EMERGENCY – Satish Alekar recalls two incidents when his expression felt stifled

Issue No: 119 (This piece first appeared in two parts in his column ‘Gaganika’ (dated 29th March 2015 & 12th April 2015 & ) that he wrote for the Marathi daily Loksatta.)

The reason why I remember the day on which Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency – 25th June 1975 – is that I had gone on a picnic to Otur with my doctor friends. One of them, Dr Shyam Damle was working at Otur’s Primary health Centre as a medical officer for a year so, to gain some practical experience and he had insisted that we visit him. There were Rajendra Deo, Vijay alias ChhabyaAbhyankar andRamesh Dumbre, the famous surgeon from Pune, who hailed from Otur. We knew one another since 1965 when we all were students in Fergusson College. Having spent the day visiting Ane-MalshejGhat, Kapardikeshwar Temple, we satlistening to songs being played on Vividh Bharati radio station, waiting to feast upon the non-veg dinner in the evening. We all came from the middle class. Born after Independence, we were now about to start our career. Quite a few had completed Engineering or Medical courses and were preparing to go abroad for further studies. I was working at B J Medical College, a government job. ‘Ghashiram’ had just done its 100th show at Mumbai and ‘Mahanirvan’, a play I had written too had its shows going. Mohan Gokhale was going to stage ‘Mahapur’, another play I had written, for the State Competition of 1975 and it was the topic of discussion. None of us was married but we all were in the due process of looking for a match or having a love affair or about to start one or fervently trying for one.

The 1965 group from Fergusson college. The photo was clicked in a studio sometime in 1967. It includes everyone except myself. Those standing : Ramesh Dumble, Vishwanath Chitale. Those sitting : Shaam Damle, Vijay Abhyankar, Rajendra Dev

The song being played was interrupted to announce that Indira Government had invoked article 352 of the Constitution and had declared an emergency. All the leading opposition members, right from Jai Prakash Narain, George Fernandes to Atal Bihari Bajpeyee were either under arrest or were detained. Our immediate reaction was of numbness; all we could sense was that something serious had happened. It was some time before it occurred to us that article 352 put restrictions on the fundamental rights of citizens. Indira Gandhi had called elections in 1971 when her popularity was at the peak because of the Bangla Desh war and for her election campaign, she had engaged the services of Yashpal Kapoor, a Government official. That led to her disqualification by Allahabad High Court and she was barred from fighting an election for five years. Some well-known English newspapers had described the High Court decision as “to unseat her for such petty reason is akin to filing a suit for jumping a street light.” However, they did not acquiesce in her imposing authoritarian rule. She could have appealed.  She could have resigned and stepped aside for some time. But that was not to be. She lost her standing on the international level as a result of her actions. The emergency period stayed as a permanent blot on the evolvement of Indian Democracy. However, Acharya Vinoba Bhave supported the emergency by calling it ‘an era of self-discipline’. Censorship was imposed on newspapers and they were made to publish only the Government-approved news which effectivelysmothered their freedom of thought. The recently started Doordarshan was already a fully Government-owned electronic medium. That started me on to recall: when was the last time was I so stifled?

Have to go back a little. I was introduced to theatre by Bhalba Kelkar. He taught us Chemistry when I was doing Science in Fergusson during 65-69. Progressive Dramatic Association (PDA), an institution he had founded in 1952 along with Shreeram Lagu, Jayant Dharmadhikari, Tarabai Gharpure, Vasant Noolkar had become the cultural benchmark for the middle class people. PDA and Maharashtriya Kalopasak in Pune, Vijaya Mehta’s Rangayan in Mumbai and Purushottam Darvhekar’s Ranjan Kala Mandir in Nagpur formed the four corners in which Marathi amateur theatre blossomed. It was Bhalba who had introduced Vasant Kanetkar as a playwright by staging his plays ‘Vedyache Ghar Unhat’, ‘Devanche Manorajya’ and ‘Prema Tuza Rang Kasa’. Bhalaba had a serene, kind, amicable personality and had quite a reputation as a studious director among the amateur theatre circles.

