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Vijay Tendulkar (1928-2008)

By Balwant Bhaneja

Vijay Tendulkar, one of India's most influential playwrights, died on May 19 in Pune. He was among the handful of playwrights along with Girish Karnad, Habib Tanvir, and Badal Sircar who gave a new content and form to Indian theater, writing about contemporary issues and themes in a novel way.

Tendulkar's prolific writing over a period of five decades includes thirty full-length plays, seven one-acts, six collections of children's plays, four of short stories, two novels, and seventeen film scripts. He was, in my view, a giant among these modern Indian playwrights, both in terms of the volume and quality of his dramatic creations -- a subtle observer of Indian social reality, a humanist, an innovative playwright who continuously experimented with form and structures. He was known for his insightful "objectification" in the development of multi-layered characters whose existential angst was held up against the social crises of the society.

In an interview, Tendulkar once said, "I have not written about hypothetical pain or created an imaginary world of sorrow. I am from a middle class family and I have seen the brutal ways of life by keeping my eyes open. My work has come from within me, as an outcome of my observation of the world in which I live. If they want to entertain and make merry, fine go ahead, but I can't do it, I have to speak the truth." [1]

Tendulkar's plays have dealt with themes that unravel the exploitation of power and latent violence in human relationships. As he noted: "the basic urge (to write) has always been to let out my concerns vis vis my reality: the human condition as I perceive it." [2]

Women play a central role in Tendulkar's plays. His female characters are mainly from the lower and middle classes: housewives, teachers, mistresses, daughters, film extras, slaves, and servants. These women bring not just variety of social station but also a broad range of emotions into the plays: "from the unbelievably gullible to the clever, from the malleable to the stubborn, from the conservative to the rebellious, from the self-sacrificing to the grasping." [3]

His characters are often composites of contradictory personalities struggling between emotion and intellect; espoused values and conflicting actions; seeking independence yet submissive, struggling between physical desires and conscience. Tendulkar tended to minimize his personal influence on these characters and their personality development. They are in the play "with their own minds, ways and destiny," he said. [4]

In the New York Times review of Sakharam Binder (Sakharam, the Bookbinder, 1972), staged by the Play Company in 2004, drama critic Jonathan Kalb described Tendulkar's characterization, which instead of demonizing the coarse bookbinder leaves the viewer with an understanding of his helplessness in a certain sense. Kalb noted that the Bookbinder's tragedy turned out "to hinge on his budding social consciousness, his arrested enlightenment. He can see -- almost -- an idea of equality and shared humanity that transcends individual appetite, but nothing in his life (including the women) ever encourages him to follow its logic. Like Brecht's Mother Courage, he exploits a corrupt system for personal advantage, then discovers that the price of playing the game is everything he hoped to protect. Unlike Brecht, though, Mr. Tendulkar never judges his protagonist but concentrates instead on painting him with unsettling compassion, perceptiveness and thoroughness". [5]

After a month-long New York festival of his plays and films organized by the Indo-American Arts Council in 2004, I congratulated Tendulkar on the success of Sakharam. He made the following observation:

I watched Sakharam in New York in performance with a predominantly alien audience. I found that the play, without any changes to suit the audience there except the bedroom scenes which were naturally un-Indian in their presentation, appeals to their sensitivity and penetrates deep enough. Its Indian-ness does not come in the way at all. In fact the producers tell me that normally an American audience does not watch an American play with so much attentiveness and involvement. How will you explain this? What is universality? I am sharing this with you and have not drawn any conclusion.

In my reply, I pointed to two possible reasons for the positive response from an "alien" audience: one, a curiosity to know what's happening on the other side of the fence, a sort of "cultural voyeurism." One gets hooked if the arguments are being made coherently, which is often the case in Tendulkar's plays due to the didactic nature of his writing. And two, once the unusual premise of the play is understood and appreciated, one follows the unraveling of characters and their motivations. The motivations of Sakharam, Laxmi, and Champa, for example, are certainly universal and able to bring about a transcending effect on the viewer. Agreeing with my broad-brush analysis, the author wrote back that universality in motivations and emotions of characters can indeed enable a play to cut across cultural gaps.

Arundhati Banerjee, an observer of Tendulkar's work, notes that none of his creations are ever simplistic -- "like his genius, they too have the same prismatic quality of giving forth new meanings as one turns them around in the light of one's understanding." [6] His plays therefore continue to be enigmatic, raising more questions than easy or comfortable answers. Tendulkar's work is endowed with an unusual subtlety that raises the plays above hackneyed social melodrama.

The inner core of these works is rooted in his deep compassion and respect for human life -- for life in the social reality of post-colonial India. Seeing its exploitation and waste, his response was an unrelenting literary output and non-stop social activism. Until his death, he was involved in causes, fiercely seeking justice for the victimized--mainly the poor and those disfranchised by communal riots and structural violence. Unlike the makers of the confrontational theater of the late 1980s, he did not believe that an evening at the theater would change the society, but he was always hopeful that a good play could raise public awareness.

Tendulkar never shrank from public controversy as it gave him a unique opportunity to engage his opponents in public discourse. There has been hardly a play by him that has not ended up in controversy. Most of the calls for banning his plays did not, surprisingly, come from the government but from particular segments of the public who saw in his dramatizations attacks on their power positions--challenges to caste, gender or class structures. His most visible play, Ghasiram Kotwal (Ghasiram -- Chief Inspector), which had 6000 performances in India and abroad, had problems when it opened in 1972. It was stopped because the right-wing Hindu nationalist RSS found it "anti-Brahmin" and described the negative depiction of the noble character Nana Phadnavis as historically inaccurate.

