One of the boldest plays of our times, set in colonial India, visited Delhi on Thursday (14 March). This revolutionary work in theatre from Maharashtra is based on Veer Savarkar's life and time in Andaman's Cellular Jail. It is a prodigious production in almost every aspect that makes ‘good theatre’ good. It launches the much awaited movement — that of clinching a narrative on political aspects that belong to 1911 as much as they reflect during 2019.
It has come to Delhi's drama scene and managed to stir an audience, which doesn't have much to call its own in contemporary theatre — culturally, traditionally and ideologically.
The play falls like the sole whip on a hardened narrative, which demonises and disparages Savarkar. But no one sitting on the high echelons of power in Delhi's culture hub would tell you about it, or perhaps, even know about it. The play is Hey Mritunjay — a title given to Savarkar — by death — a vital character in the script.
The production from Anamika and Svatantryaveer Savarkar Rashtriya Smarak was brought to Delhi by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and was performed at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
When Bengali revolutionary Indubhushan Roy breaks into a song in Hey Mritunjay, his dreadful fate sees a few moments of cheer. Savarkar too joins the heroic chorus. He is shown enjoying the moment and melody, along with Roy and other inmates at Andaman's Cellular Jail. But as Savarkar sings along, a faint fear of what awaits Roy for this melodious feat, shows on his luminous stature. Savarkar continues to sing.
Their youthful singing, thrown over from their chests of steel, which is clanking in frail bodies, would come with ominous outcome. Roy's song toughens up, it seems as if it would liberate them all, including Savarkar, from the rigorous confinement. Savarkar says that freedom does not come without fighting the war. Blood is mostly talked about in symbolic references to sacrifice.
Their other bodily fluids, which add to the stench of the inhuman treatment and British oppression towards inmates at the Cellular Jail, get a bigger mention through the script. Atrocities, as narrated by the characters in Hey Mritunjay, cross the thin sheet of their skin. They are deeper, much deeper than flesh deep.
It is perhaps why death features as a character in Hey Mritunjay, which shows Savarkar's survival in the jail as a constant mind-wrenching struggle against living, and defying death.
Savarkar's haunting, heart rending, valourous, unapologetic, intelligent, inspiring and poetry-soaked stand against British atrocities in the Cellular Jail opened to slogans of ‘Vande Mataram’, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, ‘Jai Shivaji, Jai Bhawani’, at JNU. The staging of the play at the JNU campus organised by ABVP completed an impassioned circle.
By the time Savarkar steps out of his solitary confinement the first time, Roy, like some other revolutionaries lodged at the jail, has gathered the courage to be fearless once again. Savarkar's presence at the jail has emboldened the revolutionaries lodged here. Taking atrocities in jail had numbed them.
The jail staff tries to grab Roy, but he wants to make them sweat a little more. He plays around, running and dodging. He vanishes from the scene for a bit — leaping from one corner of the set to the centre. The British baton lands on his forehead. Blood flows out. Roy is dragged away, to receive even worse.
Then, quickly, the news comes in that he has hung himself. Broken, on hearing that Roy has taken his own life, Savarkar asks the heaviest question. "Why, why did you take your life Indubhushan?" His body trembles in grief. This is the same man who had escaped from the port hole of S S Morea. And the same man who would turn things around for co-inmates, and find himself in a jail on mainland India years later.
It is the extent of tolerance to life that defines death around Savarkar in his new space. The way this play brings his accounts from text to script and performance, has left me not moved, not provoked, but shaken.
Savarkar takes control of the discourse with the character of death — for himself. The process sees him weaning other inmates away from the jaws of the gnawing temptation to give up (life). Savarkar rises like a brilliant flame, galvanising others as he touches their lives.
This play is a blazing spark — truly secular in spirit, and honest in its approach to nationalism. Savarkar speaks from the vedas, he speaks through Bahadur Shah Zafar's poetry, he speaks the through Mutiny soldiers, he speaks through other inmates at the Cellular Jail, he also speaks through you and me, he speaks through his own skin on what means ‘tolerance’, how much is to be tolerated. He speaks on how the tolerant should not be mistaken for ‘weak’, and how the ones, who want to walk out of punishment to become more useful to the motherland and not wanting to wriggle in their own bodily fluids, and to bear even worse, are not cowards.
It rips open the character of Savarkar, which has been concealed and construed in history books in order to suit the Left's allergy-resistance to Savarkar. The play also brings the soul of Marathi theatre to contemporary drama, in good measures.
For ABVP, which brought the play from Maharashtra to the campus, Savarkar is a hero among the heroes of Indian freedom revolution. He is also the man who is often subjected to derogation by their political opponents and cultural adversaries — the Left and centre left students wings, at the campus.
