Sunday, October 18, 1998
ELEGANT, tall and stately. Wrapped up in a solemn quietitude. An enigmatic, bespectacled look that appears to conceal more and reveal less. And a pair of searing eyes that smoulder with an indecipherable intensity.
The first impression about Mahesh Elkunchwar can be quite unsettling, even intimidating. Though it lasts only until he breaks into a conversation. Once the ice cracks, a warm glow of easy familiarity settles in. Mixing caution with candour, he speaks in a truly self-absorbed and absorbing manner; his effervescence sparkling each word he utters.
A self-professed loner who came into playwriting more by accident than design, Mahesh is indisputably a tall presence in Marathi theatre today. A worthy successor to redoubtable Vijay Tendulkar whom he both respects and admires, Elkunchwar is a self-conscious modernist, not a hoary traditionalist. A strong votary of urban Marathi theatre, he looks upon all forms of folk theatre as "instances of artistic kleptomania".
Starting his career with Sultan in 1967, he gave a number of commercial hits such as Holi (1969), Raktapushpa (1971), Party (1972), Virasat (1982), and Atamkatha (1987). A ceaseless innovator, Mahesh has experimented with every known form of dramatic expression, ranging from the realistic to symbolic, expressionist to absurd. Convinced that a play is both a performance and literature,Mahesh Elkunchwar spoke to Rana Nayar about his life, times, his work and his influences. Here are the excerpts:
How would Mahesh, the playwright, introduce, Mahesh, the man, to our readers?
Well, let me try and see if I can do it without turning confessional. I was born into a fairly well-to-do, feudal family. At four, I had to leave my parents, the land and the village behind for a life in a city where I grew up, ultimately. Cut off from my roots, I was extremely lonely as a child. And at some stage, I guess, I started talking to myself. I would become my own father and mother. Now thinking back, I can say that that is where the beginnings of my playwriting lie; in this ability to invent your own world and populate it with the characters you either know or would want to know. Apart from this, it was a regular sort of childhood. Not being very good at either science or mathematics, I was told I might have to pull a rickshaw for a living. For a long time, I thought I was a nincompoop, a good-for-nothing fellow. It made me feel small, inferior too. That made me very aggressive, especially through my growing years. I used to have a permanent scowl on my face. So much so that people were afraid to come and talk to me. Its only after I had had some moderate success as a playwright that it all began to change. That a few people do see my plays has helped me mellow down a little.
When and how was your interest in theatre aroused to the point of becoming an obsession?
I hadnt seen a single play till I came to Nagpur for my college. But I was a great movie buff. That too started after the matric. I came from a family where watching movies or listening to music was a taboo. Matric onwards, I had begun to sneak off to movies. I found a lot of solace, even happiness, in that world. A world full of songs and joy, without misery. Whatever misery there was, too, became beautiful because art touched it. I always wanted to live in an illusory world.
So, how did your affair with theatre get off to a start?
It was more by accident than design. Even as a college student, I hadnt had much exposure to theatre. Except that I had seen a few commercial plays, but that was it. Somewhere in 1964, I went to see a film with a friend of mine. As we couldnt manage the tickets, my friends proposed that we see a play that was on. I shot down the idea saying,Do natak dekhein hain. Nothing much to crow about.When he insisted, we walked in. A Tendulkar play, a production of Vijaya Mehta, was on. And within minutes I realised that this was something new, different and exciting. I was simply electrified. It was as if the doors had opened within. As I hadnt understood all that was happening on the stage, I went to see the play, the following day as well. This time I looked at it critically. Now I looked for certain patterns, a sense of structure to see how a playwright makes the point he does. That day I decided to read up all the plays of Tendulkar. For a year almost, I read nothing except a variety of plays. Then I decided to write one, which, my friends told me, was a bad copy of Tendulkar.So I tore it off. I told myself that I must write my own stuff and not imitate Tendulkar or anyone else. And thats how Sultan came to be written. I thought it was a bad play. But one of my friends sent it to Satyakatha ( a reputed Marathi journal which has ceased publication now) where it was first published. Thats how Vijaya Mehta, who was a legendary figure even in the early 70s, got to see it. When she expressed the desire to produce it in 1969, I was simply thrilled. Of course, mighty flattered too. Had that play been carried by some second-rate magazine, its possible my plays wouldnt have been produced at all. So, this happy accident made a playwright out of me.
Would you like to describe Sultan and some of your early plays as being realistic in mode?
No, Sultan is not a realistic play. It is a symbolic or rather an expressionist one, if you wish. The first four plays are like that. Perhaps this is the time I was working under the influence of Strindberg, Chekhov, Lorca, Sartre and Camus, among other playwrights of the West. Though I tried hard to resist, all of these influences did somehow filter in my early work. Holi was the first realistic play I wrote. Before Holi, I was simply groping to find my idiom, my mode. Holi gave me the confidence I was looking for.
With Holi then, did your finally start gravitating toward the realistic idiom?
