Representative Image Only

When culture is hijacked and universities atrophy: The continuing relevance of Uddhavasta Dharmashala

Govind Purshottam Deshpande’s Uddhavasta Dharmashala, which predicted the excesses of the Emergency, revived by Vipul Mahagaonkar, has even darker and sinister overtones today.

MARATHI playwright and academic Govind Purshottam Deshpande, or GPD, as he was better known, passed away in 2013. A frontal attack on the Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he had spent a long time as an eminent scholar and professor of Chinese Studies, took place in 2016.

Had GPD lived through the events, they would have come as no surprise to him — they were perhaps a darker shade of the despotism he understood intimately. He was an astute political observer, and his first play Uddhavasta Dharmashala (1973) that foresaw the Emergency, was about a professor who gets grilled for his Marxist leanings. This, in a nutshell, is the play, but it is not the play.

GPD was a man of ideas, and the play script was the medium that let him take those ideas to the theatre, where a dialogue could possibly break the shackles of the rigours of academia.

The play takes us back and forth through the life of this professor; his turbulent relationship with his father; his marriage to a comrade which falls apart, giving way to another unrequited love and, ultimately, the dashing of hopes — but all this with an all-pervasive, abiding commitment to the ideals of his philosophy, which is the backbone of his life.

The personal was indeed political for GPD.

Fifty years down the line, filmmaker and theatre director Vipul Mahagaonkar’s production of the play may almost seem like an anti-climax, because there are no surprises. But that does not take away from the mounting of the production and the staging. The production is very good, in fact, and the actors are in absolute sync with their characters and their co-actors.

This being a play of words and ideas, actors choosing to focus on their lines can risk sounding pedantic. But good actors, and in this case, Sushil Inamdar, Sunil Jadhav, Vikrant Kolape, Yogesh Khandekar, Yashodhan Mavalankar, Arun Palav, Nandkishore Sawant, Shubhangi Bhujbal, Purva N.S. and Vikrant Wadkar, are able to etch out their characters in subtler ways.

The relationship between Sridhar Kulkarni, the professor facing the inquiry (played by Inamdar), and the Vice Chancellor Jambhekar (played by Kolape), who is one of his chief interrogators, plays out at many levels because this is not a one-off meeting.

Here are two men who have known each other since their younger days. They have worked together. The tension in the room is palpable, and no one wants the inquiry to be over faster than the Vice Chancellor himself.

Similarly, the other characters, in their interactions with the professor, reveal their more elemental natures while essaying their own parts with ease.

GPD was once asked in an interview if he would have the actor Amitabh Bachhan play Sridhar Kulkarni if the play were to be a film, and his reply was an emphatic ‘no’, followed by the insightful (and perhaps tactful) reasoning, “Amitabh is an actor with broad and grand gestures, whereas Sridhar Kulkarni needs intense economy — an internalisation that an Om Puri is capable of bringing to the role.”

As a matter of fact, the actor Om Puri did essay the role in the Hindi adaptation of the play, with the actor Naseeruddin Shah playing the role of one of his interrogators. This production is also an integral part of the lore of Prithvi Theatre — on November 5, 1978, it became the first play to be staged at the newly opened theatre by actor and film producer Shashi Kapoor, and English actress Jennifer Kendal Kapoor, with its enduring design by architect Ved Segan.

Inamdar’s Sridhar delivers to the brief that GPD had in mind. Mahagaonkar’s direction focuses on his actors’ ability to deliver, by getting them to stay focused on the script, and underscoring the need to sense each other by the non-verbal aspects in a play that is wordy as opposed to being just verbal.

It is also interesting that Mahagaonkar chose this play not only for its political implications but also for its cultural significance, though the latter may not be readily apparent.

Those in the know of the Marathi language more substantially will find references to Marathi saint Tukaram and classical Sanskrit author Kalidas tucked neatly in the folds of the play, along with a rigorous, unforgiving critique of the Left.

Here was a Marxist — a cultural theorist no less — who understood how culture can be trivialised through commodification as much as it can be an uplifting, elevating experience. That culture can be twisted into something grotesque is not a new idea. But, in the context of the play, the process of this transmogrification is fascinating to watch and edifying to learn from.

What better way to mutate the culture of a people than by attacking them personally. Ambushing their ideas. Laying a siege on their universities.

Uddhavasta Dharamashala has been translated into English by writer, translator, journalist and theatre critic Shanta Gokhale with the title A Man In Dark Times (1989). German-American historian and political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s book Men In Dark Times (1968) is a collection of essays about writers. One of them is German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet Bertolt Brecht, to whom the phrase ‘dark times’ is attributed.

In her book, Arendt profiles select writers and their works to illuminate their lives as people who lived in contradictions, paradoxes and even with horror around. GPD’s Kulkarni would not feel out of place in the company of those writers.

The title Uddhavasta Dharmashala has also been loosely translated to ‘The Desolate Pilgrims’ Home’. Yet neither of these titles in English is fully able to convey the ruin and decay that is accumulating around us, and which the play predicts with astonishing accuracy.

The set design by Sachin Gaonkar presents the more physical dimension of a room strewn with books and paper gathering dust. This is the room where the inquiry takes place. The place is in disarray, but the inquiry is systematic.

This, then, is Uddhavasta Dharmashala today:

The capitulation of educational institutions.

The retreat of humanities from our universities.

The erasure of critique.

The play will be staged on March 19, 2023 at 8 p.m. at Shivaji Mandir, Dadar (W), Mumbai. 

The Leaflet