`Kirwant' moves inexorably from a grey beginning to a black end, marked "No Exit".
Kirwant, Premanand Gajvee, translated by M. D. Hatkanangalekar, Seagull Books, p.88, Rs.150.
IT was a chance encounter with a young theatre enthusiast that led Marathi playwright Premanand Gajvee to stumble upon a stratum of our society that he had never suspected existed. It appeared to be the best kept secret of the Brahmin community that there was amongst them a sub-caste called the Kirwants who were obliged to perform the last rites of the dead as their caste duty. In following their "dharma", however, they became at once the most sought after and the most despised sect of them all. The young theatre enthusiast Gajvee had met was a Kirwant.
In a brief preface to his play, Gajvee recounts this story and describes the devious and often frustrating ways by which he finally managed to collect enough material on the life and work of the Kirwants to write a play about them. What we have as a result is a taut, powerful indictment of the cruelties of brahminism. The crisis Gajvee creates in his protagonist Siddheshwar's life allows him to bring into play every shade, overt and covert, of the brahminical ideology, which, while brutalising the victim, dehumanises the victimiser too.
Gajvee belongs to the 1980s generation of playwrights who were in revolt against what they saw as the sterile excesses of the experimental theatre of the 1970s and the ideological certainties of the times. They have since found their own patches to plough, more or less unburdened by the need for social commitment. Alone amongst them, Gajvee has used theatre to throw light on the lives of the exploited and the oppressed. But this particularly has put him in a piquant position. Despite being a dalit, he neither claims to be nor is acknowledged as a "dalit writer", a dalit writer being strictly defined as one who writes only about the scheduled castes.
Gajvee first drew the attention of theatre lovers and critics with his one-act play "Ghotbhar Pani"(A Sip of Water), a grim look at the caste hierarchies and political manipulations in Maharashtra's villages that forces dalits to beg for drinking water. This satire was performed in villages and small towns all over Maharashtra, chalking up more than a thousand shows in a few years. "Devnavari" (Bride of God), about the sexual exploitation of devdasis and "Tanmajori" (The Body's Arrogance), focusing attention on the continued practice of bonded labour, also dealt with human oppression. "Kirwant" did not seem to fit into this body of work. How could brahmins, however discriminated against, be seen as either exploited or oppressed? Had Premanand Gajvee sold out at last to the upper-caste, middle-class mainstream in which the play was staged?
But such doubts proved to be unfounded. The play shockingly revealed the extent to which the Kirwants were treated like untouchables in their own community. They were socially shunned by other brahmins. They were seen as impure and inauspicious. They were not invited to marriages, births, naming and thread ceremonies. Other brahmins would not eat or drink with them, nor would they give them their daughters in marriage. Worst of all, they were not allowed to escape from their "dharma". They were forced to do what they were born to do and be prepared to suffer the social consequences.
Dr. Ambedkar liberated his people from this peculiarly Hindu caste trap by exhorting them to convert to Buddhism and so free themselves from performing their traditional village duties. There is no such escape for Siddheshwar. He subscribes too completely and uncomplainingly to the idea of "dharma" to be able to throw off his caste duties. And so "Kirwant" moves inexorably from a grey beginning to a black end, marked "No Exit". Surprisingly, for those post-Rath Yatra times, not a murmur of protest was heard from the brahmin orthodoxy against the play.
"Kirwant", translated into English by the well-known Marathi literary critic M.D. Hatkanangalekar, reads very well, though the register slips occasionally in phrases like "Fie on this miserable existence", "hie away" and "Yea, oh yes." The editing and proofreading is just a little bit careless. But with "Kirwant" Seagull has made another significant addition to their growing list of New Indian Playwrights, for which they must be thanked.
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