Vijay Tendulkar (1928-2008)
By Balwant Bhaneja
Vijay Tendulkar, one of India's most influential
playwrights, died on May 19 in Pune. He was among the handful of playwrights
along with Girish Karnad, Habib Tanvir, and Badal Sircar who gave a
new content and form to Indian theater, writing about contemporary issues
and themes in a novel way.
Tendulkar's prolific writing over a period of
five decades includes thirty full-length plays, seven one-acts, six
collections of children's plays, four of short stories, two novels,
and seventeen film scripts. He was, in my view, a giant among these
modern Indian playwrights, both in terms of the volume and quality of
his dramatic creations -- a subtle observer of Indian social reality,
a humanist, an innovative playwright who continuously experimented with
form and structures. He was known for his insightful "objectification"
in the development of multi-layered characters whose existential angst
was held up against the social crises of the society.
In an interview, Tendulkar once said, "I have
not written about hypothetical pain or created an imaginary world of
sorrow. I am from a middle class family and I have seen the brutal ways
of life by keeping my eyes open. My work has come from within me, as
an outcome of my observation of the world in which I live. If they want
to entertain and make merry, fine go ahead, but I can't do it, I have
to speak the truth." 
Tendulkar's plays have dealt with themes that
unravel the exploitation of power and latent violence in human relationships.
As he noted: "the basic urge (to write) has always been to let out my
concerns vis à vis my reality: the human condition as I perceive it."
Women play a central role in Tendulkar's plays.
His female characters are mainly from the lower and middle classes:
housewives, teachers, mistresses, daughters, film extras, slaves, and
servants. These women bring not just variety of social station but also
a broad range of emotions into the plays: "from the unbelievably gullible
to the clever, from the malleable to the stubborn, from the conservative
to the rebellious, from the self-sacrificing to the grasping." 
His characters are often composites of contradictory
personalities struggling between emotion and intellect; espoused values
and conflicting actions; seeking independence yet submissive, struggling
between physical desires and conscience. Tendulkar tended to minimize
his personal influence on these characters and their personality development.
They are in the play "with their own minds, ways and destiny," he said.
In the New York Times review of Sakharam
Binder (Sakharam, the Bookbinder, 1972), staged by the
Play Company in 2004, drama critic Jonathan Kalb described Tendulkar's
characterization, which instead of demonizing the coarse bookbinder
leaves the viewer with an understanding of his helplessness in a certain
sense. Kalb noted that the Bookbinder's tragedy turned out "to hinge
on his budding social consciousness, his arrested enlightenment. He
can see -- almost -- an idea of equality and shared humanity that transcends
individual appetite, but nothing in his life (including the women) ever
encourages him to follow its logic. Like Brecht's Mother Courage, he
exploits a corrupt system for personal advantage, then discovers that
the price of playing the game is everything he hoped to protect. Unlike
Brecht, though, Mr. Tendulkar never judges his protagonist but concentrates
instead on painting him with unsettling compassion, perceptiveness and
After a month-long New York festival of his plays
and films organized by the Indo-American Arts Council in 2004, I congratulated
Tendulkar on the success of Sakharam. He made the following
I watched Sakharam in New York in
performance with a predominantly alien audience. I found that the
play, without any changes to suit the audience there except the bedroom
scenes which were naturally un-Indian in their presentation, appeals
to their sensitivity and penetrates deep enough. Its Indian-ness does
not come in the way at all. In fact the producers tell me that normally
an American audience does not watch an American play with so much
attentiveness and involvement. How will you explain this? What is
universality? I am sharing this with you and have not drawn any conclusion.
In my reply, I pointed to two possible reasons
for the positive response from an "alien" audience: one, a curiosity
to know what's happening on the other side of the fence, a sort of "cultural
voyeurism." One gets hooked if the arguments are being made coherently,
which is often the case in Tendulkar's plays due to the didactic nature
of his writing. And two, once the unusual premise of the play is understood
and appreciated, one follows the unraveling of characters and their
motivations. The motivations of Sakharam, Laxmi, and Champa, for example,
are certainly universal and able to bring about a transcending effect
on the viewer. Agreeing with my broad-brush analysis, the author wrote
back that universality in motivations and emotions of characters can
indeed enable a play to cut across cultural gaps.
Arundhati Banerjee, an observer of Tendulkar's
work, notes that none of his creations are ever simplistic -- "like
his genius, they too have the same prismatic quality of giving forth
new meanings as one turns them around in the light of one's understanding."
 His plays therefore continue to be enigmatic, raising more questions
than easy or comfortable answers. Tendulkar's work is endowed with an
unusual subtlety that raises the plays above hackneyed social melodrama.
The inner core of these works is rooted in his
deep compassion and respect for human life -- for life in the social
reality of post-colonial India. Seeing its exploitation and waste, his
response was an unrelenting literary output and non-stop social activism.
Until his death, he was involved in causes, fiercely seeking justice
for the victimized--mainly the poor and those disfranchised by communal
riots and structural violence. Unlike the makers of the confrontational
theater of the late 1980s, he did not believe that an evening at the
theater would change the society, but he was always hopeful that a good
play could raise public awareness.
Tendulkar never shrank from public controversy
as it gave him a unique opportunity to engage his opponents in public
discourse. There has been hardly a play by him that has not ended up
in controversy. Most of the calls for banning his plays did not, surprisingly,
come from the government but from particular segments of the public
who saw in his dramatizations attacks on their power positions--challenges
to caste, gender or class structures. His most visible play, Ghasiram
Kotwal (Ghasiram -- Chief Inspector), which had 6000 performances
in India and abroad, had problems when it opened in 1972. It was stopped
because the right-wing Hindu nationalist RSS found it "anti-Brahmin"
and described the negative depiction of the noble character Nana Phadnavis
as historically inaccurate.