In 1967 Bhalba was in the process of staging Baban Prabhu’s farce ‘Dinuchya Sasubai Radhabai’ which was making waves then, for the annual Ganesh festival of Fergusson College. That was when I was in a sombre mood having missed my admission to the medical course. All of my batch-mates had left for their medical, engineering, IIT courses. Every day I used to go to the gym near Fergusson hill, partly to exercise and also to just while away my time. The amphitheatre on my way used to have the practice sessions of this stage production. I used to loiter there and watch. Coincidently, the main actor who was to enact Dinu was made the captain of Fergusson cricket team and he straightaway left. Bhalba replaced him by me merely because I was an everyday visitor to the practice. For me, it all was a novelty.But the performance at the college level used to be fine. Or so we felt. In any case it helped me get over my despondence of missing admission to the medical course. The play worked as a therapy for me. I gained confidence and started to wonder if this was my real vocation. The show brought me closer to Bhalba. I made new friends like Samar Nakhate, the famous the theatre personality; Anant (Kanho) Kulkarni and others including Vinay Hardikar and then Santosh Dastane, who went on to become an economist and Pramod Chaudhari, who made a name as an industrialist. The last two, in fact, were with me from my school days. Most of them made a mark in their respective fields. Bapu Karandikar from Baramati did two years in the Science course and then switched to Arts. He went on to become an I. A. S. officer. Bapu had staged ‘Ek Jhulata Pool’, a one-act play I had written, when he was at Massoorie for his I. A. S. training. Ajit Parasnis, who did I. P. S. later, mimicked Dev Anand beautifully. Dilip Karnik went on to become a lawyer and subsequently was a High Court Judge. Ulhas Bapat became a Constitution expert whereas Ram Nimbalkar and Shrikant Shirole entered politics. There were a few seniors from theatre too, including Subhash Joshi and Dilip Jagtap.

After the Ganeshotsav show, Bhalba took me and Samar to PDA. We were back-stage artists providing sundry help such as getting clothes ironed, etc. At that time Vyankatesh Madgulkar’s ‘Tu Veda Kumbhar’ was the rage. This play was much appreciated in the State Drama Competition and used to attract crowds. We used to be in the mob scene, wearing rural attire. Bhalba himself was the director. He treated us very kindly and always took us to eateries. Jabbar Patel was the protagonist in this play and we became friends. Shriram Khare, Seva Chauhan and Jayant Dharmadhikari too were in the play.

Jabbar was the winner hero for two consecutive years in the ‘Purushottam Cup’ Competition started in ’64. He was always surrounded by young, aspiring actors. Of them Mohan Agashe, Vidyadhar Vatve and Shrinivas Panvalkar were the ‘coterie’ because they hailed from B. J. Medical College. They were known as Jabbar’s chief drummers. Then there were N. S. Phadke’s daughter Anjali Phadke (now Joshi), Ramesh Medhekar, Suresh Basale, Ramesh Tilekar, Kalpana Bhalerao (Deolankar), Meenal Chavan (Gokhale), Sunil Kulkarni. I and Samar entered this band. Suhas Kale (now the famous Marathi actress Suhas Joshi) too was there for some time; but she left for N. S. D., Delhi. This band gradually turned into a study circle and Mohan Gokhale, Chandrakant Kale, Nandu Pol, Deepak Oak, Anand Modak joined it after 70-71. The seniors in PDA did not take well to the study circle as they disapproved of this young generation stream running parallel in their institution. However, Bhalba was the bond that joined the two generations. You could have differences with him but you could never have a quarrel; such was his graciousness.

