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Remembering Tendulkar

There was no greater philosopher of violence in Indian theatre than Vijay Tendulkar (1928-2008). His plays denied the possibility of human communication but in actual life he enjoyed nothing better.


Remembering Tendulkar

G P Deshpande

There was no greater philosopher of violence in Indian theatre than Vijay Tendulkar (1928-2008). His plays denied the possibility of human communication but in actual life he enjoyed nothing better.

G P Deshpande ( is a well known commentator on literary and political affairs.

Economic & Political Weekly

may 31, 2008

ijay Tendulkar (1928-2008), easily the most well known of Indian playwrights, died last week and an era came to an end. The Marathi press, which was not particularly solicitous of the man during his lifetime, was more than generous to him after his death. Even the English language press which recognises Indo-Anglian writing as the legitimate Indian creative writing, or so it would appear, seemed quite conscious of the fact that the man and his work were quite extraordinary on the canvas of Indian belles-lettres.

His work was voluminous. He easily wrote a hundred or more short stories. He was also a prolific journalist and screenplay writer. Shyam Benegal, the famous name of Indian parallel cinema, called him the best screenplay writer of the past 50 years. I do not know if all his screen writings and the various drafts that he might have made are collected together. He also tried his hand at writing novels. He published two novels entitled (in the characteristic Tendulkar way), Novel One and Novel Two. They were never translated into any other language as far as I know. Some of his short stories are gems. He has given that genre which has been called “a modest art” by a British critic a very high and esteemed position.

Enjoyable and Disturbing

And there are the plays, both one-act and full length, all 33 of them. He came on the scene in the 1950s and was writing well into the late 1980s. There is only one playwright in Marathi, Vasant Kanetkar, who has written more plays than him. But the comparison cannot go beyond output. Tendulkar was a famous writer but his plays were not great hits. Even the much

discussed Ghashiram Kotwal did not make more than five to six hundred shows over two decades. That is a small number in comparison with the notions of success acceptable in Marathi theatre. The plays of V V Shirwadkar, Kanetkar or P L Deshpande have been far greater success stories. And yet the Marathi spectator was deeply aware that the kind of dramatic fare that ‘Ten’ (a short form of his name he was very fond of using and always signed his Marathi letters with) offered him was both enjoyable and disturbing at the same time. As a consequence most people either intensely disliked him or loved him. Nobody was indifferent to him. He seemed to play with his audience, at times amusing it, at times even irritating it. More often than not he seemed to throw the usual package of urban, upper middle class values into the dustbin. He had little use for those morals and mores, which were a curious mixture of brahmanical and victorian mores.

There were in fact two avatars of Tendulkar, a kind of early Tendulkar and late Tendulkar. His early plays were interesting and provocative. But they did not quite create the impression that he was all set to destroy the safe and pretty world of the petit bourgeois here. They were rarely amused; more often annoyed with him but were not hostile to him. All that happened as a consequence was that Tendulkar was a tangible presence on the Marathi cultural scene, lonely but significant. Plays like Shreemant (Wealthy


People) and Ek Hatti Mulagi (An Adamant Girl) could be cited as the best examples of his early writing. It may be worthwhile to recall that S A Dange, a much-maligned communist who had strong and radical positions on literature and culture, was a great enthusiast of the early Tendulkar, especially plays like Shreemant.

With Shantata Court Chalu Ahe (Silence! The Court is in Session) in 1968 begins the new phase in Tendulkar’s theatre. The early Tendulkar was quite critical of contemporary society and its mores. He observed and attacked them ruthlessly. Yet that attack was dramatic but not quite rebellious. With Shantata a new phase begins. In that play (along with Sakharam Binder, Gidhade (Vultures), Ghashiram Kotwal, and Kanyadaan), Tendulkar appeared in a destructive mood. One finds these plays powerful but rather black, some might even say nihilistic. Their power was undeniable. But so was their nihilism. In this phase we see Tendulkar moving towards a position that treated violence and cruelty as primordial. A potential rebel has now turned into a nihilistic metaphysician. He presented the insatiable greed, almost vulture-like, of the nouveau riche in a brutal manner. In many ways Tendulkar is the creator of the modern Indian theatre of cruelty.

Philosopher of Violence

He was for that very reason the first genuine playwright of modernity. It is possible to argue that he was in fact fascinated by the “no exit” situation that had been made into a principle by modernism.

It is not easy to see some of his plays twice. You want to, but the violence, cruelty and (cold rage of the vultures for example) the playwright’s abiding faith that these are, to use some Indian categories, ‘anadi’ (without a beginning) and ‘anant’ (endless). There has been no greater philosopher of violence in Indian theatre, or literature for that matter, than Tendulkar. His writing therefore made as many enemies as friends. But even the enemy could not but admire the power of his writing.

Tendulkar was a victim of physical violence more than once because his writings offended the historical and social beliefs of people. When Ghashiram was staged, a group of brahmans who felt offended at the description of brahmans in that play marched to his office and beat him up. This happened in the Express group of newspapers. Tendulkar was then working for the Marathi daily of the group. They were also angry that Nana Phadanvis, the late 17th century Maratha brahman statesman was shown in a poor light. There was a play written in 1891 or thereabouts about the same period in Maratha history. Its author K P Khadilkar claims in the preface to the second edition of the play that a reader had written to him an abusive letter especially because of the play’s treatment of Nana. Tendulkar’s experience was no different, except that it was more violent. A dalit threw a chappal (footwear) at him presumably because he thought that Tendulkar’s treatment of the dalit protagonist was casteist. But he faced all excesses of chauvinistic censorship and the punishments that went with it here and now.

Tendulkar was weary of literary and theatre criticism. I had quite a few debates with him. He was particularly insistent that playwrights should keep away from the game of criticism. He did not like that I was also in the Marathi theatre criticism game. I am sure he would not have liked this article! He made the point quite often that criticism is a destructive exercise. Creative writers should keep away from it.

And yet his range of reading was amazing. A couple of months ago when I met him, he started talking about Kapuscinsky, the late Polish journalist with an enthusiasm that was quite remarkable. I mentioned to him the article that the New York Review of Books had carried soon after his death; he wanted to read it. He showed me the book that he was reading and promised to loan it to me after a few weeks. But that will never happen now.

Tendulkar was a phenomenon. It is not easy to explain the appeal of the man. He was very well known and yet he was very lonely. His best moments were the time that he spent with young playwrights and theatre people. During his last days in a Pune hospital you could not miss the young theatre activists taking turns sitting in his hospital room.

Here was a lonely man. Here was someone who did not think too highly of modern human beings. Yet he was not lonely. His plays denied the possibility of human communication; in actual life he enjoyed nothing better.

May 31, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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