Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: The bulge in the middle India

As small town India evolves, will new hierarchies replace the old caste-based social order? Playwright Ashutosh Potdar's just-published collection of four plays provokes a probe into the emerging equations

A scene from the play FI/105 which zeros in on the political and public overtones in a private apartment
A scene from the play FI/105 which zeros in on the political and public overtones in a private apartment

A replicable model which will act like a light house to other aspiring cities - this is how India's Union Ministry of Urban Development defines a Smart City. This construct of a highly-modernized city speckled with crime monitoring video units, automated parking zones and compost management plants, disturbs playwright Ashutosh Potdar. His collection (published by Watermark Publication, Pune) of four plays, underlines the "in-between" nature of the 'sophisticated' spaces which replace an old social order in exchange for a spanking neighbourhood with designated 'play areas' and club houses. Potdar is curious about the impact of spaces on the people living over there. If spaces become sophisticated, will that rid people of their class and caste biases? Will 'smart' India have new social pressures that we are not designed to handle?

Potdar, 43, does not consciously set out to write plays on spatial change. But his peripatetic life propelled him to ponder over transformed spaces and altered social hierarchies. While he has been stationed for the last five years, as faculty at Pune's FLAME university campus, his weekends resonate in his ancestral home at Kasba Sangaon village in Kolhapur district where a traditional Deshasth Brahmin joint family set-up connects him with the warkari bhajan singing tradition that he grew up on. Before choosing Pune as his home, he has had a brush with several small towns like Kanakavali, Miraj, Loni Kalbhor, Ichaljaranji (and the relatively bigger Kolhapur) where he taught English literature in local colleges. The stint with the India Foundation for the Arts took him to Bangalore, a pivotal point from where he visited nationwide alternative performance practices.

The poster of Potdar's play Sindhu Sudhakar Rum Ani Itar, a retelling of the famous yesteryear play Ekach Pyala
The poster of Potdar's play Sindhu Sudhakar Rum Ani Itar, a retelling of the famous yesteryear play Ekach Pyala

The transitions triggered his probe into textures of different spaces. He developed what he calls "an eye for the na-idhar-ka-na-udhar-ka status of mid-sized 'global' cities" where modern malls and highways have become barometers of growth. Potdar is not disapproving of the multiple options they offer "to live, to celebrate and to get entertained at malls, pubs and dance clubs." But, he wonders, what kind of plays and theatrical forms will he and fellow writers create or thrive on in the emerging times when the 'native' and 'folk' element is replaced by things modern and 'programmed.'

Secondly, what language will such spaces give birth to? "Will it be a simulated computer-generated phonological medium with a mix of various desi bolis?" questions Potdar. Coincidentally, his play, F1/105 deals with the issue of the contemporary language mix. It is epi-centered in the fictional Shreeram Shreyas Housing Society (could be anywhere in middletown India) where characters speak in various regional languages. The length of the Gujarati and Hindi passages, spoken by the characters, makes one wonder if it can be called a Marathi play. Potdar wants us to ponder on this because he wishes to trigger a debate on theatre linguistics. In fact, the upcoming 25th show of F1/105 (produced by Aasakta Kalamanch) in Pune is part of an effort to generate a debate over the future thematic choices of emerging playwrights. Potdar feels a couple's apartment (F1/105) is a great vehicle to examine contemporary issues of urban migration and cultural insecurity.

Ashutosh Potdar
Ashutosh Potdar

Potdar is open about his own insecurities in his choice of a place to 'settle down' as a writer. "I used to look down on Pune as too Puneri, restricting for me. I was cynical. But, cities work for you when you find like-minded professionals - in my case Mohit Takalkar and Ashish Mehta," confesses Potdar who currently works closely with two of the most well known theatre groups of Pune, Aasakta and Natak Company, whose actors have mounted the three newly-published plays Anand Bhog Mall, F1/105 and Sindhu, Sudhakar, Rum Ani Itar. The fourth one, Pulakhalcha Bomblya Maruti, has inspired a dramatic reading by an Aurangabad group. Both Anand Bhog Mall and Pulakhalcha Bomblya Maruti have been rendered in Hindi, though not performed. Interestingly, Potdar has an academic interest in translations, which he feels "is a necessary bridge in today's cultural environment where no Indian language can survive without sharing." Potdar is the co-editor (along with Noopur Desai) of an online bi-lingual journal (Marathi and English) named Hakara which is aimed at a collaborative platform for artists and writers across disciplines and languages. Potdar has also rendered foreign texts into Marathi - Jean Genet's The Maids; August Strindberg's Miss Julie and Dario Fo's The Mother.

Girish Kulkarni and Anita Date-Kelkar in a scene of Anand Bhog Mall. It’s Ashutosh Potdar’s most well-known play, that uses the shopping mall as a symbol of illusory urban prosperity
Girish Kulkarni and Anita Date-Kelkar in a scene of Anand Bhog Mall. It’s Ashutosh Potdar’s most well-known play, that uses the shopping mall as a symbol of illusory urban prosperity

Apart from cities, Potdar is interested in the issue of caste relations in a post-globalised, modern, supposedly egalitarian place named India. The play, that he is most known for, Anandbhog Mall (2009), beautifully captures the Brahmin-versus-Maratha caste dynamic. It shows (mounted on the shoulders of two talented Marathi performers - Girish Kulkarni and Anita Date-Kelkar) a couple's inability to leave behind caste superiority, despite the declared ideological allegiance to the idea of a marriage that goes beyond caste and class divisions. The play, particularly its availability in book form, assumes significance in contemporary Maharashtra, because very rarely have Marathi playwrights appreciated, empathised with and articulated the caste equations with such sharpness. The play was written when he was living in Kolhapur and was deeply affected by the attack on Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. "Never earlier in my life had I come so close to experiencing the madness and caste consciousness that could drive unrelated people, who were migrants and not even residents of Pune, to rip apart a research institute for helping a researcher. I felt this was the beginning of a collective decline." It has been eight years since Potdar created the Anandbhog Mall in which a couple decides to drown its worries in a make-believe jazzy mall where the display of goods soothes their senses. When Potdar is complimented about the current-day topicality of his creation, he doesn't know if he should be happy about the smart choice of his theme, or sad that malls have become an even larger symbol of upward urban mobility.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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