Satish Alekar

I had written a one-act play ‘Bhajan’, some time in 68-69. It was published in Satyakatha and was read in the study circle. The industrial sector was in recession then and jobs were available with the Government only. This gave rise to unemployment in the young generation and to restlessness, depression, miscommunication with family, the consequent deterioration in personal as well as social values – all this was the subject matter of ‘Bhajan’. It spoke the language of the then youth; which was quite shrill. Suresh Basale said, he would stage it through PDA and he started practice sessions after getting okay from Bhalba. He carried on for some days but one day during a ‘Tu Veda Kumbhar’ show, I sensed something was wrong. Everyone looked tense. Then Bhalba took me aside and said, your one-act play ‘bhajan’ cannot be staged because of its dialogue, which is full of bad words; is far from sober. Our institution should not stage it. I asked, Sir, Have you read my one-act play? He replied, that was not necessary; that he trustedhissenior colleagues’ words. My play was inconsistent with the institution’s tradition and that he had made up his mind, he added. Everybody tried to console me, saying the play could be staged at a later date or by another group and so on. Now, Bhalba was my Guru; it was he, who had introduced me to theatre. And yet he rejects my one-act play without reading it? I had expected that he would explain what was wrong with the play. But no, he just gave his verdict and that was final. Our practice sessions stopped. Why did the senior artists in a theatre group behave so? Why did they want the play to be stopped? And more importantly, why should I accept it? I could understand abandoning the play because they did not like it; but is it right to stop practice sessions of a play because its dialogue uses unparliamentary language? Who decides what is unparliamentary? I was pacified but I smouldered. That was my first encounter with suppression of thought. That was ’68-69 and there was no emergency.

Having made the announcement of emergency, the radio resumed its songs. We were sitting in the Government Primary Health Centre (PHC) at Otur and the group there has endured to this day. All except me are doctors. Later entrants were Vinay Dhavle, Arun Kinre, Suresh Khare, Pramod Honshetty, Shyam Kagal; all of whom were doctors. Of them, Vishvanath Chitale died recently. Even after so many years, that ‘emergency’ group formed in ’65 still gathers at ‘Rupali’ Hotel on Fergusson Road for a cup of coffee after the usual walk on the hill.

But the general public had the real taste of emergency when the surgical operations of vasectomy at the Primary Health Centres all over India went into an overdrive and were done forcibly at many places. Thus, it was at a PHC that we heard of the ‘Emergency’ and it was the vasectomies done at PHCs that were its undoing. That was a major cause of Indira Gandhi’s defeat in 1977. The figures are eloquent: during 1976-77, India had 82 lakh such operations; against 27 lakh operations per year before that.

That was my first encounter with suppression. The second one follows…

I remember it very clearly. The time was February 1973. The place, a bungalow on Pune’s Prabhat Road. There were very few street lights at the time so the streets would be very dimly lit. It might be hard to believe but most roads at the time were quite dark and after nine o’ clock  Prabhat Road looked lifeless and lonely. There was a meeting in progress in that old stone bungalow. It was to decide whether the shows of “Ghashiram Kotwal” were to continue or not. The meeting was not convened by any political party or extremist organization. The working committee of an amateur theatre organization called PDA had called for this meeting. There was pressure on the organization to stall this play. The objections being that it was anti Brahmin and cast aspersions on the character of Nana Fadnavis. The atmosphere then was not conducive for new experiments and diverse sensitivities. There was one more reason.  A play called “Sakharam Binder” by the same playwright was performed in Mumbai and a court case had been filed against it by those who found it obscene. There were two groups. Those who wanted the play to be stopped included a senior lawyer from Pune called G. N. Joglekar, Prabhakar Panshikar, Vidyadhar Gokhale, a research scholar of theatre Vasant Shantaram Desai, journalist G. V. Behere and some politicians. The group that wanted the play to continue were mostly personalities from experimental theatre, some writers, intellectuals, journalists and a few politicians too. The audience was trapped  in between. The first 19 shows of “Ghashiram” had been performed without any obstacles.

At the bungalow, the meeting was heating up. It was past ten when people on their bicycles started to gather on the footpath opposite the bungalow. They were artists from the play. The suffocation was palpable. The suspense was killing them. They were all eagerly waiting for the decision. Are we going to continue with “Ghashiram” or are we not? The working committee was to pass a resolution regarding this. The director Jabbar Patel and Anil Joglekar were the only two invited for this meeting. The artists on the road decided not to move unless and until they were told of the decision. The owner of the bungalow we stood outside saw the commotion and thought someone had died. When we explained the situation, he got a carpet for us to sit on and gave us water to drink. We all sat waiting on that carpet on the footpath. It was much later that we realized that expressing dissent in this manner was called ‘a protest’ or a ‘demonstration’ in the context of social movements. What we had done was not organized. It was a spontaneous expression of our disapproval. What right did those gathered in the bungalow have to pass a decree about whether we should perform our play or not? Nobody had provoked us but there was extreme unrest.

