Often called the "Grande Dame" of Marathi theatre, Shanta Gokhale is a novelist, journalist, translator, and cultural/theatre critic in Mumbai, India.1 She graduated with a degree in English language and literature from the University of Bristol, UK. In addition to a variety of films and documentaries, Gokhale has published a number of books, including Playwright at the Center: Marathi Drama from 1843 to the Present (2000), Satyadev Dubey: A Fifty-year Journey through Theatre (2011), Veenapani Chawla: Theory, Practice and Performance (2014), and The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai (2015), as well as her translation of Lakshmibai Tilak's Smritichtre: The Memoir of a Spirited Wife (2017). The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale, edited by Jerry Pinto, was released in 2018, and her autobiography, One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told through the Body, was published in 2019.

I met Shanta at her home in Shivaji Park, Mumbai on April 18, 2014. She was one of the twenty-eight female Indian artists I chose to interview during my Fulbright that year. I was primarily interested in Indian women playwrights, but as we drank tea and munched on cookies, Shanta shared with me her stories of the rich history in Marathi Theatre and culture, as well as her perspective on the current state of the art, which confirmed much of what I had been hearing from the broad range of interviewees I encountered in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Pondicherry, and Calcutta.

Familiar with the history of classical Indian dance/drama, its origins in Sanskrit, and its primary influence from Hinduism as depicted in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, I set out with a series of questions regarding contemporary Indian women playwrights based on that knowledge, as well as my awareness of the significant role that feminism has played in the history of India as a nation. What I discovered, however, was the remarkably diverse array of artistic challenges the artists encounter, many of which are discussed in the following interview (for example, the lack of education in playwriting throughout the country, the prevalence of censorship, and the limitations caused by the diverse languages spoken throughout the country). The playwrights also spoke of an absence of copyright protection/unionization for artists and minimal funding, which caused many of the women to look toward the UK for opportunities in training and financial support, as well as the ongoing trials of being female in a male-dominated profession and culture.2

SHIRLEY HUSTON-FINDLEY:

I'm curious about why you titled your 2000 book Playwright at the Center.

SHANTA GOKHALE:

Because it focuses on four famous playwrights from Maharashtra: Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar, and G. P. Deshpande.3 Their plays were translated long ago.

SHF:

Did they all make a living as writers?

SG:

One [partly] did—Tendulkar, because he was a journalist as well.

SHF:

Has playwriting ever been a viable profession in India? 

Fig 1. Cover of Jerry Pinto's edited volume .
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Fig 1.

Cover of Jerry Pinto's edited volume The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale (2018).

 

SG:

In Maharashtra, the situation is different [from other regions in India], because we have a very strong professional theatre. These are people who belong to the so-called experimental theatre. Experimental not in terms of avant-garde, but not doing the commercially sellable things.

SHF:

So the people doing the commercial stuff are making a living?

SG:

Yes, there are periods in Marathi theatre where some pretty important experiments have been carried out, but by and large it is theatre for entertainment and it tends to fall into certain formulas.

SHF:

It's like our Broadway.

SG:

It's like your Broadway, exactly. Without all the jazz. We can't afford that.

SHF:

And so historically, [playwriting] has not been a profession?

SG:

Historically, it has been … this tradition of playwriting started with people who were actually living off theatre and that has continued. That's where mainstream theatre comes from, in Maharashtra. People began experimenting [with modern theatre] around the 1930s, and it was after 1960 or 1955 that there was a surge. I think it was an international surge [in the] '60s, '70s.

SHF:

Several political and theatrical movements were happening.

SG:

They touched Mumbai particularly. So a lot of interesting theatre began to happen then.

SHF:

Is playwriting taught as a skill or a craft in a way that acting is taught?