Savarkar's reputation preceded him in Cellular Jail. The play is about how ‘Barrister Babu’ (as he is tauntingly addressed by the jailer) stares down death with courage and words. This play makes Savarkar's verbal ruthlessness and brilliant gentleness of words take centre stage. It highlights the importance which Savarkar attributes to politics in the struggle for freedom. "Jo mayawi hai, kapti hai, usaey kapat se hee paraast karna hota hai," he says. The message electrified the audience in JNU.
Hey Mritunjay is a stunning work of production that has not only pushed boundaries for plays dealing with history, but has surpassed some of the best productions I have watched during 17 years. This includes plays that involve actor-directors. My high emotion for this play is not guided by the subject alone.
I was expecting a strong monologue. As the play progressed, I realised that parts of Savarkar's strong and fervid monologue, were stepping stones, used for building a tight, racy, emotionally enveloping work of art. Savarkar’s dialogue with self is more rattling than his dialogue with death, or the jailer.
A broad picture of how it unfolds through a thick and intense light and dark sequence of scenes: The use of recorded material, its character and quality — appropriate, mature, in perfect alignment with the texture of this production. The use of live singing — seasoned, bold, volcanic. It erupts and you are not sure if your blood will remain in the vessels, and veins intact, as the singing breaks into the compact dimly lit sets. The movement of cast on stage — in harmony with the entry and exit of bold and fickle characters who visit the script. Dialogue — immaculate, spear sharp, goading, brutal, gentle, and calming enough to bring back your breaking nerves to the normal throb.
Long before “Tukde Tukde” tukda and mukhda of slogans caught up with freedom of speech at its campus, JNU would witness luscious repetitions of slogans dedicated to Savarkar. These slogans had a special place in the Left’s sharp and crisp repertoire of electoral peak and lean season voice modulation drills. In the early 2000s, I was covering JNU Students’ Union and Delhi University elections for a national daily as part of my work.
It was not uncommon to hear slogans targeting Savarkar. Among these slogans was: “Savarkar ke sapooton ko, ek dhakka our do”. Students of ABVP, were directly designated the pride of being Savarkar's sons (and daughters).
There is a moment in the play when Savarkar's interaction with another revolutionary is interrupted by inmate and freedom fighter Sachindra Nath Sanyal, who tells him about the need to establish the Hindustan Republican Army. Sanyal, before leaving the Cellular Jail for mainland India, expresses his concerns about the condition "of not participating in politics" when released in the petition.
Savarkar asks Sanyal to keep calm and use it as a weapon for release and after. "Let them keep reading this condition, it is for them."
A sea divides Andaman and the mainland. Yet he walks tough on politics. He squirms at being shackled in chains. He does it in poetry. "Meri saari gati par rok laga dee hai isne," he says in frustration. He ignites a movement using his own handcuffs and chains for striking music and codes to communicate with the inmates. This moment is an extremely emotional one. You can hear the chains clinking away, and fading. He has successfully initiated a strike.
Savarkar is shown using the solitary cell as a guard against death — the intrusive character. He calls death a "coolie". Interestingly, the jailer hears him tell death "yahan sirf main taay karoonga (I, only, will take decisions here)," he declares.
The urge to stay alive, in order to continue the fight for freedom, speaks with the youth. Savarkar's fight to demand equal if not better rights for nationalists than criminals lodged in the jail stirred emotion. "Is it because we love our motherland? Is dedicating your life to the motherland a bigger crime than loot?" he asks. The distance between 1911 and 2019 shrinks.
The jailer tries to come clean on inmate suicides and tries to put the blame on Savarkar, saying that his nationalism is triggering deaths. Savarkar pins him down with words. The distance between 1911 and 2019 shrinks.
Savarkar reminds other inmates of Chhatrapati Shivaji's astuteness in politics and in reading the enemy through pretended surrender. He says, that to trap Afzal, Shivaji made an excuse his powerful weapon. He treated Aurangzeb's farmaan with respect. He asks, "does that make Shivaji a desh drohi?" He adds, "yes, I agree that it is insulting and humiliating to accept some British conditions. But it won't douse the fire in our hearts, instead, it will spread the blaze within us, outside."
There is a point where Savarkar himself talks about the temptation to give up living. He narrates how he dreams of the temple back in his village, the previous night, and of a saffron flag being handed over to him, and he being asked to place that saffron flag atop the temple. "As I was moving towards the temple shikhar, the scene began to turn red, the mangal dhwani of the temple bells turned ferocious, just at that moment I felt like giving up my life, and just then, in a flash, I see Bharatmata descend on seven lions." He tells them how they would be remembered if they chose to defy death and walk out of atrocities. "Shilalekh gade jayenge, aur hamare aakrosh ke awaaz ki aartiyan hongi, yaad rakhna."
The distance between 1911 and 2019 shrinks.
Savarkar has entered the scene. So has good, unnerving theatre of cyclical political realities.
Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi
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