Attempting to appreciate Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's true worth, a new play pits him against his contemporaries. By provoking a rabble-rousing response, the makers become poor lawyers for the Father of the Constitution
An actor at a rehearsal for Statue of Liberty at Shivaji Mandir, Dadar. PIC/TANVI PHONDEKAR
Keep children and caste outside the auditorium (mula ani jaat baher thevoon yave) read an advertisement for the two-act Marathi play, Statue of Liberty, which opened in the city last month. The tagline matches the play's declared twin objectives — first, to present Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar as a tall national leader, not a Dalit who espoused Buddhism in place of Hinduism; second, appeal to the audience not to assess national figures and recent contemporary history through the narrow and divisive prism of caste equations.
Mumbai-based Advait Theatre deserves a mention for mounting it as a mainstream commercial venture, although not a single member of the 25-strong cast is a Mumbai name. The production and backstage crew hail from Aurangabad, and are either students or faculty of the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University's Department of Dramatics.
A past and current head of the department essay central characters in the two-hour drama, written by debutante playwright Arvind Jagtap, again a BAMU graduate. Now a television writer, Jagtap is better known for his contribution to the popular show, Chala Hawa Yevu Dya. At one time, Jagtap was a front-line Maratha student activist who opposed the renaming of their university after Ambedkar.
Now reformed, Jagtap presents, writes and directs Statue of Liberty on behalf of the "misled and misinformed souls" who do not grasp the importance of the Father of the Indian Constitution. He feels the need to set the record straight, particularly in the context of negative whispering campaigns that belittle the leader.
In interest of nation building
Its producer Rahul Bhandare is behind 15-odd plays, including the celebrated and daring his famed creation Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla (that busts myths about warrior king Shivaji). There couldn't have been a more appropriate time for celebrating Ambedkar's wisdom than today, he feels. "In an era when caste has become an explosive identity marker, we cannot afford to misunderstand Ambedkar. Our play appeals to people from all castes to embrace a world leader with an open mind."
It is another story that Bhandare had earlier signed up revolutionary balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat to write a play on Ambedkar. Bhagat had started work on the script and was expected to pen something that came close to the questioning spirit of Shivaji Underground. His experience in agitprop street theatre and his association with the Dalit Panther movement was obviously going to reflect in the portrayal of Ambedkar and his unique take against the deification of the leader. However, the project did not materialise and Jagtap took over the playwriting department. Bhagat's role was limited to lending his voice and lyrics.
In jest, Bhagat says his "peripheral credit line" is a sign of an entertainment market driven by its own caste politics. In other words, a Dalit name adds to a play's saleability. On a serious note, Bhagat distances himself from the project: "I am out of it, but I wish them a good, robust audience. Mounting a play of ideas on Babasaheb in the commercial space is difficult in today's times. Honestly, my script would have bared unpalatable truths advocated by Ambedkar, which today's political leadership would have found tough to digest."
Bhagat feels strongly about Ambedkar's thought on how caste annihilation should be presented. He says it's not enough to say that Ambedkar was against the caste system, because everybody, on record, is. "We have to hasten to add that Ambedkar's construct of a casteless society was in the context of nation-building, not in terms of uniting Hindus. If we fail to say that, we serve the interests of the mischievous right-leaning forces who quote Ambedkar to suit themselves."
The downside to good intentions
Knowingly and unknowingly, Statue of Liberty presents a logic that does little service to Ambedkar. The problem starts with the title. First, the pun is on the statuettes (busts) that people make of their revered leaders, without living up to their true legacy. Second, there is also an allusion to the neighbourhood children's game in which players freeze and take on funny poses. Both references, although explained literally in the end, do not validate the 'liberty' connect.
More serious is the fact that the play is an assortment of smart one-liners (reminiscent of the WhatsApp forwards circulated in the name of political support), which elicit claps and cheers, but do not capture the height of the leader.
To give an example, the play takes a dig at the killers of Mahatma Gandhi and says India worships leaders who are assassinated; also worships those who assassinate. The statement is incorrect because Gandhi's assassins were never worshipped in India even by his opponents. Similarly, the play appraises Ambedkar in the context of Shivaji, which appears deliberately provocative. Some remarks put Ambedkar on a pedestal higher than Shivaji, which is not healthy, especially because it legitimises the current culture of worship in the Dalit as well as Maratha blocks.
At a time when Maharashtra is besieged with serial protest marches, in which Marathas stand opposed to Dalits in the political spectrum, Statue of Liberty could have played a restorative healing role. That it chooses to incite is unfortunate.
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at email@example.com
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