As a part of IAPAR International Theatre Festival Pune, the National School of Drama staged Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (1972) on 2nd November. The play follows the plight of Ghashiram Savaldas, a Brahmin from Kanauj who has come to Poona in search of good fortune for his wife and daughter but is accused of theft and faces great humiliation.

Ghashiram vows to set the debauch Brahmins of Poona straight by becoming the Kotwal of the city. He engages in an ugly battle of power with Nana Fadnavis, the cunning, amoral chief minister of Poona by using his daughter, Gauri as a pawn.

The city under Ghashiram Kotwal’s rule closely resembles a totalitarian police state. The play follows Ghashiram’s downfall as he is consumed by power and is eventually stoned to death by a mob, by the Brahmans of Poona.

Vijay Tendulkar borrows traditional elements from Tamasha – Marathi folk theatre to structure the play as a musical. Yet, the playwright also employs the same devices to evoke Brechtian alienation. On his formulations of the Epic theatre, German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote about the implications of alienating the audience.

“The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically (and without practical consequences) by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.”

The viewer must employ critical thinking to understand the reality that is being constructed on stage. The playwright must fracture the ‘normal’ so that the audience does not form a cathartic engagement with the play, but rather critically questions the appearances that have been devised to further relate them to their own socio-historical circumstances.

Vijay Tendulkar borrows traditional elements from Tamasha – Marathi folk theatre to structure the play as a musical.

In Ghashiram Kotwal, Vijay Tendulkar uses the same music in scenes that are posited as antithetical to each other. For example, the bhajan that is used to offer prayers to Ganesha is also used to speak of Nana’s sexual attraction towards Gauri. The music that is played at Nana’s seventh wedding to a bride who is young enough to be his daughter is used later as Gauri’s dead body is being lifted off to be thrown into the river.

In addition, the same palanquin that carried the bride assumes the pyre on which Gauri’s body is later carried. The scene of marriage is juxtaposed in a parallel manner with death, for that young girl who is married off to Nana, the moment of the wedding resembles death.

While Ghashiram Kotwal is situated in the past, it was written as an active exploration of the contemporary political moment. Vijay Tendulkar spoke about what inspired this piece of work:

“The inspiration for the play was a topical situation. I was working for Loksatta when the first major riots were launched in Bombay by the Shiv Sena. Bal Thackeray seemed an ordinary man, not at all the sort of person who would indulge in dare-devilry. The middle-class boys who followed him were not demons. In that particular situation, they acquired power, abused it and spread terror. I sensed that terror in my newspaper office. We were not free to write anything about the Shiv Sena. If the title “Senapati” was not prefixed to Thackeray’s name in a report, a morcha would be taken out with burning and looting.

Actually, the Shiv Sena was deliberately fuelled by the ruling party to establish a force against the masses. Then came Krishna Menon and his election campaign when the Shiv Sena was pitted against the communists. You can see the similarity between the Ghashiram incident and this event to which we were witnesses. The hunting dogs got transformed into ferocious tigers and the Government began to fear them. When I saw this, I felt the urge to use this theme in a play and as I traversed backwards in history, I noticed that this was a repetitive pattern – such individuals and parties had been created through history. Hitler was one such example.

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It is interesting to note that Nana Fadnavis is a historical figure that is glorified by the Shiv Sena as a symbol of Maharashtrian pride. In the play, Fadnavis effectively takes the form of Congress that helped Ghashiram, interpreted as the Shiv Sena come to rise in the 60s. The strategy was employed to halt the rise of the Communist Party of India which had been engaging with worker rights across the state.

Mumbai was specifically known for its history of textile mills and attracted workers from across the country. These workers would actively engage in strikes to demand reasonable wages and working conditions. With the rise of the Shiv Sena, the assertions assumed a different character, the worker’s identity became that of a native, Maharashtrian who’s rightful jobs are being taken away by the outsiders.

Ghashiram Kotwal engages with the Brahmans who seem to own the city of Poona. The 12 Brahmans of Poona perform as a shape-shifting mob as they stand in the background and sing in perfect harmony. This mob has no mind of its own, it can be played with by those who are in a position of power. The viewer cannot help but realize that the play is not placed in the past but an active retelling of the contemporary moment.

The figure of Ghashiram is no different from that of Nana, but since he’s accustomed to power, Nana is better at playing this game and effacing his own debauchery for the mob. In a climactic monologue, Nana informs the audience how he has fired two bullets from the same gun by conquering Gauri and by allowing Ghashiram to set the Brahmans who have gotten out of hand, without allowing anyone to point a finger at Nana.

While Ghashiram Kotwal is situated in the past, it was written as an active exploration of the contemporary political moment.

At the moment where Ghashiram realizes that his daughter has been killed (probably because she was pregnant with Nana’s child), he confronts Nana in fuming anger but is ordered to first bow before him, as prescribed by custom. Ghashiram’s bow signifies how he has already lost the battle. And yet, Tendulkar does not allow the viewer to identify or sympathize with any character.

Nana conveniently uses Krishna’s philosophy in the Gita to convince Ghashiram that everyone must eventually die and how all existence is merely Maya, an illusion. There is no point to mourning Gauri’s loss, instead, Ghashiram must follow his dharma, duty and continue serving as the Kotwal of Poona. Tendulkar presents a scathing critique of a Brahmanical text by situating these words in this scene.

As he leaves, Ghashiram’s body is broken as his hunched body exits the stage. Ghashiram continues to terrorize Poona as he is addicted to wielding power. Yet, the Brahmans of Poona soon rise against him as an angry mob as they eventually stone him to death with the graceful permission of Nana.

While Tendulkar is known for having distinctive female characters, Ghashiram Kotwal plays with the absence of the marginalized, whether it be women or people belonging to the ‘lower’ caste. Gauri has no identity of her own, she merely plays out Nana’s imagination. At the moment where Ghashiram is digging out her body, she has no physical presence on stage, for Nana’s illusions have moved past her. Nana’s seventh bride enters the play soon before we learn of Gauri’s demise, the two essentially have the same fate.

Ghashiram Kotwal presents an uncomfortable interrogation about the play of power. Tendulkar offers a scathing critique of the Brahmans who inhabited Maharashtra and were also the dominant audience of the play. The play was banned after 19 performances for its depiction of Nana Fadnavis.

When it was being staged in the 70s, the mob in the play closely resembled many of the viewers who were watching their actions unfold on stage but in a different historical moment. The playwright pokes fun at the Brahmans of Poona in the late 1700s but the audience is well aware that the play is about their complicit participation in creating the circumstances for the rise of the Shiv Sena.

Vijay Tendulkar marks prophetic observations about the authoritarian rule as the Emergency would soon be imposed after. The relevance of Ghashriam Kotwal’s critique of a totalitarian right-wing assumes a significant relevance at this political juncture. The audience cannot look away.

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Featured Image Credit: Indian Express

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