Window on U.S.A.

Playwright Tendulkar – A Major Hit in New York

 Raj S. Rangarajan

The man was relaxed, sporting his trademark beard and clad in a polo neck sweater and scraggly loafers. In his element – in a theater setting with admiring fans – he seemed happy and at peace talking theater. I am referring to veteran playwright Vijay Tendulkar – in town – to participate in the month-long Tendulkar festival presented by Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC) and theater groups in Manhattan, New York.

Comfortable in his Indianness and conscious that he was admired for his talent, 76-year-old Tendulkar’s cool demeanour spoke volumes of his confidence and acceptance as a playwright with spunk…a creative original who had reached but had yet to write his last play. Tendulkar reminisced of how even as an infant he had been to plays since “my parents were very much interested in theater.”


The festival is indeed a tribute to Vijay Tendulkar’s prolific genius who has influenced – perhaps dominated – the Marathi stage with his 30 full-length plays, 23 one-acts, and eight screenplays. He has translated nine novels and two biographies into Marathi, and among the plays, eleven were for children and has also written short stories and essays on social criticism.


Apart from Sakharam Binder, at The Play Company in Manhattan, which is currently running, directed superbly by Maria Mileaf, starring Bernard White as Sakharam with Anna George (Laxmi), Sarita Choudhury (Champa) as Sakharam’s women, the festival includes play readings of Kamala, Mitrachi Goshta, Ghasiram Kotwal and Tendulkar’s newest play written completely in English – His Fifth Woman - directed by Sturgis Warner. The program includes screenings of films such as Arth (Shabana Azmi), Ardhya Satya (Om Puri), Nishant (Smita Patil).

Bernard White (Sakharam Binder) and Anna George 
(Laxmi) in the play - Sakharam Binder


This versatile screen and television writer, essayist and journalist was much ahead of his times. When his Sakharam Binder was released it 1972 it was surrounded with controversy since Sakharam, a brahmin by birth went against then society’s norms. The central character Sakharam is a bookbinder by profession but he fiercely opposes the hypocrisy seen in the institution of marriage. Through his character and those of the two women - Lakshmi & Champa, Tendulkar reaches into the depths of physical lust and violence in human beings. The other two characters in the play are Dawood, Sakharam's Muslim friend and Fowzdar Shinde, Champa's husband.


Lark's public reading of Vijay Tendulkar's His Fifth Woman


Interestingly, at a recent showing, thirty-pluses and forty-pluses comprised the audience – folks who were not even born or were just infants when Sakharam Binder debuted in India. Bernard White acquitted himself creditably as a tough, no-nonsense male and Anna George and Sarita Choudhary (Mississippi Masala) as dutiful women.


For the first time Tendulkar has written a play in English titled His Fifth Woman. At a well-attended play reading for Lark Play Development Center in Manhattan, six South Asians of Indian origin strutted their stuff. “Strutted” is being used advisedly because the play ends with actors actually cawing on stage like crows do since the death of a woman initiates a discussion between Sakharam (Sanjiv Jhaveri) and Dawood (Debargo Sanyal) on whether last rites should be performed for a kept woman whose husband had left her.


Tendulkar says, for this production he had to think in English since his normal frame of reference is Marathi - his mother tongue. The play portrays how money changes hands when the priest, performing last rites for the departing soul of the deceased, prior to its passage to the other world, takes short cuts by not reciting certain traditional chants at the cremation ground. Among his memorable experiences, Tendulkar allows with a gleeful glint in his eyes, “the experience of watching your play come to light with good acting.”


Since His Fifth Woman and a version of Sakharam Binder were directed by non-Indians (read non-Maharashtrians) being staged currently, the question, When a foreigner not steeped in the nuances of Marathi theater directs a Marathi play won't the performance suffer in the process? becomes relevant. While a grown Indian may understand the concept of death and crows at the cremation ground and portability of the soul without problem can a non-Indian audience or an audience that has grown up in America understand the concept of an individual’s soul being migrated? Was more explanation needed at some point?


Tendulkar’s candid answers to above questions: “Americans are naturally ignorant about Indian customs and rituals but I write in such a manner as to be understood despite this hurdle. Those who were there at the performance understood what I said. What matters in my plays is the essence and the characters through whom it is conveyed. If a director understands this then other cultural details do not matter so much. An Indian mind watching such a performance of an Indian play will have to adjust to the cultural gap.”


With three crows cawing and playing significant roles in His Fifth Woman, this reporter’s question to Tendulkar was why? Tendulkar’s response: I am a fan of crows and spend my time studying them whenever and wherever I find them. Among animals I have a brotherly feeling for the donkey. Both behave as if they have understood the essence of life and have compromised themselves to its unpleasant aspects. Crows sometimes remind me of wise men who are shunned by society.


Sarita Choudhury and Vijay Tendulkar * 

Vijay Tendulkar and Sturgis


At the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre where a staged reading of Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (set in 18th century Poona) was presented to the accompaniment of drums by Raj Kapoor (of Nepali origin), Tendulkar said, “This play was a parallel but narrative reflection of those times (1972) when an arrogant political party (Congress) in Maharashtra state was ruling the roost little realising that a major political force was forming (Shiv Sena led by its founder Bal Thackeray). Interestingly, the cast included Filipinos, Japanese and two actors of Indian origin – Farah Bala and Bina Chauhan. Ably directed by Tisa Chang, the reading highlighted the arrogance of the Maratha ruler and how a Brahmin was enmeshed in the mix of contemporary politics.


No piece on Tendulkar can end without a reference to the controversy that Sakharam Binder created with the play being initially censored and banned because of its theme and saucy language. With tongue-in-check humour Tendulkar derided “the universal tribe of moralists”, many of whom hadn’t even seen the play but were taking sides. To a question if any play should have a message, Tendulkar’s response: “Actually, a play need not convey a message, but at least it should make a statement.” An ardent fan of famous American playwright Arthur Miller, Tendulkar confessed, “I do not like to watch my play being staged.”


[Raj S. Rangarajan is a New York based freelance writer. He covers trend stories on art, travel and lifestyles and reviews books, films and plays for media based in New York, California, Toronto, India and Australia.]


* Photo by Carol Rosegg


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