Saturday, October 07, 2006

Marathi Theatre

Nothing ‘absurd’ about it, or is it?

The Theatre of the Absurd is a generic term applied to classify a set of dramatists across Europe and America who began writing from 1950s onwards, and who are seen to be reacting against traditional Western theatrical concepts. From Samuel Backett to Eugene Ionesco to Jean Genet to Edward Albee to 2005 Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, ‘absurd theatre’ has evolved into a distinct genre in the West and has influenced much of modern experimental theatre worldwide.
Marathi stage has a long and varied history of experimental theatre, and it is very tempting to investigate if there are any shreds of the theatre of the absurd within the experimental theatre movement.
Satish Alekar, the Head of the Department of Performing Arts at the University of Pune and a playwright on his own right, believes there are no trends of absurd theatre movement in the Marathi experimental theatre as such. There are traces of influence all right, but the way the theatre of the absurd is a well-defined genre in the West is not there in Marathi.
This is surprising considering that there are critics who find elements of absurdity in Alekar’s own plays, such as Mahanirvan and Begum Barve. They are not your traditional plays by any means!
Atul Pethe, who has been acting and directing the Marathi version of Samuel Backett’s Waiting for Godot (translated from original French by Madhuri Purandare), feels that there is a strong influence of absurdity and existentialism in Marathi theatre. “The core of absurdity is nothingness; and this sense of nothingness is universal,” argues Pethe. “Even Diwakar’s monologues or solo performances were to a certain extent absurd.”
For some critics, Alekar is the ‘Beckett of Marathi theatre.’ But Alekar bags to differ. And he has some strong arguments.
Marathi experimental theatre has its own strong tradition, which centres around the playwrights. Shanta Gokhale rightly called her history of the Marathi theatre: Playwright at the Centre. At its different stages of development, Marathi theatre was always defined by the playwrights, not by its directors, actors, or a theme or a genre. A play was always a Vijay Tendulkar play or a Mahesh Elkunchwar play, not a play by Mohan Agashe or Sriram Lagoo, through they were brilliant actors, or a play directed by Satyadev Dubey or Jabbar Patel, brilliant directors all.
Therefore, it is impossible to define Marathi theatre within a genre, absurd or otherwise. You can probably discuss Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as an absurd play, but you can never discuss Begum Barve as anything other than a Satish Alekar play. Such is the importance of playwright in the Marathi stage.
But this does not mean that Marathi stage is unknown to the concept of absurd theatre. Marathi theatre’s love affair with absurdity, in the proper Western sense, began when Vijaya Mehta’s Rangayan group performed Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs. Again, in 1964, Jabbar Patel performed and directed Janawar, a translation of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, which won the Purusottam Karandak of that year.
Then came a few playwrights who were universally acclaimed as having qualities of the absurd movement, most importantly Satish Alekar (Mahavirvan, Begum Barve) and Achyut Vaze (Chal Bhoplya Tunuk Tunuk).
Recounting the reaction he and his contemporaries received, Alekar says that they never intended to write in that fashion, absurd or not. It was just the expression of their feelings. It was something that the time demanded. Alekar explains: “It was the time urbanisation was coming into force, there was migrations from villages to towns, the wada culture was in decline… and there was this deluge in 1961 that wiped out half of the population in the city… probably, in a way, the playwrights were responding to the changing society.”
From 1970 to 1985 was the undisputed golden age of Marathi experimental theatre, where, as debatable as it might be, elements of absurdity made its appearance on the stage.
But the love affair of Marathi stage and absurd theatre is far from over.
Two examples.
Kolhapur based teacher and theatre personality, Ashutosh Potdar in 2004, adapted and published Jean Genet’s The Maids into Marathi, Kamalachya Baya. Potdar was fascinated by the original French play. But he never imagined that it would be performed one day in Marathi, which eventually happened when Lalit Kala Kendra of the University of Pune staged the play two years back.
On Oct 15, Yashwantrao Chavan Hall at Kothrud is witnessing the 45th performance of Waiting for Godot, by Atul Pethe and his group Prayog Parivar, Nasik. Pethe began his journey with Godot in 1994 and these 12 years has been a very fulfilling journey for him. Pethe recounts how the first performance of the play was phenomenal success. Nasruddin Shah wrote a review in a Bombay magazine calling it probably the most closer to home adaptation of the play. Incidentally, the current performance will also see the release of the DVD of the play by Nasruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah.
And Pethe believes, like French wine, the play is getting more contemporary by the day, because “today’s audience is more culturally literature than those 10 years ago. They can relate to an absurd theme better.”
And this is not an absurd idea at all.

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