Two years ago, when Pune-based activist and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was killed, it had a deep impact on Atul Pethe. The Marathi playwright and theatre director had known him personally and also partook in the activities of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), the organisation Dabholkar set up to eradicate superstition. However, Pethe was unwilling to sit and mourn. Instead, he invited volunteers from MANS and other artistes to a three-day workshop, which he conducted in Kolhapur, Solapur, Islampur and Jalgaon. There, he presented the idea of devising plays that would take forward Dabholkar’s battle.
One of the plays that took shape during the workshops has been extensively touring Maharashtra and Delhi and has since had over 300 performances. Titled Socrates to Dabholkar-Pansare via Tukaram, it was recently staged in Mumbai at multiple locations. “It’s shameful that Dabholkar, who worked to eradicate the evil of superstition, was murdered in broad daylight. That his murderers have not been caught in two years is worse. But it would be sad if we let his efforts go waste. The play is a means to continue his work,” explains Pethe.
During the workshops, Pethe took on the role of a mentor, suggesting the 250-odd attendees to work with music. “Folk songs have a broad reach, especially among the unlettered. We used the tunes but composed lyrics based on Dabholkar’s ideas,” recalls Pethe.
He recommended these be employed through ringan natya, a form that he devised, merging street play with the concept of human chain formed by varkaris during the Pandharpur pilgrimage in Maharashtra. Based on these ideas, the volunteers started to meet every weekend, to independently create narratives.
“Decentralisation of art is important for it to reach people,” adds Pethe.
Ahead of the play’s screening at Nandadeep Vidyalaya, Goregaon East, the auditorium is packed to capacity with students in the age-group of 10 to 14 years. Chattering away as they wait for the performance to begin, they seem an unlikely audience for a play that addresses such a serious issue. Then the artistes, dressed in maroon T-shirts and denims, take stage. Assembled as a group of 10, with four others on dholak and cymbals, they begin with a pacey instrumental piece, and enact the killing of Dabholkar. The students watch in rapt attention.
The Marathi play, as its name suggests, draws parallels between the teachings of Greek philosopher Socrates, Sant Tukaram and Dabholkar. “All three were against blind faith and were persecuted for it,” points out Sanjay Bansode, the Islampur group’s leader who helped developed Pethe’s idea into the play. “Socrates was executed, an attempt on Tukaram’s life was made and Dabholkar was murdered,” he says. Earlier this year, when another Maharashtra-based rationalist Govind Pansare was killed in a similar manner, MANS decided to also include his story in the 40-minute musical.
Pethe says the play also conveys that an ideologue may be killed but his ideas live on. “Dabholkar was considered anti-Hindu but he wasn’t against religion. He opposed the blind faith people put in horoscope and godmen, and the practices that people spend on even if they cannot afford them. Indian women are prone to anemia because of fasting. Witch hunt still happens in villages. In cities, every day the vitamin C from one lakh lemons, which can provide nutrition to the poor, is wasted on nimboo-mirchi. Dabholkar only asked people to look at religion with a scientific approach,” says Pethe.