Tendulkar came to the defense of the play, pointing
out that Ghasiram Kotwal was not a historical play: "It is
a story, in prose, verse, music and dance set in a historical era. Ghasirams
are creations of socio-political forces which know no barriers of time
and place. Although based on a historical legend, I have no intention
of commentary on the morals, or lack of them, of the Peshwas, Nana Phadnavis
or Ghasiram. The moral of the story, if there is any, may be looked
for elsewhere." 
During the remount of the play in 1980 for the
Berlin International Theater Festival, similar protests were repeated
prior to the troupe's departure from India. This time, right-wing Shiv
Sena activists went to court to get a stay order on the planned international
tour. The artists had to resort to police protection. The court issued
an order requiring that before each performance a statement approved
by the Court had to be read. This statement publicly praised the achievements
of Nana Phadanvis, stating that the play was not based on true history.
The company followed the court order, and the play had a successful
tour of Western Europe with twenty-five performances. It received enthusiastic
reviews in The London Times, The Guardian, Der Speigel, and
New Theatre Quarterly. 
Tendulkar's large body of work represents an
interesting amalgam of content and structure. In his plays, he has experimented
with almost every form -- from traditional folk techniques in Ghasiram
-- Chief Inspector, with fifty characters dancing on the stage,
to the minimalist Beckettian bicyclist journey in Safar/Cyclewallah
(1993) and The Masseur (2003), a full-length one-man play
with a bench as the only prop, to his last play, His Fifth Woman
(2004), in which the two protagonists wait outside a hospital with a
woman's body in a hand cart. He always insisted that the structure of
his plays was driven by the characters, and it is that uniqueness that
brought out their broad thematic impact.
With such a voluminous oeuvre written over fifty
years, most of it in the author's mother tongue Marathi, it may be too
early for a comprehensive assessment of Tendulkar. Such assessment will
be likely limited to his translated work if it occurs in the West. His
notable creations are at the beginning and end of his career. Shanata!
Court Chalu Ahe (1968), Ghasiram Kotwal (1972), and Sakharam
Binder (1972) remain his outstanding plays for their bold societal
themes and layered characterizations. At the other end, Safar
(1993) and His Fifth Woman (2004) are the best examples of
his lean, minimalistic phase. At his ripe age, he tackled these plays'
difficult themes about the meaning of life without straining to be philosophical
or profound. Both have an unusual light touch despite their heavy themes.
In between is a trio of plays: Baby (1975), Kamala
(1982), and Kanyadan (1983). These are insightful studies of
women written as conventional three-act social dramas with his characteristically
penetrating dialogue and characterization.
I was fortunate to have worked with Vijay Tendulkar
on the last two plays, bringing out the English translation of Safar
(The Cyclist) and His Fifth Woman (his only play in English)
with Oxford University Press in 2006. These works, unlike his others,
are replete with laughter. The Cyclist, about the adventure
of life seen through a bicyclist's journey, was first broadcast on BBC
World Service in 1998 and later performed by Toronto's Maya Theatre
at the Harbourfront Centre in 2004. His Fifth Woman was specially
written for the New York Tendulkar Festival in October 2004. Directed
by Sturgis Warner for the Lark Theater Company, it explored the question
of death and afterlife in the context of injustices suffered by women
in male-female relationships. It did this in a most unusual way: the
play has a chorus of crows (as in the Aristophanes's comedies) who transform
the grimness of the theme into hilarity and also expose the hypocrisy
of certain Hindu religious rituals performed at death.
Delivering the prestigious Sri Ram Memorial Lectures
for Performing Arts in 1997 in New Delhi, Tendulkar summed up his lifelong
involvement in theater as follows:
What I like about those years is that they
made me grow as a human being. And theater which was my major concern
has contributed to this in a big way. It helped to analyze life--my
own and lives of others. It led me to make newer and newer discoveries
in the vast realm of the human mind that still defies all available
theories and logic. It's like an ever-intriguing puzzle or a jungle
that you can always enter but has no way out. Not that I am any wiser
than the fool I was when I entered the theater. I still act like a
fool and think like one; but there is a difference. Now I am aware
of what I am doing while I do it. I am my own audience and the critic,
if one may use the language of the theater. Now I enjoy my foolishness
and laugh at it; and of course the foolishness of others too, at times.
1. Sumit Saxena, "A Conversation with sir Vijay
Tendulkar," Passion for Cinema, 20 December, 2006.
2. Vijay Tendulkar, Five Plays (Bombay:
Oxford University Press, 1992). The five plays translated in this book
are: Kamala, Silence! The Court is in Session, Sakharam Binder,
The Vultures, and Encounter in Umbugland. See the Introduction
by Arundhati Banerjee, p.x.
3. Shanta Gokhle, "Tendulkar on his Own Terms,"
in Geeta Rajan and Shoma Choudhry (eds), Vijay Tendulkar (New-Delhi:
Katha, 2001), p. 81.
4. Vijay Tendulkar, The Play is the Thing
(New-Delhi: Sri Ram Memorial Lecture, 1997), p.15.
5. Jonathan Kalb, "An Indian Father Courage,
Using and Losing Women." New York Times, November 3, 2004.
6. Arundhati Banerjee, Introduction to Vijay
Tendulkar, Five Plays, p xix.
7. Vijay Tendulkar, Ghasiram Kotwal,
English trans. (Seagull Books, 1986). Quoted in introduction by Samik
Bandyopadhyay, p. iv.
8. Ramu Ramanathan, "Play the Devil,"
Tehalka Newspaper online, Nov 12, 2005.
9. Vijay Tendulkar, The Play is the Thing,