The meeting kept getting extended. Our “study circle” was sitting on that carpet and to while away time were having heated discussions on the science of theatre, Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Brecht, Grotowski, method acting. I started to recollect all that I had read. That Meyerhold (1874- 1949), the Russian master who experimented provocatively with physical being was arrested, tortured and executed during the Great Purge in 1940, during Stalin’s regime.  Brecht (1898- 1956) had to escape the oppression during Nazi Germany in 1941 and take asylum in America for some period. After the Second World War, he returned and became active in East Germany. Whatever the ideology of those in power, it is imperative for the artists all over the world to fight for their freedom of expression. It is like their Hippocratic oath.  An artist of the stature of Charlie Chaplin was no exception. He was cross examined because of his inclination towards left ideology. Here, in Bombay/ Mumbai, the writer of the play, Vijay Tendulkar and his family faced social humiliation. He was threatened with anonymous phone calls and received obscene letters. Shivsena violently disrupted a show of “Sakharam Binder”.  A man called Kartarsingh Thatte had beaten him with stick for having written this play and Tendulkar had quietly accepted them. He was exceptionally calm. ‘Equanimous’, would be more appropriate.  He was eduring it all. He was reassuring us. In comparison, our carpet was easier. But the restlessness was real.

The meeting ended at 12- 12.30 in the night. PDA working committee had no idea that we were sitting there as a mark of our protest. All the senior members came out and left, talking to each other. Jabbar and Anil came towards us. Their faces gave away the verdict, PDA had decided to stop performing “Ghashiram Kotwal”. We saw Sridhar Rajguru and Datta Kalaskar, two more senior members, following them at a distance.

Shridhar Rajguru and Anita Rajguru during a children’s workshop. (Photo courtesy : Prasad Vanarase.)

We called Sridhar Rajguru, Anna. He was elderly but mingled with us like a friend. He had been associated with PDA since 1952. Anna took care of all the administrative work. Organizing rehearsals, scheduling the shows, sets, arranging the bus, keeping accounts of the bookings, acquiring  permissions from parents of girls who acted in the play… everything was under his control. And most importantly, he always stood like a solid rock behind the creative people of the organization. His wife Anita Rajguru was also like a mother figure for us. She was a teacher in Modern high School. They resided in a flat in Gulmohur Society which was situated in the lane opposite Balgandharva Rangmandir and their home had become PDA’s office of sorts. The couple indulged us with tasty food. Most of the girls who agreed to act in our plays were Anitavahini’s former students. They loved us but were more fond of Jabbar. We always teased about us being their step children and Jabbar their very own. The couple nurtured many a secrets that young actors had shared with them. They produced many of our well-known plays like Ghashiram, Mahanirvan, Mahapoor, Teen Paishacha Tamasha, Begum Barve. Arvind Thakar was his associate. The couple had formed an organization called “Shishuranjan” and performed children’s plays under this banner. They wrote lots of books for kids, arranged workshops all over Maharashtra for them. Recently, both of them passed away of old age. Arvind Thakar too is no more. Datta Kalaskar was associated with the organization as an actor for a long long time and was the main actor in Vyankatesh Madgulkar’s play called “Sati”. He was an important officer with the Maharashtra government. But for some reason, even he came along with us.

It was almost 1 o’ clock in the night. What was to be done next? With our cycles at hand, we all walked to Regal café in Alka chowk. Then, over bun maska, gulkand toast and infinite cups of tea, we debated opening a new company to continue shows of Ghashiram. We had to conclude the meeting at 2 since it was time for the restaurant to close only to reopen in a few hours time. Jabbar had to reach Daund, the place where he had his hospital and the last train to leave Pune was at 2.30 am. The few who were there with scooters began to argue among themselves about who was going to drop Jabbar to the station.  Maneka Gandhi’s law about stray animals was not in effect at the time but the roads were still infested with barking stray dogs and they would invariably end up chasing scoters. Each one began to point at the other asking someone else to take Jabbar. Those with bicycles joked that the one who’d agree to take Jabbar to the station would be made the president of the new company!