Im often branded as a realistic playwright. But only by those who dont know that Ive written all kinds of plays in the Absurd tradition or in the expressionist mode. I dont want to use these labels as these have so many connotations. My plays rarely fit into these neat slots. For instance,Yatnagrha is an expressionist play. It works beautifully well in the first half but flounders in the second. When I wrote that, I hadnt gained absolute control over my craft. You have to fail hundred times so that you come upon small success once in a while. I remember when Vijaya did it, she edited the second half and it worked well. Together with Holi, this one has been a permanent fixture at one-act competition in Maharashtra for quite some time now.
You said just now that Vijaya Mehta edited your play and made it better than it was. Does it mean, you work in close collaboration with the directors of your plays? Or youd much rather allow them the same artistic freedom that you often command yourself?
I have had the good fortune of working with some of the best directors of our times. Satyadev Dubey, Dr Lagoo, Amol Palekar and Vijaya bai (Nee Mehta) are only a few among them. We used to sit together and thrash things out. I remember when Vijaya bai produced Virasat, she did have a few problems with the text. She came over to Nagpur and we discussed everything threadbare. I tried to see her point of view. As a playwright, it is important for me to see my work through the eyes of someone who is equally involved. So long as these changes dont affect the core of the play, I dont mind. Im really grateful to my directors. They have never butchered my work.
How do you get the germ of an idea for a play? How does a play begin to happen in your mind?
Its uncanny. I dont know how it happens. Some kind of an image always triggers it off, though I dont know at that point of time whether or not itll ultimately shape itself into a play. Let me tell you about one of my recent plays. I was listening to Rabindra Sangeet, a beautiful song addressed to, one could say, God, death or both. Two lines simply got struck in my mind and the next morning I found myself writing a play about the life of a dying man. And when I started, believe me, I didnt know how many characters will be there or how the situation will shape up. Virasat also came to me like this as I sat talking to Satyadev Dubey. He told me about a feudal family that owned a tractor but never used it. Slowly it sank into the courtyard. The tractor was destroyed and so was the family. It was this image that started me off to Virasat.
Apart from Tendulkar, which other Marathi playwrights have you been influenced by?
Im very suspicious of this world influence. Yes, my parampara does begin with Tendulkar. Before him, there have been several playwrights in Marathi; Kolhatkar, Gadkari, Khadilkar,Warekar, Deshpande and Pannicker. They were all eminent names. But I never felt emotionally close to any of them.The kind of idiom or language they used was dated for me. Tendulkar was the first modern man who spoke my language. Though Tendulkar and I are two different people. Were poles apart. Tendulkar is warm, gregarious, loves to be surrounded by people, always eager to talk to them and make contact. I prefer to be in my company. I avoid contact as far as possible. And Im the happiest if Im allowed an unrestrained freedom to journey inwards. It might sound selfish, but thats the way Im.
Your plays, too, take on the form of this inner voyage, this constant digging beneath the skin into the layers of the self. Isnt it?
Yes, most of my work is a personal statement. Its a way of understanding myself, organising my experiences, bringing some shape to whatever has happened or is happening within. Its so difficult to answer this question ... yes, writing is an act of organising your life and experiences. It is an act of making something ugly look beautiful.
Would you say that theatre is only a way of making a personal statement, or go a little further and admit to projecting a definite world view through it?
Although Im not known for modesty, I wouldnt like to say whether or not I have a world view. This is something for the critics to find out.But if the world view is the same as ideology, I would have none of it. I may have felt close to certain ideologies at various stages in my life, but I have always been convinced that there is no ideology bigger or greater than life itself. If Im using theatre as a weapon, if it is a means of self-expression for me, my writing will concern itself with life as I see and experience it and not with doctrine. It is the human condition that directs the social condition and not vice-versa. Art can never forge this nor should it.
Your views about the traditional, folk forms are only too well-known. Dont you see any possibility of a positive symbiosis between the folk forms and the urban experience and sensibility?
Urban folk theatre is nothing but an artistic kleptomania. Its a form of revivalism. Those who talk of folk-oriented urban theatre forget that our villages have changed over the past 50 years and so have the traditions prevalent there. In a way, the rural structure has been in death-throes, if it hasnt collapsed already. The folk forms go with a collective impulse. They are a manifestation of a collective mind. How can an urban artist graft forms to his experience he neither shares nor understands fully? What we need is a crusade for experimentation. And it is not merely a question of new form or a novel content. Real experimentation is a light that illuminates ones work form within. Its a form of spiritual quest.
How enthused are you about the scene of contemporary theatre in India?
Well, its a very vibrant and promising situation, I would say. New areas are being explored and new vistas opening up. Suddenly you see Ratan Thiyam in Manipur, Neelam Mansingh in Chandigarh, Joyshree in Bangalore, Pannicker in Thiruvananthapuram and Bansi Kaul in Bhopal. All of this is stunning theatre. Totally different. A kind of visual theatre. The experiments they are doing in these regional centres are bound to create a ripple-effect. Contemporary Indian theatre is beginning to look up, once again. Who knows, a renaissance might be in the offing!
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