Premanand Gajvi (1947-present) is a Marathi playwright, writer and poet. He is well-known for his social commitment to effectively shape the disorganized truth of the society. His one-act play ‘Ghotbhar Paani’ has been translated into fourteen languages and another play ‘Kirwant’ has been translated into other Indian languages. His writings have been included in the school curriculum too.
On account of World Marathi Theatre Day, The Drama School Mumbai’s Neelam Sakpal interviewed Premanand Gajvi to share his experiences with theatre, art and performance.
Neelam: On account of World Marathi Theatre Day, what would you say about the present condition of Marathi theatre?
Premanand: Drama is a very serious medium of art. The purpose of theatre is primarily to awaken masses. When you talk about the traditional Marathi drama, you tend to remember or start conversations with Vishnudas Bhave. In fact, we need to remember that even before Vishnudas Bhave, there was Marathi theatre scene happening in Karnataka.
We don’t take theatre or drama seriously. Drama is a good medium to understand the social and cultural dimensions of those times. We first need to stop considering theatre as a compact way of entertainment. Secondly, it is necessary to acknowledge and recognise dramatists who take their art seriously. Which new questions and problems have arisen in this age? Who are the ones critiquing these problems?
We complete one year of demonetisation. Has any recent playwright considered showcasing the problems common man has faced due to it? In the name of the professional theatre, we tend to ignore the pressing issues of the society. Are there any plays produced on the current political and social situation of the country? From the time when Amol Palekar or Vijay Tendulkar wrote plays, there has been very little progress in experimental theatre. That’s why experimental theatre kept merging with professional theatre. This doesn’t mean that our society doesn’t have people who introspect anymore. It simply means that no one is willing to explore. That’s the scene with the theatre industry today. We have stopped taking risks and writing about real issues.
N: Playwrights nowadays only bother about festivals and awards function. That’s the time when they are seen coming together. They do not have any interest or appreciation for each other’s work. What is your observation on this matter?
P: Yes, people have now taken to celebrating festivals pompously. We have to celebrate ‘every day’ of our life. If we do not have any festivals to celebrate, we simply celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day with great fun. That’s where the drama industry is also focusing on.
What is the biggest festival for theatre artists? It is the state-level competition also known as Rajya Natya Spardha. This means December is the festival of glory because they mostly get organised in December. This competition doesn’t just receive new entries each year from larger production companies but also from smaller production groups. Some of the older productions are revived especially for such festivals.
The problem is that if the competition entails a prize, many groups will come forward to perform. That will indirectly increase the bookings of the shows. The audience has also begun appreciating only those plays that have famous star cast or the plays that have won awards. That means, a good play, according to the audience is not one that stimulates your mind but the one that wins your heart. Suppose a large drama production house earns enough money from a piece of art, then they shouldn’t have any problem to produce a new play next time. But there is no one fighting to do this. Festivals and competitions see a mix of new and old plays. The prize is also reserved for plays that have been performed earlier. What do they achieve by awarding and promoting someone who doesn’t really need any promotion? When will fresh talent stand a chance to be awarded or promoted? Ignorantly, we tend to appreciate old and experienced people and their art. On one hand, we live in modern times of gadgets but the plays we demand to see are old.
This means our heart still lingers in the history somewhere, right? Do we want to carry that history forward? I honestly believe that the question which we need to constantly talk about is whether art for art or art for life? This question is ignored in this celebratory mentality. We now see people just chasing awards and recognition. People used to seriously try to present their art differently but they are not seen doing that anymore. Instead of presenting art to people, it seems that everyone is trying to push themselves into the crowd. We can conclude that artists are not thinking about theatre anymore, they are merely looking for personal benefits.
N: Today, if writers or actors present the current socio-political scenario of the state honestly, people barge into halls to destroy the sets or inflict harm and shut the production. Some have even threatened to burn the theatres down. This means parallel censorship is on a rise. How should new artists tackle this?
P: Don’t try to think that parallel censorship is a new phenomenon. It has always existed and was equally active during Vijay Tendulkar’s time. Tendulkar had to be confronted with the sensation of censorship in his two plays – Sakharam Baindar and Ghashiram Kotwal. Well, you have people who are courageously going through all these incidents. But ultimately, fear of life remains an important aspect of these incidents. If someone comes, blackens your face, the fear of inviting harm further always stays. And it is very sad to say that there exists a group in the society that has created such fear. This is a sign that we still do not have ideological proficiency. The people who protest or oppose the play don’t really consider the central subject or message of the play. They do not even try to see the subtle work of art in it. I see this as a quick way of gaining popularity. The group that vandalises the plays always have a leader. The leader has his own agenda. They want to grab some eyeballs and that’s why they do this. Another reason could be that they don’t want the common people to introspect or question the situation at stake. This means that they want people to blindly believe in them and not use theatre or art to raise questions about injustice or wrongdoings. They don’t consider the fact that by listening to other side of the story, there might be new observations surfacing in the society. Observations like people from the history, socio-political scenarios from the past etc.
