Ghashiram Kotwal was first staged in 1972 by the Progressive Drama Association in Pune under Jabbar Patel’s production. The play includes its characters from the Peshwa period of 18th century, right before the British rule took the entire charge. However, the upcoming colonization is depicted in the text-
Sutradhar- Yes, this is the brutish city.
Stranger- What, the British city?
Vijay Tendulkar uses a lot of experimentation in the play, and moves away from the Marathi theatre tradition. His modern practice is focused on the performance and his agenda is clear from the dialogues of the characters.
The design used by Tendulkar has a ‘purpose’ and a variety of features which work on the surface as well as deeper levels. The power and hierarchy within the play expose the violence and sexuality so much so that the divisions of caste, class, gender and even race can be seen responsible for them to exist explicitly within the society. Vijay Tendulkar is remarkably applauded for imbibing the visual effects using music, dance and folklore in the play. His dialogues give an expressionist-dramatic mode. For Phule, “his strength lies in his dialogues… as if he doesn’t need a director at all” and “the man can see every action, every move… can ‘hear’ it all…” Other playwrights like Krnad and Sircar then focused on the realist mode. Critics also find an influence of realist writers like Ibsen and Brecht in Tendulkar. However, apart from all the criticism faced by Ghashiram Kotwal, it becomes successful due to its innovative structure and unconventionality since the author breaks away from the realist as well Sangeetnatak tradition.
Tendulkar also give up the three-act tradition like his contemporaries. He puts the play in a new appearance. All the actors present on the stage have to sing, dance and act at the same time and it requires a lot energy. This energy also expects a lot of movement from the characters. He uses the concept of ‘human curtain’ where twelve Brahmins stand in a line to hide or reveal a certain shift or action in the play. Their gestures always hint at some ‘plan’ which is about to take action. The language used by him also gives a certain sense of irony. The characters he brings highlight the situation of brutality all the more. He takes from the tamasha form, where the role of a songdya is forwarded to his Sutradhar. The juxtapositions he uses thoroughly in the play is a technique used to express the difference between created and actual reality of systems and norms. The songs then become the ‘vehicles of ironic comments’ and do not serve the entertainment purpose, but ‘its impact endures’. Many critics praise the play for its flexibility in the themes of oppression, humour, satire, violence, sexuality and also the oppositions in main characters like Nana and Ghashiram. The ‘circular structure’ of play keeps the whole story intact, and back to where it begins from.
The play takes from history and sets up the two historical figures of 18th century as the main protagonists who are present in every scene. During the nationalist movement, the Peshwa reign consisted of the Brahmin rule and represented the social, cultural and political pride. Nana Phadnavis was the Chief Administator of the Peshwa rule and Ghashiram was his Chief police officer. The author was aware of the danger that he was to face after using a “sacrosanct” figure like Nana as a symbol of power that degrades in morals and sexuality. He was attacked for portrayal of the Brahmins also.
“Nana, the lecher, infatuated with the young girl, neglecting the administration of the city, turning a blind eye to the excesses of his Kotwal was hardly compatible with the historical depiction of him as a philosophic and scholarly administrator, an astute politician, a social reformer and a patron of art.” (Neela Bhalla) The time when Ghashiram was staged, people and playwrights had an iconized image of Peshwa rule. The British rule ensured that the colonized think of themselves as weak, immoral, bestial, irrational, incapable of ruling themselves and that they having been the moral, rational, educated, have come to protect, save and civilize them. Therefore, the colonized took them in a positive light and didn’t recognize the process of ‘othering’ taking place. Said explains “because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action.” In the Post-colonial period, the upper caste (like Brahmins) took the burden of proving it to the British that they were no less than the whites. In order to do so, the artists of this era started to retrace their history in a productive manner. The trend of ‘revivalism’ attempted to go back to older ways, values and meanings using the literary mode. Nana was thus ‘systematically revived from past history, built as an icon and was entrenched in the social psyche through many cultural practices.’ This ignored the brutal and exploitative domination of Brahmin caste and the corruption caused by them due the power of caste, class, gender in the Indian society, which was born out of colonialism itself. The “hybrid condition” of writers here increased the complexities. While trying to find a voice for themselves in the process of decolonization, the colonized forgot that they too were divided amongst themselves.
