Saturday, 27 December 2008


Interview with Satish Alekar

“There is nothing called Indian theatre. In this country, theatre is essentially regional,” says playwright Satish Alekar. “Not just the difference in language, Marathi plays, for example, are mostly playwright-centric while the plays in other Indian languages are director-centric,” he adds.

But, that cannot stop the plays in one language from getting adapted to another within India and beyond. Alekar’s plays, written in Marathi, have thus been widely translated and performed for non-Maharashtrian audiences. Now six of his plays, translated into English, have been published as a collection. I caught up with the playwright on this occasion.

“Actually, these are the only plays that have been translated into English. I had asked Girish Karnad what can be done about these works. He got in touch with the publishers and the rest followed,” the acclaimed playwright offers the background. “English is a link language, so these plays will have wider reach now.” The plays have been translated by Gauri Deshpande, Urmila Bhirdikar, Alok Bhalla and Jayant Dhupkar, Pramod Kale, Shanta Gokhale, and Priya Adarkar.

The four plays in the first part of the collection are The Dread Departure (original Marathi Mahanirvan), Deluge (Mahapoor), The Terrorist (Atirekee) and Dynasts (Pidhijat); the second part includes Begum Barve and Mickey and Memsahib. “The first four plays deal with the father-son relationship, while ‘exploitation’ remains the theme of the last two plays,” Alekar informs.

Talking about his writing process, Alekar informs that he always writes them keeping the performance in mind. “I hold a degree in biochemistry and had nothing to do with literature. But, having seen plays from the background, whether as an organiser or otherwise, and watching and hearing several plays, I developed a fascination for this art form. In all these years, my only goal as a playwright has been to get the plays performed in front of the audience. Translation of my plays has been like an icing on the cake,” he informs.

In most of Alekar’s plays, music plays an important role. But, the music is typically Marathi. Won’t the essence and feel get lost in the translations? “Unlike the works by others, it’s not easy to translate my plays. But, I don’t mind changing my plays if that helps their adaptation into other languages. However, one must ensure that the original theme is properly transmitted,” Alekar explains. Flexibility in translation is what the playwright seems to harp on.

In this context he recalls his worries while translating Begum Barve into English for the students at the Department of Theater and Film Studies, University of Georgia, USA. “I narrated to them the tradition of Marathi music and they listened to the Marathi songs. They also went through a series of photographs of old Pune, as I wanted them to get into that mindset to feel the original play,” Alekar informs.

The plays in the collection were written between 1973 and 2003. How will he describe the transition of his creativity over this period of 30 years, I ask. “It’s very difficult to answer this. All I can say is, I draw the stories from the world that I see in Pune city, the changes that this city has undergone, the characters, the restlessness --- they all find places in my plays,” he replies. “But, that doesn’t mean the plays are essentially Pune-centric,” he adds. To elaborate the point, he cites The Dread Departure, which was inspired by the shifting of the Pune’s crematorium’s location. The play looks at death --- a universal inevitable --- which is not a comfortable subject to deal with. But, Alekar presents it as a comedy perhaps to defuse the fear that surrounds this inevitable.

The play The Terrorist was written in 1990, much before the Babri Masjid demolition and 9/11 attacks. The play shows how religion can be used to change people’s negative perception about violence and terrorism into a positive one and the terrorists are glorified. “I won’t say the play was prophetic, but yes things were deteriorating and I thought it right to raise voice against the divisive forces,” Alekar reveals.

I wonder how different his plays might have been, had he set them in the present context? “Not much, I think, because the issues that my plays deal with --- the changing value systems or corruption, for example --- are still relevant. Maybe, they can be updated slightly here and there, provided the rationale remains intact,” affirms the playwright, who is known as one of the most progressive writers in post-Independence India. “In fact some of my students did perform it recently and it didn’t seem to be out of place at all.”

We go back to a playwright’s role. “In Marathi plays, the playwright’s philosophy takes the centrestage. The director and the actors support it through their respective roles. Whether it’s the late Vijay Tendulkar or Mahesh Elkunchwar or me --- that’s how it has been all throughout. Therefore, it’s important to understand the mind of the playwright. That’s what I tell my students also so that the performance, as the playwright wanted, takes the pivotal role,” Alekar says, as he gets ready for yet another performance of his play.