SG:

See, here it's different because here people learn on the job. Because we are so completely surrounded by theatre and constantly watching theatre, reading plays and people seem to just magically develop an instinct for writing. By osmosis, generally, yes. There are 3,000 scripts floating around of reasonable plays and only a few of them get produced, so it's a kind of—somehow I think it's for us, a natural expression—theatre. Also, because the way things are organized in our theatre, as it happens, is that there's a theatre group and it has its writers. So what the writer writes automatically gets produced. Outside of that there is no profession. There are people who have scripts lined up, but there's no channel, nothing laid down that you can follow. No agents, nothing.

SHF:

No agents, no copyright law that helps get them paid, no union …?

SG:

It's not professionalized.

SHF:

Many people, perhaps because of all of that, really are not writing plays, but devising theatre for themselves.

SG:

I think it's also a question of this idea that a ready-made script is a ready-made script and kill the author, we don't want the playwright, the playwright is dead. We create our own plays in which actors have input in which they feel more invested, so the play turns out to speak more to people than if you pick up a script that someone sitting somewhere else has written and you put life into it. It's a trend, actually. So a lot of people, and certainly feminists, do want to devise theatre because there are very few feminist scripts being done.

SHF:

Someone said about you: "With her tart, some say opinionated reviews in Mumbai's popular English dailies, she is also that most misunderstood of things, a bridge between the English-speaking chattering classes, and the serious stolid world of vernacular theatre."

SG:

(Laughs) I like being tart if the play deserves it!

SHF:

What do they mean by that?

SG:

We have, unfortunately, very strong linguistic divides. If you're living in Mumbai where there are theatres performing in a variety of different languages, you would expect that people who love theatre would want to see all of them. However, language is seen as a barrier, and that becomes the major problem in each side understanding the other. So I guess what they mean is that since I have this regular culture column in which I review Marathi plays, I review Gujarati plays, Hindi plays, as well as English plays, so my readers read about the other plays even if they don't go and see them.

The plain fact is that most educated men and women can only speak English. They have lost their mother tongues, completely. Ask them to speak two lines and they can't manage. They don't read in their language; they certainly don't write in those languages. There are very, very, very few people who are genuinely bilingual and expressive in both languages. So it's actually for them not a choice; they only have that one language. As it happens, it's a universal language, so that is advantageous for them.

SHF:

Even if it does give them broader coverage in terms of it being a universal language, they're also limiting themselves away from those areas where they do speak their mother tongue.

SG:

Yes, but again it's a question of class divide. Because in India there are [many] Indias. And [educated] India is very happy to be with itself and people like us. There are other Indias, and they're continuing to survive. It doesn't matter to us what they're doing or what they're saying, so they don't feel that [the class divide] is a huge disadvantage at all.

Fig 2. Cover of Lakshtilai Mibak's .
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Fig 2.

Cover of Lakshtilai Mibak's Smritichtre: The Memoir of a Spirited Wife (2017).

 

SHF:

You wrote this about mapping Marathi theatre: "It was only after the advent of cinema that mainstream theatre became a reflection of middle-class mores, and now dealt exclusively with middle-class problems set in middle-class drawing rooms. This is the class that has kept mainstream theatre alive in Maharashtra until today." If that's true, what will become of experimental theatre? Does it have a future?

SG:

It does. It does because experimental theatre, even in its heyday, had only a small audience, always. Experimental theatre didn't ever expect itself to survive on earnings. So experimental theatre will continue for as long as—even what happens every day, practically, at Prithvi Theatre is experimental theatre.4 Put any of those plays on the mainstream stage and they'll flop.

SHF:

I want to read this quote as well. You wrote: "Till the early 1990s, the mainstream theatre offered scope for cautious shifts in theme and form as long as play endings where happy and the plays contained a few fine speeches. Thereafter, coinciding with the economic boom, theatre became not just conventional but often positively regressive." In regards to the early '90s, that is the point at which India opened its doors to commerce, particularly with the West, right?  

Fig 3. Cover of Shanta Gokhale's .
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Fig 3.

Cover of Shanta Gokhale's One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told through the Body (2019).

