At age 74, India’s most controversial playwright is still doing what he does best: Writing in his uncompromising and merciless style about human frailties, and the hypocrisies that we live with every day. Two of his plays—one new (Massage) and one long lost (Kutte) are currently being staged in Mumbai. They are a testimony to his insatiable interest in humans, and his compulsion to write about all kinds of situations. In a career spanning over fifty years he has given us 32 full-length plays and seven collections of one-acts; five collections of plays for children; four collections of essays; four translations; one novel and 18  film scripts, both in Hindi and Marathi. And it doesn’t look like he will stop anytime soon.

 

Vijay Tendulkar lives on writing. Off writing too, but that’s beside the point. He lives on writing the way one lives on air. “Writing is me. It is the very essence of my being,” is how he put it once. One is not surprised then that he is still writing fresh texts for the stage and experimenting with new forms. Two of his plays are currently being staged in Mumbai. Massage is a one-man, two-act dramatic narrative which Tendulkar characterises as “a play of/with words”. Directed by Sandesh Kulkarni of Pune’s Samanvay, with Nikhil Ratnaparkhi as the narrator-protagonist.

 

Simultaneously, the Hindi version of another dramatic narrative, Kutte (Dogs), which Tendulkar wrote in the ’70s and forgot about, is also on stage for the first time. A spring-cleaning session a couple of years ago brought it to light. Directed by Jaydev Hattangady, it has Makarand Abhyankar, Rohini Hattangady and Kishore Kadam in the cast. So suddenly, we have yesterday’s Tendulkar taking his belated bow beside today’s Tendulkar.

 

Vijay Tendulkar was born in Kandewadi, a lower middle-class neighbourhood in Girgaum, Central Mumbai, immortalised by the opening lines of B S Mardhekar’s poem:

 

Where Kandewadi, with a little kick

Turns off from Thakurdwar

Where the rumbling tram, bent at the waist,

Licks the overhead wires.

 

He grew up, the middle one of five siblings, in a chawl—one room, one kitchen, common verandah, common toilet. Living cheek-by-jowl with a rich variety of people, he had ample opportunities to observe them. Observing and listening to people is, even today, Tendulkar’s passion.

 

His father was a head clerk in a publishing house, and a playwright-director-actor in his spare time. He often took young Vijay with him to watch rehearsals. This was Tendulkar’s first introduction to the magic of theatre. A world where, as he describes it, real people became imaginary people, and men, still in trousers and shirts, became convincing women with a quick change of voice, walk and manner. Men were still playing women’s roles then.

The cramped confines of the Tendulkar house were crammed with books by the most eminent writers of the time. Young Vijay burrowed through them voraciously without necessarily understanding what he was reading. Their house was also a sort of adda for his father’s literary friends. Thus the young boy became a participant in all the literary debates of the time. It is no wonder then that he began writing odds and ends at the age of six, and wrote, directed and acted in his first play at the age of 11.

 

Films appear to have been another passion with Tendulkar—English films which he didn’t understand, but which fascinated him nonetheless. He has confessed that he often bunked school to see them when he was old enough to do so. This intense viewing of films would have given him an early insight into their making, laying the foundation for the scripts he later wrote for Marathi and Hindi films.

At 16, he left school without completing his matriculation. He moped around the house, alone and alienated. Out of this internal agony were born poems, stories and even screenplays, written entirely for himself, as a test perhaps of his own capacities. They were also a way of talking to himself; for he was convinced nobody else around would understand the thoughts and feelings churning within him.

He was charged with plagiarism in some of his plays, and in others, with obscenity, needless violence, crude exhibition of sexuality,  anti-Brahminism and distortion of history

It was a time of great anxiety for his family. How would he turn out, this sensitive boy so brimming with literary talent? It could have gone either way. Fortunately for Marathi and Indian theatre, he pulled himself together somewhere along the line, and went to work as an apprentice in a bookshop. He graduated to working in a press and from there he went into journalism. His years as associate editor of three Marathi mainline dailies and editor of a literary magazine, put him in touch with the political events and issues of the day, possibly helping him to crystallise his own ideology.