A few days passed. It was during the first week of March that our publisher friend Prakash Ranade on behalf of his Neelkanth Prakashan had arranged a reading of a new play by Vasant Kanetkar called “Akhercha Sawal” at Bhopatkar wada near Peru gate. Kanetkar himself was going to do the narration. He was very good at it. “Akhercha Sawal” later became a very successful play on the commercial stage. Vijaya Mehta and Bhakti Barve were lauded for their acting. Damu Kenkre was the director. Kanetkar was not at all in favour of these two plays by Tendulkar. It was Kanetkar who had made a statement like, “Plays should be about ‘Eagles’, not about ‘Vultures’”. At that time, Prakash Ranade was the publisher for both Tendulkar’s and Kanetkar’s plays. During those uncertain times, Prakash would panic if both these playwrights visited his Neelkanth Prakashan on Tilak road at the same time. He would just abandon the shop and go sit somewhere, laughing. These two celebrated playwrights would be left in front of each other in the shop with long extended pauses for company. Neither one spoke. If at all there was a dialogue, it would go something like this:

Kanetkar : So, how were the monsoons this year in Mumbai?


Tendulkar- They were okay. (A long pause). How is the grapes’ season in Nasik this year?

Kanetkar- Come and visit my bungalow in Nasik sometime.

Tendulkar- (after a pause) Hmmm!

That’s it. The playwrights who had written dialogues for more than forty plays each, had only this to say to each other. And standing beside them, I would be waiting for the shop owner Ranade to return. Not just waiting but standing since there was no place to sit as it was a small shop. There were just two chairs, the Puneite owner perhaps did not want more people to spend time in the shop. After the above dialogue, Kanetkar had some work and so exit the scene. After his exit, I asked Tendulkar jokingly when he was planning to go to Nasik. Tendulkar once again took a pause and said, “Usually, I visit a home, not a bungalow.” I had the opportunity to witness these amusing interactions a few times.

It was a packed house for the narration of Kanetkar’s play. The reading was well-performed and effective. After that we all just hung around. We all knew that the dejection of not being able to do “Ghashiram” was still there. We then decided that we would take the letter written by Anil Joglekar about starting a new organization to Daund. Accordingly Deepak Oak, Mohan Gokhale, Satish Ghatpande and I took our scooters and went to Daund and gave the letter to Jabbar. We returned with a message that a meeting was convened on 27th March on the terrace of Alekar wada. On that day we founded a new organization “Theatre Academy, Pune” and the shows of “Ghashiram” resumed by the end of 73. We later learnt that UNESCO celebrates 27th march as world theatre day.

During this period, there was no Emergency. But then, where does it lie unseen until government officially declares it? Does it lurk like a demon? Is it buried inside each of us, waiting for the intolerance to erupt? What exactly causes this explosion? Who triggers it? Which ideology? Such drama for a mere play!  Irrespective of the party in power, irrespective of whether an Emergency is officially in effect or not; let alone art, even our daily lives have to relentlessly grapple with intolerance. Intolerance within us is akin to an iceberg. Only the tip is visible. The rest lies submerged deep inside. Currently, attempting to balance the intolerance within each of us, has become a global inner pursuit of sorts. So, chant with me, “Sakharam, Ghashiram, Nathuram, Geeta, Bible and Quran…” Say it again… ““Sakharam, Ghashiram, Nathuram…”

Satish Vasant Alekar is a Marathi playwright, actor, and theatre director. A founder member of the Theatre Academy of Pune, and most known for his plays Mahanirvan (1974), Mahapoor (1975), Atirekee (1990), Pidhijat (2003), Mickey ani Memsahib (1973), and Begum Barve (1979), all of which he also directed for the Theatre Academy.

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