Tendulkar came to the defense of the play, pointing out that Ghasiram Kotwal was not a historical play: "It is a story, in prose, verse, music and dance set in a historical era. Ghasirams are creations of socio-political forces which know no barriers of time and place. Although based on a historical legend, I have no intention of commentary on the morals, or lack of them, of the Peshwas, Nana Phadnavis or Ghasiram. The moral of the story, if there is any, may be looked for elsewhere." [7]

During the remount of the play in 1980 for the Berlin International Theater Festival, similar protests were repeated prior to the troupe's departure from India. This time, right-wing Shiv Sena activists went to court to get a stay order on the planned international tour. The artists had to resort to police protection. The court issued an order requiring that before each performance a statement approved by the Court had to be read. This statement publicly praised the achievements of Nana Phadanvis, stating that the play was not based on true history. The company followed the court order, and the play had a successful tour of Western Europe with twenty-five performances. It received enthusiastic reviews in The London Times, The Guardian, Der Speigel, and New Theatre Quarterly. [8]

Tendulkar's large body of work represents an interesting amalgam of content and structure. In his plays, he has experimented with almost every form -- from traditional folk techniques in Ghasiram -- Chief Inspector, with fifty characters dancing on the stage, to the minimalist Beckettian bicyclist journey in Safar/Cyclewallah (1993) and The Masseur (2003), a full-length one-man play with a bench as the only prop, to his last play, His Fifth Woman (2004), in which the two protagonists wait outside a hospital with a woman's body in a hand cart. He always insisted that the structure of his plays was driven by the characters, and it is that uniqueness that brought out their broad thematic impact.

With such a voluminous oeuvre written over fifty years, most of it in the author's mother tongue Marathi, it may be too early for a comprehensive assessment of Tendulkar. Such assessment will be likely limited to his translated work if it occurs in the West. His notable creations are at the beginning and end of his career. Shanata! Court Chalu Ahe (1968), Ghasiram Kotwal (1972), and Sakharam Binder (1972) remain his outstanding plays for their bold societal themes and layered characterizations. At the other end, Safar (1993) and His Fifth Woman (2004) are the best examples of his lean, minimalistic phase. At his ripe age, he tackled these plays' difficult themes about the meaning of life without straining to be philosophical or profound. Both have an unusual light touch despite their heavy themes. In between is a trio of plays: Baby (1975), Kamala (1982), and Kanyadan (1983). These are insightful studies of women written as conventional three-act social dramas with his characteristically penetrating dialogue and characterization.

I was fortunate to have worked with Vijay Tendulkar on the last two plays, bringing out the English translation of Safar (The Cyclist) and His Fifth Woman (his only play in English) with Oxford University Press in 2006. These works, unlike his others, are replete with laughter. The Cyclist, about the adventure of life seen through a bicyclist's journey, was first broadcast on BBC World Service in 1998 and later performed by Toronto's Maya Theatre at the Harbourfront Centre in 2004. His Fifth Woman was specially written for the New York Tendulkar Festival in October 2004. Directed by Sturgis Warner for the Lark Theater Company, it explored the question of death and afterlife in the context of injustices suffered by women in male-female relationships. It did this in a most unusual way: the play has a chorus of crows (as in the Aristophanes's comedies) who transform the grimness of the theme into hilarity and also expose the hypocrisy of certain Hindu religious rituals performed at death.

Delivering the prestigious Sri Ram Memorial Lectures for Performing Arts in 1997 in New Delhi, Tendulkar summed up his lifelong involvement in theater as follows:

What I like about those years is that they made me grow as a human being. And theater which was my major concern has contributed to this in a big way. It helped to analyze life--my own and lives of others. It led me to make newer and newer discoveries in the vast realm of the human mind that still defies all available theories and logic. It's like an ever-intriguing puzzle or a jungle that you can always enter but has no way out. Not that I am any wiser than the fool I was when I entered the theater. I still act like a fool and think like one; but there is a difference. Now I am aware of what I am doing while I do it. I am my own audience and the critic, if one may use the language of the theater. Now I enjoy my foolishness and laugh at it; and of course the foolishness of others too, at times. [9]



1. Sumit Saxena, "A Conversation with sir Vijay Tendulkar," Passion for Cinema, 20 December, 2006.

2. Vijay Tendulkar, Five Plays (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1992). The five plays translated in this book are: Kamala, Silence! The Court is in Session, Sakharam Binder, The Vultures, and Encounter in Umbugland. See the Introduction by Arundhati Banerjee, p.x.

3. Shanta Gokhle, "Tendulkar on his Own Terms," in Geeta Rajan and Shoma Choudhry (eds), Vijay Tendulkar (New-Delhi: Katha, 2001), p. 81.

4. Vijay Tendulkar, The Play is the Thing (New-Delhi: Sri Ram Memorial Lecture, 1997), p.15.

5. Jonathan Kalb, "An Indian Father Courage, Using and Losing Women." New York Times, November 3, 2004.

6. Arundhati Banerjee, Introduction to Vijay Tendulkar, Five Plays, p xix.

7. Vijay Tendulkar, Ghasiram Kotwal, English trans. (Seagull Books, 1986). Quoted in introduction by Samik Bandyopadhyay, p. iv.

8. Ramu Ramanathan, "Play the Devil," Tehalka Newspaper online, Nov 12, 2005.

9. Vijay Tendulkar, The Play is the Thing, p.36.