 

His position vis-a-vis society had already been established in his second play Shrimant, written in 1955 when he was about 24. (His first play Grihast had flopped badly, a delightful, self-mocking account of which can be found in his Shree Ram Memorial lectures.) In Shrimant, Tendulkar exposed the sham and hypocrisy of men of wealth and social standing. Mathura, the daughter of a rich industrialist, Dadasaheb, gets pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to divulge. In a desperate attempt to protect the good name of the family, Dadasaheb agrees to a plan to “buy” her a husband, who, having married her, will quietly recede into the background. But the chosen man does not fall in with the plan. He doesn’t wish to be bought. Penury will not bend his spine. He digs his heels in and challenges every one of Dadasaheb’s values and pretences. In the end, in this battle between crude money power and human dignity and decency, the latter wins.

 

Shrimant was the first time in Marathi theatre that unromanticised poverty, unwashed and hungry, entered a rich man’s drawing room and settled on his sofa. Manus Navacha Bait (An Island Called Man), Tendulkar’s next play, was the first play in which the anxieties of lower middle-class, jobless, homeless youth, trying to get a foothold in society, were given centre-stage. From the mid-fifties on, Bal Kolhatkar had been riding in triumph over the Marathi mainstream, flying pennants of Motherhood, Patriotism and other sentimental claptrap to the weeping delight of the middle-class audience.

 

In the 60s and 70s, theatre the world over had turned into a major experiment. Tendulkar was one of four playwrights in India who were acknowledged as the pioneers of the movement here. There was Mohan Rakesh in Delhi, with no tradition of Hindi theatre to take off from, energetically hacking out his own path; Badal Sircar in Calcutta, rejecting the proscenium stage on which he had earned so much success, to find a form and space that more suited his political purpose; Girish Karnad writing in Kannada, looking to history, mythology and folk literature for narrative material that would serve as metaphor for the big issues of human life; and Tendulkar in Mumbai, rebelling against the falseness, mushiness, piousness, and hyperbole of the Marathi mainstream, to create a truly realistic theatre through which to examine life and human relationships in all their subtle variety.

 

Human relationships and the power structures governing them, continue to be at the centre of Tendulkar’s work. Even when the first germ of a play is an idea, it isn’t the idea that drives him to conceive the play. It is characters. It is through them, once he can see them moving, speaking and interacting, that the idea shapes itself into a play. That is why he has written in such a variety of forms, never patenting one that will declare a play as Tendulkar’s. The characteristics of a Tendulkar play are to be found in his perceptive, sympathetic treatment of people, particularly women. Also in his language, which ranges from the delicately nuanced, crisp and ironic to the powerfully poetic, rhythmic, discursive, rhetorical.

 

Ghashiram Kotwal is the only play in which the dramatic focus was not people but politics. To have written realistically about the current political situation, which was disturbing him, would have been to make the concerned issues too specific, leaving no space for universalisation. One day, however, he came across the story of Ghashiram and immediately saw in it the potential for allegory. And yet the play could not be written till a suitable form was found to couch the allegory in. This he found by accident, in a folk performance he chanced to see as he passed by. That was how Ghashiram Kotwal, one of the classics of modern Indian theatre, got written. Never after that did Tendulkar feel the need to return to history or myth for his narrative, nor to use music and dance to say what he wanted to say.

 

Much of Tendulkar’s work, including his scripts for films like Aakrosh and Ardh Satya, demonstrate his preoccupation with violence, which he sees as an integral part of the human constitution. But it was a serious concern with him. He even undertook a full-scale study of violence during his Nehru Fellowship. It is due to his insatiable interest in the human species and his compulsion to write at all times of day and night, in all kinds of situations, conducive and not so conducive, that he has been able to produce such an enormous body of work. In 50 years, he has given us 32 full-length and seven collections of one-act plays for adults; five collections of plays for children; four collections of essays; four translations; one novel and 18 scripts for Marathi and Hindi films.

 

Controversy has been part of Tendulkar’s playwriting career from the beginning. He was charged with plagiarism in some of his plays, and in others, with obscenity, needless violence, crude exhibition of sexuality, anti-Brahminism and distortion of history. Shrimant was supposed to have been lifted from Pirandello’s Pleasures of Honesty, Shantata Court Chalu Ahe from Dangerous Game and Ashi Pakhare Yeti (So The Birds Come Flying) from The Rainmaker. In these and other cases he admitted to having been inspired by the basic ideas from those sources, but insisted that beyond that, the plays were entirely his creations, rooted in this soil.

 

His three most controversial plays, Sakharam Binder, Gidhade and Ghashiram Kotwal, all produced in the 70s, invited censor trouble, had to be defended in courts of law and gave rise to stormy public protests asking for their ban. Sakharam Binder offended because it stood against the institution of marriage, referred too openly to sexual gratification, showed a woman beating her husband with a chappal, getting drunk, and at one point, changing her sari on stage.

