Today, the concept of death is different as it has come close to us: Satish Alekar

Playwright-director Alekar and the Natak Company are set to present the new year’s first show of the iconic play Mahanirvan on January 10.

It is considered one of the classics of the Indian stage, with more than 400 shows in 45 years and watched by thousands.

Mahanirvan — The Dread Departure, written and directed by Satish Alekar, is a black comedy that revolves around a dead man and his family as they go about the last rites. It was still being performed in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic closed all theatres and death acquired a whole new darkness in the months that followed.

Mahanirvan was one of the few plays in Maharashtra to get on the stage when the lockdown began to ease, with a sold-out show at the new venue, The Box, in December. Emboldened by the reception, Alekar and the Natak Company present the new year’s first show of Mahanirvan on January 10. Excerpts from a conversation with Alekar:

Do you see society treating death differently now, especially during a pandemic, from the time you first presented Mahanirvan?

Today, the concept of death is different because it has come close to us. We are watching it every day, without fail, on every channel and on mobile phones, either from social violence, terrorism or disease. Films have become more violent. When I was younger, one’s experience of death was less common and was sacred. If there was a death, the whole atmosphere would totally change in office and home. Now, people are in a rush to resume normal life. Even if the bereaved are feeling a sense of loss, they continue with family affairs, office and everyday life.

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The play deals extensively with death rituals, with the deceased even having a say in the choice of the crematorium. In the past few years, have you seen this aspect changing?

Sensitivity towards the death rituals today has become less emotional because death has become so familiar because of the media. None of the actors in this play presently, was born when the Mahanirvan was first staged in 1974. We ask actors and other involved in the play how they react to what is shown, about death rituals and other sociopolitical realities? How do they react to the meaninglessness of death rituals? At the time I was writing Mahanirvan, lower-middle class values were changing. Today, death rituals can be viewed online through a camera installed in a crematorium. If I had written this 48 years ago, people would have laughed at me.

The dead man’s wife wants to start a new chapter in the play, which is a radical idea for a new widow.

She sees death as a kind of liberation for her. Possibly,, the woman was oppressed. She may have married without her consent. She must have endured him so many years. When her husband dies, she may feel free.

In 2018, when you revived the play after a decade, your initial actors from Theatre Academy, Pune were too old and new performers from Natak Company took on the iconic roles. How did you prepare them, given that the script did not change?

I get that my play has suddenly gone from being a social play to a historical one, over two generations. I repeatedly asked the performers if Mahanirvan was something relevant to their lives. They said, ‘yes’. I took workshops and explained to them the situation of the 1970s, and what was the popular culture of the time as well as the sociopolitical movements. I showed them video clips and talked to them about other plays of the era. It is not a straight narrative play. My narration goes into space and oblique ways. The new generation should grasp it. They studied the costumes and the popular music of the 1970s. They prepared themselves.

One of the highlights is the use of the folk form of Keertana. Is this also in keeping with the character of the 1970s’ Pune?

During the 70’s, many playwrights were using traditional theatre forms with a new sensibility. It was a period of subversion and reappropriating traditional art forms in the respective fields. Girish Karnad used Yakshagana in Hayavadana, Vijay Tendulkar used various folk forms in Ghasiram Kotwal and I used the folk theatre form I know, Keertana, which was prevalent in Pune city during that time. However I never made mockery of the traditional form and respected the grammar of it, only the context was changed. This is the reason perhaps audiences accepted the Keertana in the play.

Mahanirvan will be staged on January 10 at Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha, 12 pm. Entry: Rs 250 onward.

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