Mahesh Elkunchwar has been an abiding influence on the country’s avant-garde theatre movement for over five decades, next only to Vijay Tendulkar. Holi, Pratibimb, Vasanakand, Atma Katha and the Wada Chirebandi trilogy are among his best-known plays. Conferred this year’s Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award for lifetime achievement, the playwright spoke to Ambarish Mishra on issues ranging from his evolution as a dramatist to growing intolerance in the country
Your plays spin a web of characters who, while being caught in quicksands, display an Olympian will to uphold certain values. Has the dilemma deepened for conscientious citizens?
Yes, it has. We are neck-deep in the quicksands. True, my characters fight against all odds to retain their dignity and values. This is how I perceive them. I attribute the perception to my roots in the village where I saw how the poor struggled hard for what was most precious to them — their dignity and values. Women were the most exploited and abused, and yet they soared to such spiritual heights, and towered over their suffering. A social structure that inflicts such misery on women is in no way excusable. But the fact remains that the underprivileged and women emerged as great survivors because they had an inexhaustible faith in life.
However, everything changed drastically after Independence — for the worse. People, particularly from the heartland, have lost faith in life. How do you explain farmer suicides almost every other day? They seem almost ruthlessly determined to end their lives. Sadly, it has assumed the enormity of an epidemic. I’ve spoken about this dark, all-pervading desapir in ‘Yugant’, my play in the ‘Wada Chirebandi’ trilogy.
Having spent your early years in a small village in Vidarbha, how did you nourish your sensibilities? Did seclusion help the artist in you?
I was fortunate to have been born in a highly educated family. We were considerably welloff, but led a spartan life. Books were the only luxury allowed to us — and music. My father introduced me to Zola and Balzac when I was ten. Such inputs must have gone a long way to nurture my sensibilities. I didn’t exactly live a secluded life. I loved the sound and smell of the village, mingled with people. Back home I would be in the company of great books and music. I would say living two lives came naturally to me. Or were they two lives? Maybe it was one life, richer than most.
You, Vijay Tendulkar, Vijaya Mehta and Satyadev Dube shaped the parallel theatre movement in Maharashtra. How robust is experimental theatre today?
Frankly, I have no idea. As I live in Nagpur I am splendidly cut off from key theatre centres. I do get to see some experimental works once in a while. I find them good. However, what I miss today is a group of young artists and playwrights eager to delve deep into theatre like, for instance, Rangayan, the group set up in Mumbai by Vijay Tendulkar, Vijaya Mehta and others. A well-knit group of artists fired by the desire to explore ( I call them ‘seekers’) can bring about a robust change in theatre.
Theatre critics describe you, along with Vijay Tendulkar, as torchbearers of experimental theatre. How different are you from him?
I am always surprised when I am compared with Tendulkar. We are so different in terms of our vision, perception of life and our priorities. It was impossible for me to write like him even if I had so desired. It’s true that Tendulkar has been an inspirational figure. But if I’ve had any insights into theatre it was because of Vijayabai (Mehta). We shared similar concerns and ideas about what theatre should be and what it should aim to accomplish.
Do you feel helpless amidst cases of growing intolerance in the country?
Helpless and sad. It’s not a question of an individual or a section of society. Growing intolerance is proof of the steady and relentless erosion of everything that we held sacred. It is deeply unsettling to see the country getting more and more fractious and violent. There is menace in the air. Would I be dubbed a traitor because I love my Muslim and Christian friends? And I do have a few. Would it be treason if I said that the Indian Constitution is my holy book and following it to the tee is my religious belief ? Would it be ‘rashtradroh’ to say that Junaid Khan’s murder (on a train in 2017) left every family in India scarred — as if every household had lost its own young one?
What role do you see for the political class in the field of literature and the arts?
None. They should be literate first. Why invite them in a china shop? If politicians adore glamorous filmstars as their cultural icons, and if their idea of culture is confined to Lavani and Koli dance then I don’t think there is any hope for the country. Gone are the days of Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi when culture, with its myriad sub-texts, constituted a vibrant force that held the country together.
You’ve almost stopped writing plays, taking to essays instead. Have you outgrown theatre?
Theatre was not adequate anymore for what I was seeking from it: a union of creative minds. None of my contemporaries were keen to share my yearning. Disillusioned, I gradually moved away from