Gidhade which portrayed the vulture-like behaviour of a family consisting of father, two sons and daughter, offended because of its obscene language and extreme acts of verbal and physical violence. One particular scene which attracted the sharpest cut from the censor’s scissors was of the pregnant daughter’s miscarriage after being kicked by her brothers, when she runs screaming onto the stage with a large blood stain on her sari. Because the censor objected to the stain, producer Satyadev Dubey took great delight in making an announcement before each show to the effect that the bloodstain would be made blue in deference to the censor’s offended sensibilities!

 

Ghashiram Kotwal was seen as a distortion of history, aimed at maligning the Pune Brahmins by depicting Nanasahib Phadnavis, the Peshwa Chamberlain, as a lecherous old man with no other quality to his credit but his libido. In Maharashtra Phadnavis is revered as an astute statesman. The Shiv Sena led by Pramod Navalkar agitated against the play.

 

Kanyadaan created another kind of controversy. This time the Dalits were up in arms protesting against the depiction of a Dalit poet in the play as a manipulative drunkard and wife-beater. Each one of these controversies caused Tendulkar deep anguish. He tried his best to defend his plays against the charges being hurled at them, but never really succeeded in convincing his opponents to see them from his viewpoint. Even today, many people think of him as a playwright who enjoyed sensationalising issues for publicity or commercial gain.

With Kutte, Tendulkar returns to one of his abiding themes—sex and the middle-class man. In Sakharam Binder, we saw the protagonist, a Brahmin by birth, reject marriage in favour of live-in contracts with destitute women as a way of fulfilling mutual needs—theirs for shelter and his for food and sex. The play ended in murder. Frothing at the mouth with shock and anger at this travesty of its most cherished institution, marriage, Tendulkar’s middle-class audience demanded the closure of the play; but it went on to become one of his most translated commercial successes.

 

In Shantata Court Chalu Ahe (Silence! The Court is in Session), the protagonist Leela Benare’s colleagues lick their chops over her affair with a married man whose baby she might be carrying. The play ends with this outwardly squeaky clean, sexually frustrated moral brigade ravaging her psychologically. In Kutte, the protagonist’s deification of a woman is only a cover for lust, which finally ends in rape. Ergo, sexual repression equals violence.

 

The narrator-protagonist of Kutte is a salesman in a mofussil town. His assistant, the down-to-earth Ghodke, wise to human needs and hypocrisies, directs him to a local widow to “relieve his loneliness”. But neither widow nor salesman can be simply man and woman in this society. As a widow, she must deny her sexuality. She goes even further. She has brought home seven stray black dogs in the belief that her husband has been reborn as one of them. She hopes some day to discover which one it is, so that she may devote herself to him once again. As a “respectable” man, the salesman must put her on a pedestal for her chastity. As he sits at her feet day in and day out listening to her reading aloud from sacred and not-so-sacred texts, he turns the pedestal into a shrine.

 

But a day comes when he may legitimately lay aside the spiritual fantasy. She tells him of a revelation in which she has discovered that her late husband isn’t a black dog at all, but a white steed. He suddenly sees the enshrined goddess as a flesh-and-blood woman, and recognises his obsession with her as pure lust. Driven by it, he plans to rape her. But the plan misfires and he rapes her mentally challenged daughter instead.

 

Typically, the salesman’s horror has nothing to do with his own moral debasement, but with the social repercussions of it. His first instinct is to blame Ghodke. Ghodke’s reply is really the philosophical centre of the play. “I didn’t take you there,” he says. “I merely showed you the way.” But, as it turns out, there is no hullabaloo. The deed might never have been done. The salesman is now free to quit the town. And marry.

 

Ghodke and the salesman’s boss, Tadpatriwala, who comes on a flying visit to the town, present alternative views of man and sex. For Ghodke sex is no big deal—it belongs with other aspects of human life like ill health, death, marriage, harvests, runaway cattle. For Tadpatriwala, sex, food and drink are the be-all and end-all of human life. “Don’t work so hard,” he advises the salesman. “What will hard work bring you? Success. You’ll become the MD. You’ll go to work sitting in a car. But you’ll be impotent. Your driver will drive your car… and your wife.” In the light of these two strong worldviews the salesman is revealed as having neither moral substance, nor belief nor conviction.