 

SG:

It changed everything in the sense that money became the main value. If earlier, people would say "I mean, come on, put money from your pocket. You want to do theatre, that's the only way to do it. You have jobs, you're earning. Put a bit of that money into theatre." And that's how it survived. It is no longer so. Partly because to survive now, in cities, has become so much more expensive because of this whole economic boom where entire sections of people are getting salaries that make me kind of faint! So if they're getting those kinds of salaries, everyone wants to match up. Everyone has aspirations. And yet, having said that, I wouldn't say that it has affected the mainstream theatre here to such a great extent, and I think it is because, ultimately, what theatre people want is audiences. In Mumbai, even today, for a Marathi play, their tickets are priced pretty low because theatre people know that their audience is very middle class, sometimes lower middle class, and they want to hold onto them. So ticket prices, if they're raised, are raised very cautiously.

But again, there is a difference between Marathi theatre and Gujarati theatre.5 The Gujarati community is 90 percent business. People say "Have you ever met a poor Gujarati?" And your answer is "No." So if they go to one of your plays, the sets have to be jazzy, costumes have to be glamorous, and speech has to be loud and clear. Comedy has to be crude, and generally it has to allow people to laugh rather than think. Not one moment of thought is expected from you. But the community [End Page E-5] loves their theatre. And entire families will go for an evening out. An evening out means eating a lot in the interval and then going out for dinner, so it's a package. And theatre people understand that they're part of this larger package. So Gujarati theatre charges I think at least four times what the Marathi theatre charges.

SHF:

Are those same people at all interested in the experimental theatre?

SG:

Some of them are not. But a couple of shows that have done extremely well are, in fact, experimental. There's one absolutely wonderful show that's been written by a farmer living in one of the most arid areas of Maharashtra, and he, along with certain leftist theatre people here, combine together and produce this fantastic theatre. It's full of music, full of peppy argument, and it's really taking the pants off rightists, whose big icon is Shivaji.6 And the crux of this play is: You don't even know Shivaji. Listen to us talk about him. It's called Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla. Bhimnagar is the Dalit colony.7 Bhimnagar Mohalla is that area. One half, the half that is at war with the rightists, are Dalits. And they are saying, "Of course he was a great man, but great for what? Not for the things you think, but for these other things."

SHF:

I was surprised at how much censorship is going on right now in India.

SG:

Right now, what's happening is that there are these different forms of chauvinistic nationalism. You can be a group of ten, but if you get up and say that our religious feelings have been hurt, then unfortunately there's a law which supports you. That is what is happening now. Censorship, state censorship, has always existed. And there have been three or four famous cases where plays have been sought to be banned. Legal cases have been fought, finally won, but it's been the state that has censored these plays.

SHF:

And I believe [Maharashtra is] the only state in India that has a censor board.

SG:

Probably, yes. It is here because of our long tradition of theatre, and it is also here that a lot of plays came under the Dramatic Performance Act, which the British had provided. So we've continued with that kind of thing. Religious friction has always existed, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. So to guard against that friction flaring up into something bigger, this law has been promulgated. Now small groups are taking advantage of it, and there's a whole movement asking for that law to be repealed.

SHF:

Who is participating in that? Are they artists or politicians?

SG:

No, no, never politicians. They want both sides of their toast buttered. So they don't risk these things. But it's the civil society, the liberals and the seculars, who feel that there should be open debate, views should be expressed, can be challenged but can't be banned. It's now because of the social media. Everything happens there.

SHF:

Do you think the profession is different for women playwrights?

SG:

The Marathi theatre industry is dominated entirely by men. There's one very brave woman producer. And apart from her, the others are all males. But I do think that women don't feel too confident about approaching producers until they make a name for themselves in other ways. So one of our most well-known women playwrights, Sai Paranjpye, she's one of those feisty women who has done some wonderfully popular films and written plays. She has a certain standing. And if Sai goes to a producer, the producer is going to listen to her. But one can't say the same for other women. There is one very young playwright now, woman playwright, Irawati Karnik, and her play is doing impressively well. Gasha was very experimental, but this one is in the mainstream. It's called Chapa Kata. I reviewed it. It's a clever play. She's very closely associated with a group in Bangalore through which she did Gasha, and at the same time she wants to be in the mainstream theatre because that's where the money is.