For Vibha Saxena, “it is left to a creative artist to use a nation’s said as well as unsaid truth through history or myth as a vehicle to explore the psyche of his times in such a fashion so as to carve a niche for his work in the socio-temporal context of the period.” Tendulkar totally denies it being a historical play, he only remarks it being within a historical context. Nana symbolizes power and depicts its material use in pleasure seeking activities.
‘Night comes and the Brahmins go to Bavannakhani’, whereas one would expect them to be scholars, devoted to religiosity, pure and pious. They keep hiding their visit to red light area under the name of temple and sermons, but the ‘lavani song’ exposes them.
“They whistle and throw their turbans…” Our perception about Brahmins as being a divine and closest-to-God caste becomes doubtful at once.
“We want the Brahmin/Brahmin-wife dance…” Our definition of Brahmin becomes questionable. We wonder at the fluidity of this caste concept. Even a ‘courtesan’ like Gulabi and an ‘outsider’ like Ghashiram can portray a Brahmin. The scene where “hungry-looking Brahmins run after the Sahib” familiarizes them with beggars. However, appearance matters as Ghashiram is asked about his “shaven head, holy thread, and pious look.” The surficial and imaginary portrayal of this caste is frequently replaced with the deeper and real version. When Ghashiram is beaten, the Sutradhar comments – “If their mercy ends, We end, So we bend.” This gives a real picture of how hollow this system is, yet other caste people have to bend. Tendulkar does not go against the historical figures of Peshwa period but subverts the institutions which gave them power that led to moral decadence. Any powerful ruler tempts an artist to comment upon his rule or people in power, this is important since Tendulkar chooses his ‘powerful’ person wisely. Due to this, the performance of Ghashiram was banned by agitated Brahmins, and when allowed, the production people were asked to glorify Nana before every performance for preventing Marathis for twenty years from the British aggression until colonization finally occurred. The author only wanted to make political statements and had nothing against Brahmins, since he states, “it was not an attack on the Brahmins per se, but on the wielders of power in society.” Ghashiram’s behavior is similar to the Theatre of Cruelty for Kumar when he passes an ordeal for the innocent Brahmin and forces him to accept a crime of theft he hasn’t committed.
The expressive language of the play is seen when Brahmins talk roughly to the Sutradhar. The chorus plays an important role and the human curtain take various shapes to enhance the serious comments of characters. But again the play frees itself from giving direct any moral lesson to its readers. Vibha links the the permit system rule of Ghashiram to the license system rule of India as a means to consolidate power. The white man or British military officer in the play also watches the debauchery of Brahmins and is present at various episodes when wrongdoings take place. Ghashiram, being an ‘outsider’ from the north, cannot be trusted with his power. The incident where a Brahmin mishears ‘horses’ as ‘forces’ and interrogates if they are ‘Foreign’ or ‘English gives a hint at how their system refuses or fears any outside force to remain. Therefore, no matter how hard Ghashya tries, Nana is going to win this battle since Sutradhar hints at it- “No one will know your address, Baba. That’s how the play will end one day.”
Again, it is remarkable to see that he, even as an outsider, tries a lot to get in and get up. The play comments on marginalization of the weaker gender in a good detail. The three women focused upon are- Gulabi, the courtesan; Lalita Gauri, Ghashiram’s young daughter and the anonymous seventh wife of Nana. All the women of the play work as ‘commodities’, as mere objects of desire brought to markets. In the first few pages, the red light area becomes a ‘temple’ and the woman gives the ‘sermon’ on ‘Temptation.’ After two pages-
“Brahmins go to Bavannakhani. And the Brahmin wives stay at home… They wait. They cannot sleep.” She is in “solitary confinement” while her husband leers at a courtesan, Gulabi (who is also a woman, not just an object) who becomes the “divine idol” they have come to worship in this temple. Then the so-called iconized Nana, “puts his foot wrong” which is, as Ghokle explains, “euphemism for illicit sexual adventure” and his one leg represents “visual incarnation of lechery”. The ‘fallen grace’ of Nana is not new. Vanararse points out to the rhyme changing the word “bhaya” (fear) with “vaya”. He is a womanizer and remains one till the end. He has already married six women and craves for many along with them. He, in act of catching Gauri, is not afraid of the idol of “He” (Ganpati). His impotency is clear when he fails to catch hold of her. But the society will not let a woman take hold of the situation. Her father will sell her due to his personal motives. His reputation, as he states, decides the life of his wife and daughter. When Nana loses her, Ghashiram’s dialogues as a servant give the real picture of how women are taken as-
Servant- You’ll get her back.