There’s potential here for rich psycho-sociological nuancing of situation and character. But the devices Tendulkar has chosen to dramatise the text overload the surface, making in-depth exploration difficult. He instructs that the salesman be dressed as a clown. Why? The clown comes with a long history in theatre. If none of its attendant associations are to be evoked, why the costume? Neither direction nor performance validates its choice and the costume remains, at best, a rationale for the narrator to adopt a stylised body language and speech style. Considering that he is speaking for the major part of the play, these soon begin to pall with their monotony. It is fine, at a pinch, for the narrator to be a clown; but as the protagonist he is left with no scope for subtlety.

 

Yet another device suggested in the script that fails to take the play beyond the obvious, is the projection of a series of slides on a back-screen. The slides are no more than simple illustrations of situations on the stage. The lust in the protagonist’s mind is illustrated by Khajuraho sculptures, the widow’s dream horse by a prancing stallion and the rape of her mentally challenged daughter by a trickle of blood. The use of slides in theatre was avant-garde for the Marathi stage in the 70s when the play was written, though it was already pretty passe in the west. But today, with an abundance of multi-media experiments happening in theatre, such a use of slides appears naive.

 

There was a strong case here for the director to have used his prerogative not to follow the playwright’s instructions. But his aim appears to have been to translate the script faithfully on to the stage, leaving us with the dissatisfied feeling that something that could have taken off, hadn’t.

 

What saves Kutte is the writing itself, full of wit, human insights, compassion; and Kishore Kadam who brings Ghodke to full-blooded life. He invests every precisely chosen word and and rhythmically flowing line with delightful undertones and overtones, raising his voice here, dropping it there, pausing to let it float on the air creating sly ripples. In the limited physical space allowed to him on the stage, he uses muscular tension, the quick glance, the fixed stare, the deliberate turning or lowering of the head, the shuffle and the ambling entries and exits to make his presence palpable.

 

As against Kutte, which is a complex, ambitious narrative that falls short of full realisation because of a constraining form, Massage is a simple, linear narrative that finds full realisation in its leisurely, story-telling form. On the stage is one bench and one man—“Madhu Joshi, Massagist”, played by the versatile young actor, Nikhil Ratnaparkhi. Controlled ease of movement, mobility of face, remarkable mimicry skills and expressive voice help him keep the narrative flowing and bouncing with energy. Most importantly his clear speech and chaste diction along with director Sandesh Kulkarni’s crisp editing of the text and fluid use of stage space allow the character to evolve fully.

 

In itself, Joshi’s story is ordinary. Starting off as fourth assistant to a film director in the hope that he’ll get noticed for a hero’s role, he goes on to become a trainer in a friend’s gym and finally a masseur. What give the story body, are his amusing, occasionally touching accounts of the strange types who enter his world as clients. There is also a self-mocking account of how he rescued a damsel in distress, entirely against the cowardly dictates of his heart, found her following him home, and accepted her as his partner.

Madhu Joshi is the quintessential Tendulkar “hero”, a simple man of limited mental, physical, material means and ambition, who does not ask for more than he is given. He would like to do well if it doesn’t mean taking risks, or being over-enterprising, but is equally willing to resign himself to failure if that’s how it is to be. There is an honest heart and a strong moral sense within him, which only serve to make a difficult life more difficult. Madhu Joshi’s greatest asset, also his worst liability, is the smile that never leaves his face. It makes people want him [around them], which is nice; but it makes them exploit him, which is not.

 

Tendulkar wrote an essay in 1964 on the limitations of the late humorist P L Deshpande’s one-man shows, which were the rage at the time. He objected to their literary orientation. He cited the French mime Marcel Marceau as an example of theatre, which drew its power from being wordless. Unless directors and actors were willing to go beyond humour to explore more serious narratives, he complained, we’d be stuck with literary scripts full of mannerisms, mimicry and monotonously “funny” representations of middle-class lives with sad and sentimental ends.

 

Those words might serve as a description of Massage—the story of a middle-class man, told in literary style replete with verbal wit, punctuated by imitations of a film director, a woman at the gym, a Bihari politician and a legal shark, ending sadly with the protagonist’s “wife” leaving him, and his moving into an old people’s home.

 

It could almost be Tendulkar’s tribute to the other genius of Marathi literature, the late P L Deshpande.

 

 

Images courtesy Ashima Narain

This story was first featured in our August 2002 issue.