exist in the contemporary Marathi theatre?
SG: This question is partly answered above. Since the old days of female impersonators, men and women have an equal presence both on screen and stage. Hindi films build up their heroes. In Maharashtra where the reformist movement of the early 20th century was strong, women were and are still at the centre of films and plays.
SD: Besides Elkunchwar, you have been closely associated with the works of GP Deshpande, Vijay Tendulkar and Satish Alekar, especially with respect to your translation projects. What are some of the glaring aspects which make Elkunchwar different and unique from the rest of his contemporaries? Do you think his plays voice the multifarious local issues with a massive global significance?
SG: Elkunchwar has a great feel for language. He has experimented with theatre language in many of his plays. Like Tendulkar, he makes very effective use of pauses, leaving much unsaid. So his subtext is heavy with significance. He is also prolific as Tendulkar was, although not in so many forms of writing. However, besides plays he has also written essays some of which have been dramatised for the stage. The themes he has written about do not have an immediate global significance, because they are so specifically rooted in our culture, they touch people from every culture.
SD: In this so called democratic era, the problem of censorship has established a massive barrier in cinema and theatre. Playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar or Mahesh Elkunchwar also faced similar problems but still they could successfully preserve their critical outlook. The recent political and commercial invasions in the field of performing arts consistently violates its standards and distracts it from the free flowing socio-cultural expressions. Do you think there are possibilities to overcome it? If yes, how?
SG: Artists have always faced problems of non-acceptance in every age and society. In the seventies both Tendulkar and Elkunchwar wrote plays that created controversies because they explored themes which their middle-class audiences found unsavoury. Unlike other states, Maharashtra has a scrutiny board for plays. The existence of a government-appointed censor made the production of such plays more difficult. However, the position that both playwrights took against the mores of their times was conscious and therefore the consequences that they faced in no way interfered with their beliefs and their work. There are some theatre people even today who face opposition, but that does not stop them from doing what they believe in doing. That is what art is all about. It is only the commercial stage that needs to worry about acceptance by the general public.
SD: Finally, I would like to know that within the paradigm of Marathi theatre, how much role the audience’s interest plays in shaping the contemporary onstage enactments?
SG: On the mainstream stage, the audience tastes are taken very seriously and they do shape the plays that go on stage. Those that dare to be different often fail to draw interest. On the experimental stage which is strong in Maharashtra, the concerned audience is small and initiated into different forms and themes of theatre. Knowing that the audience is receptive, gives experimental playwrights and directors the freedom. They desire to do what they believe in.
SD: Thank you so much for sparing your precious time and reflecting upon the different trajectories of Marathi theatre.
SG: Thank you.