The play is in Marathi, the title is in English. Marathi theatre loves this combo. But the title is not your innocuous All the Best or Lovebirds. It is Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla. Sounds potentially explosive.
In times when we dare not touch Shivaji, not in plays, novels, short stories, reminiscences or history, particularly not in history, this play puts him upfront in the title itself. I look over my shoulder to see who else has noticed and is rolling up his sleeves for action.
Anyway, why is Shivaji underground? Isn’t he always on a magnificent Arab steed, raised sword in hand? Or sitting majestically on an opulent throne? More than why, where has he gone underground? In Bhimnagar of all places? What’s he doing hobnobbing with Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s followers?
The whole thing is a mystery. But if the title isn’t intriguing enough to take you to the nearest theatre where the play is
showing, the three names attached to it should do the trick. The first is Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat’s. He is the radical balladeer whose rousing call to the exploited of this country to wake up and recognise the faces of their enemies, ‘Inko dhyaan se dekho re bhai/ Inki soorat ko pehchano re bhai,’ has become an all-time hit. The concept of the present play, its music and its songs are his.
The second name is Nandu Madhav’s. He’s the actor who gave flesh, blood, passion and madness to the character of Dadasaheb Phalke in Paresh Mokashi’s multi-award winning film, Harishchandrachi Factory.
He directs this play. The third name is Rajkumar Tangde’s. We first heard of him when Nandu Madhav brought him and his group of farmer actors down from Jalna to perform their play Aakda in Mumbai. It was about stealing power, and was staged in near-darkness to give the audience an immediate taste of what life in the actors’ villages was like without power. Tangde wrote that play, and has written this.
So there I am in Shivaji Mandir, a-tingle with expectation without quite knowing what to expect. This much I know. With these three names attached to it, the play cannot be a wishy-washy regurgitation of a formula. It has to be something new and energising. And it is.
The curtain goes up on a large ensemble of actors placed geometrically on different levels, dressed in costumes suggesting the era of Shivaji. Two performers of gondhal (a ritual performance that marks celebrations) begin singing a traditional mythological tale. A woman interrupts them saying, we are fed up with mythology. Come into the present and sing about today.
This introduction gives us an idea of which way the play is headed. Through song, humour and discussion, it pits mythology against history with a hilarious running gag that often brings the house down. Yama (Pravin Dalimbkar) has being sent to earth to fetch Shivaji up, along with his ideas. Shivaji forgets his ideas and returns to earth to get them.
He leaves his turban behind as surety, but doesn’t return. Yama (now Yamaji) runs around looking for a head on which the turban will fit. The turban thus becomes a symbol of Shivaji’s ideas; and the political party headed by the opportunistic Akka (Ashwini Bhalekar), which is all set to celebrate Shiv Jayanti, proves that it is the least likely candidate for the turban.
The central idea of the play is that Shivaji has been mythologised by the very people whose ancestors had opposed his coronation because he wasn’t a Kshatriya, but who now claim him as their idol for political mileage.
The argument culminates in a brilliant jugalbandi between Dharma Shahir (Sambhaji Tangde), a minion of the myth-makers and Milind Kamble (Kailas Waghmare), who sees Shivaji’s greatness not only in his wars but in his policies regarding women, caste, religion, agriculture and revenue which made him such a just and compassionate king.
Unlike the typical urban middle-class play that confines itself to drawing rooms and kitchens, folk forms offer theatre the freedom to address the big issues of the day. This play comes close in form to the old Ambedkari jalsas, mixing music, humour, even slapstick, with pure didacticism.
Nandu Madhav rehearsed the cast for 100 days, mostly in the fields of Jalna. His hard work shows in the easy precision with which the actors speak and move. Finally, you are so grateful to see Shivaji taken away from myth-making chauvinists and given his true greatness by those who know and respect history.