Nana- How— after this!
Servant- If the hunter is ready, the prey will be found.
Nana- But not that one!
Servant- Even she will be found; that very one will be found.
This thwarts all our trust in Ghashiram. He later sells his own daughter to him, in exchange for the position of Kotwal. She becomes an object to be ‘preyed upon’, an item that is to be given for its real price and the episode becomes that of a “hunt”. For Nana, she is for lust and becomes his child later, when he is bored of this “luscious peach”. The biggest irony of the play occurs when this man who pimps for his own daughter, embarrasses a ‘respectable woman’ who comes out straightening her clothes at night, and calls them ‘immoral’. His next step is to find a suitable match for his sold daughter. Wedding has to be a “show” now. However, Gauri is left to die in her pregnancy where a death ceremony isn’t offered to her. Nana is simultaneously preparing to marry a fourteen year old in exchange of three hundred gold coins and big portion of land. This is an example of above stated dialogues of Servant and Nana.
Tendulkar subverts the institution of marriage using Nana’s character (who in real had nine wives), by showing Ghashiram’s opposition towards sex as a pleasurable activity, and by Gauri’s marriage plans. Gauri is therefore denied any say in her marriage or exchange. Nana’s eighth wife also hides herself under the veil. Pandit explains how there was a resentment regarding portrayal of debaucherous relationship between the Marath Sardars and Brahmi wives which might result in conflicts between Brahmins and Marathas. Nana’s portrayal as a “sexually promiscuous personality” is seen as an injustice towards his skills and achievements.
Gulabi tries to show some authority over Ghashiram when she calls upon her guards to beat him and take the necklace. She becomes the most available woman for the lustful Brahmins. Nana, who accepts in his autobiography, of his lustful cravings, here dances and leers at women regardless of their age. Gulabi becomes a “the establishment, and partakes of the same arrogance and violence rampant in the elite society.” She is a public woman in contrast to the other private women in the play. Prostitues like Othello’s Bianca and The Rover’s Angellica Bianca are fooled by men with the jokes or promises of marriage, though they are capable of living independently. Gulabi here has a better position since she keeps authority over an outsider and no man lures her in order to destroy her position.
Spivak’s ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ talks about women as an economically deprived group. She states that though ‘elite males’ are now independent, women still are dependent. Feminists try to empower women like Gandhi calls dalit as Harijans, but they do not get empowered by names. There is an epistemic violence taking place against women, who stay absent from the canons of literature. Tendulkar’s play highlights such absence in a great detail. Saxena quotes- “Nothing changes in the lot of women; life takes a complete circle and the play concludes where it begins…” When Guari’s body is removed and thrown into a river, the play finally concludes to the fact that women will not go beyond being objects of male covetousness.
The Times applauds the play for its “evocation of eroticism and torture without recourse to Western nudity and violence.” The two main characters are foils to each other. One has leadership and political skills, is subtle but lacks sexual control whereas the other is sexually controlled but is gross. Both represent Machiavellianism in different ways. The struggle of the artist is to show the society and its flaws. Tendulkar states- ‘I am drawing your attention to something near you.’ Therefore, the tortures that human beings suffer due to each other in order to rise in position or gain sadistic pleasure is exercised using great power over something. Saxena finds the writer in an “existential anguish” where it is no less than a ‘Sisyphean struggle’ to get out of such sociological and political structures. A reader cannot come out of this limbo since the structures are complex. Vijay Tendulkar confirms this – “I have more questions than answers, more problems than solutions As long as you don’t know the problem fully, it is easy to find solutions.” Therefore, an attempt to understand problems, opens up more problems and the chain isn’t narrow enough to criticize Tendulkar for defaming Nana since he highlights many socio-cultural and realistic problems using him as an extraordinary example.
- Tendulkar, Vijay. Ghashiram Kotwal. Delhi. Worldview Publications, 2015.
- Bhalla, Neela. Introduction to Critical companion. Seagull, 1999.
- Gokhle, Shanta. On Ghashiram Kotwal.
- Saxena, Vibha. Ghashiram Kotwal: A Postcolonial Perspective.
- Pandit,Maya. Deliberate Dismantling of an Icon.
- Vanarase, Shyamala. Ghashiram Kotwal: Design in the Text.
- Said, Edward. Introduction. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
- Morris, Rosalind C., and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York: Columbia UP, 2010.
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