This may also mean that the playwright has an added responsibility that he shouldn’t ignore. The playwright must always ensure that his story contains elements of truth in them. If the playwright wants to put forward the truth about the society, they must also take into consideration the reaction from their audience and the risks they might put themselves in. The writer must always be proud of his story and should fearlessly communicate why he chose to explore the truth. An author or a writer must be prepared to stand against any catastrophe.
N: Suppose a writer is at the risk of being hurt and another writer does not run to help him. The writers do not have a pressure group yet. They do not have a union. Why this incompetence in spite of writers being creative?
P: This is a cultural question and this question is very old. You have a word for it, ‘cultural warfare’. Some playwrights are well established and safe and some playwrights are as they were. Because there’s monopoly of a particular group in performing arts as well. Therefore, every playwright will be able to run and help another playwright is not always possible. We have limited work for organisations that host authors. Their picture is not very optimistic. You can generally hear that some cinemas earn 100 crores or 200 crores. But then, do such organizations work for the growth of their authors? Is there any proposal of this type for the government?
The theatre bodies are just for namesake. Smaller organisations run competitions for authors and bigger theatre bodies do participate. That’s not ideal. Also, how well do we use social media for the promotion of theatre? We don’t. There are no programs or functions other than celebrating the anniversary of the organization. Do such organizations make sure that the money they pay to their playwrights is utilised wisely? How continuous are they in their methodology? Are there some new hurdles to find out how their writing improves? All these questions are unanswered. So when you think about the whole of the Marathi theatre, it does not amount to much.
N: Should a writer always have a neutral perspective while writing plays?
P: I do not think any writer can have a neutral perspective on any situation or while writing a play. But if someone attempts to do that, then we have to bring changes in our society. The need to eradicate corruption and casteism is urgent. This will have to be dealt with from its roots and we will have to bring change in our lifestyles. A human being’s perception is formed right after the birth. Some of our opinions are made up after observing the world around us. The author picks his subjects or topics from these daily situations. Before writing, the author accumulates questions, thoughts, emotions and lots of feelings. His perception and thought-process are formed that way. And suppose someone wants to write something that was not part of their life, for example, if I want to write about tribal life, and I am completely secluded from it, then the tribal life must be thoroughly understood by me before writing. To read books on it, to take thoughts and opinions of different people in it, all this should be the part of the study. When I understand this tribal life to be 70-80 percent, then I will get 40-50 percent of it in my writing. So it seems strange to write without an experience. You have to feel something to write it.
N: Shouldn’t the government help in improving the situation of artists?
P: Definitely yes, the government has certain grants that they can use in arts and performing arts. If it uses these grants in a right manner, there are chances to improve the situation of artists. But the basic problem is that our government does not want to do anything beyond the state-level-competition and festival. If they can do something at a much larger level than that, they should do so. Instead of spending money on awards, the selection committee must provide fellowships to the writers. They should motivate the writers to write beyond the ordinary. Basically, the government should also know about the art. That’s when they can execute different activities. And not everything has to be done by the government. We should also take some responsibility. We speak too broadly and judge everyone. It has to work very differently.
N: You’ve also started The Bodhi Theatre. Will it take up a different journey in theatre?
It is the same fun. What is more appropriate? Art for art or life for art? You can argue on that. But let me go a step further and say that ‘art is for knowledge’. That is the third dimension. Now, this is not my own analysis. If Buddha had done something in the past so that he attained eternal knowledge. What he did was search for an answer. This is the principle on which ‘Bodhi’ theatre organization works. They search for the right playwright.
‘Bodhi’ has done story-writing and drama workshops throughout Maharashtra. About 250 to 300 people were selected to come on board. Those who wrote, we compiled a book with them – ‘Art for Knowledge’. We added 6-7 plays in it.
The selected playwrights are not special members of ‘Bodhi’. We do not propagate their ideology. What we do is motivate them to write plays for Bodhi Drama workshops. During the workshop, we read their play and discuss it at length. This exercise helps them with feedback to develop their script further. Later we turn those scripts into plays for different festivals. Some of the plays produced by the festival are also turned into books. It means that the process of writing should continue. There should be no stop. And the work that your former playwright has done, is expected to move forward. These young selected playwrights are experimenting with subjects that we never dared to touch. We are also helping these young playwrights carve their own path. There is a need to create a separate path. But we can’t keep hoping all the time. We have to prove our talent over and over again.
Thanks to Akshay Shimpi, student convenor at The Drama School for arranging this interview. This interview has been translated from Marathi by Roshan Kokane. You can read the original interview here!