Fig 4. Cover of Shanta Gokhale's .
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Fig 4.

Cover of Shanta Gokhale's The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai (2015).

 

Women haven't ever said, "Woe is me, I can't do theatre." They seem to be very happy writing short stories and stuff like that. I think also because there is a kind of hurly-burly in theatre production, and with all their home duties they don't really have the time to get involved. See, Irawati is married to a theatre person so they do it together. Children are just out of the question if you want to do anything at all. But even, strangely, even on the experimental stage, there haven't been women writers, where there was no question of big money, no question of big production houses, nothing of the kind.

SHF:

Tell me about the work you're doing now. It's a book that you're working on.

SG:

It's basically documentation through oral history. And we've begun with a space, which no longer exists, but if you talk to a lot of the older theatre people, whether it's English or Hindi or Marathi, all languages flowered in that place and it was a unique thing. It was like a cultural hub. It was an old bungalow, which was converted into this cultural space. There were studios for artists, there was Ravi Shankar with his music school, there were theatre people, there were sculptors, there was even a puppeteer.8 … For about five or six years it was like everyone in the arts was intermingling, interacting, watching each other's work, discussions galore, and then that place was sold. And some of the high-rises came in. 

I think around '66 the whole thing had closed down. There was one key person who was a link from then all the way to three years ago, when he died. I've done a book on him also—Satyadev Dubey. He had a friend who was an industrialist, a manufacturer of cars who was mad about theatre. So he said, "Why are you griping, what do you want?" So Dubey said, "I want a space where we can rehearse! Forget about performing, performing we can do, but a space to rehearse in." So he said, "Okay, I'll give you that space." So for the next seven years Dubey practically lived there. And theatre people from all over, whether it was Calcutta or Delhi. And then these outsiders would flake out there, get up in the morning, they would have breakfast on the pavement outside because there were food carts there, and they'd carry on with their business. So it was again that kind of a space with a lot of buzz, and because it was free they could treat themselves to the luxury of rehearsing for months on end till they felt that the play was ready to go onstage. And it also allowed them, actually, to be doing two plays at a time. So during that time Dubey directed two plays per year practically. Then this gentleman's brother said, "I want to convert that space into a sound studio." So that was gone. That was the second space.

Meanwhile, an actor couple, where the wife was a teacher, was in talks with the school authorities to let her group use the upstairs hall where children's annual gatherings used to take place, etcetera. And she managed to get that space. And then what they did was to open up that space to all the theatre groups who were looking for space to rehearse in, to perform in, and that's the third space. Then that was the '90s when the school authorities said, "We can make more money out here. We don't want you." But meanwhile Prithvi was flourishing and National Center for the Performing Arts [in Mumbai] was flourishing, so I don't think people then really were as stuck for spaces as they had been earlier.

SHF:

Is there anything about you, your work, the theatre, Marathi theatre, India, anything that I haven't asked that you'd like for me to know?

SG:

I think actually you've covered a whole lot of stuff.

SHF:

Thank you for sharing with me.

 

Notes

Marathi theatre, which is theatre in the Marathi language, can be found primarily in Maharashtra and various diasporic locations. It has a rich theatre tradition and tremendously supportive audience, but unlike other Indian states, such as Chennai in the south, it does not have a history of traditional dance/drama. Marathi stories developed out of the epics Ramayana and The Mahabharata, while much of the contemporary drama includes a wide variety of influences, including Shakespeare and other Western playwrights.

See India Theatre Forum's "best practices" guidelines at http://theatreforum.in/m/bestpractices as an example of educating actors, choreographers, directors, producers, playwrights, adaptors, and translators about standard practices regarding copyright, plagiarism, attribution, and so on.

Vijay Tendulkar (1928–2008) was the leading Marathi playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and journalist of his time. Mahesh Elkunchwar (1939–) is a Marathi playwright and screenwriter and is also noted for his participation in Parallel Cinema, a counterpart to the commercial film industry known as Bollywood. Satish Alekar (1949–) is a well-known Marathi playwright, director, and actor, as well as a founding member of the Theatre Academy of Pune. G. P. Deshpande (1938–2013) was a Marathi playwright known for his insight on culture and politics, which can be found in his collection, Dialectics of Defeat: Problems of Culture in Post-Colonial India.

Prithvi Theatre is a repertory theatre located in Mumbai. See prithvitheatre.org for more information.

Gujarati theatre, which is theatre in the Gujarati language, can be found mainly in the Indian state of Gujarat (located on the western coast of India just below Pakistan), as well as throughout Maharashtra and a variety of diasporic regions around the globe. Gujarati theatre has a number of influences, including folk traditions, Portuguese missionaries, and British colonization.

Shivaji (or Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj), a seventeenth-century Indian warrior and king, is known as the founder of the Maratha Empire.

It is important to remember that discrimination on the basis of caste is unlawful in the Indian Constitution, but still persists in traditional attitudes. "Dalit colony" is a term used to identify an area, village, or neighborhood inhabited by a particular Hindu ethnic group associated with the Scheduled Caste in India. A Scheduled Caste Hindu is socially excluded, because it is at the bottom of the caste system, with Brahmins at the top. Also known as Dalits, they experience discrimination in most areas of life, including financial, educational, and health care. Dalits make up approximately 16 percent of the population in India. For further information regarding the protection and distinction of this Scheduled Caste, see http://bit.ly/30QtEvC.

Ravi Shankar (1920–2012) is best known for his mastery of classical Hindustani music, specifically for the sitar. In popular culture, he is recognized as both George Harrison's teacher and Norah Jones's father.

 

Works Cited

Deshpande, G. P. Dialectics of Defeat: Problems of Culture in Post-Colonial India. Calcutta: Seagull, 2006. Print.

Gokhale, Shanta. Playwright at the Center: Marathi Drama from 1843 to the Present. Calcutta: Seagull, 2000. Print.

———, ed. Satyadev Dubey: A Fifty-year Journey through Theatre. New Delhi: Niyogi, 2011. Print.

———, ed. Veenapani Chawla: Theory, Practice and Performance. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.

———, ed. The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2015. Print.

———. One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told through the Body. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2019. Print.

Pinto, Jerry, ed. The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2018. Print.

Tilak, Lakshmibai. Smritichtre: The Memoir of a Spirited Wife. Trans. Shanta Gokhale. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2017. Print.

 

Recommended Reading

Bhatia, Nandi. Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004. Print.

Chaturvedi, Ravi. "Theatre Research and Publication in India: An Overview of the Post-Independence Period." Theatre Research International 35.1 (2010): 66–67. Print.

Chaudhuri, Maitrayee, ed. Feminism in India. London: Zed, 2004. Print.

Daiya, Kavita. Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender, and National Culture in Postcolonial India. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2008. Print.

Dharwadker, Aparna. Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance since 1947. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2005. Print.

Dimitrova, Diana. Gender, Religion and Modern Hindi Drama. Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 2008. Print.

Mee, Erin B. Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage. New York: Seagull, 2008. Print.

Mukherjee, Tutun. Staging Resistance: Plays by Women in Translation. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Paul, Rajinder, ed. Contemporary Indian Theatre: Interviews with Playwrights and Directors. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 2006. Print.

Singh, Anita, and Taran Tapas Mukherjee. Gender, Space and Resistance. New Delhi: DK Printworld, 2013. Print.

Subramanyam, Lakshmi, ed. Muffled Voices: Women in Modern Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Shakti, 2002. Print.

Tiwari, Shubha, ed. Contemporary Indian Dramatists. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2011. Print.