Power, politics and other other messages in Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal.
When it was first performed, Ghashiram Kotwal by Vijay Tendulkar, was banned on the grounds that it was anti Brahman, the character of Nana Phadnavis was historically inaccurate and there was a fear of revolt in the audience. The controversy surrounding this play– a commentary on politics, society and public administration– made the message of the play even more pertinent. Set in 18th century Poona, the Peshwa empire is governed by Nana Phadnavis, a ruthless administrator. Into this city, comes a poor Brahman from Kannauj—Ghashiram Savaldas, who is insulted and thrown out of Poona on false charges by the xenophobic Poona Brahmans. Ghashiram plots revenge and returns with his daughter, Gauri. Nana, besotted by Gauri, agrees to Ghashiram’s only condition in exchange for her– to appoint Ghashiram, the Kotwal of Poona. A vengeful Ghashiram unleashes a regime of rigid moral policing over Poona, eventually punishing the smallest crimes of punishment with torture and death. When some Brahmans who he ruthlessly jails on flimsy charges, die a painful death in prison, the Brahmans of Poona rise up against the Kotwal. Nana, who has had his time with the Kotwal’s daughter, has no use for Ghashiram and has him stoned to death.
At the core of the play, is the portrayal of power in politics. This power-play is depicted horizontally, in terms of individuals against individuals. The power that the despotic debaucher, Nana Phadnavis holds over Poona—which is totalitarian– with the Nana’s will, the rule of law. And the power that Ghashiram is after, (even at the cost of his daughter)– by demanding and obtaining the title of Kotwal, under the aegis of Nana. While Nana agrees to make Ghashiram the Kotwal, in exchange of his daughter Gauri, Nana is aware of how power affects an individual and how Ghashiram will misuse his power. Additionally, he knows how Ghashiram doing so, will only augment his (Nana’s) power and position in Poona. In a soliloquy, Nana says, “Your manner will be more arrogant than that of the Chitpavan Brahmans… what’ll happen is that our misdeeds will be credited to your account. We do it; our Kotwal pays for it”.
When Ghashiram becomes the Kotwal, instead of cleaning a system that disempowered him as an outsider and using his power to influence a positive change, he becomes a megalomaniac administrator. His despotic moral policing affects the public, making them loathe him. Ghashiram Kotwal “Started ruling in person. Accosted everyone he met in the streets. Whipped people. Arrested people. Demanded people’s permits. Imprisoned people. Sued people.” His totalitarianism goes to such an extent, that “without a permit, nothing can be done”. When Ghashiram’s pregnant daughter dies, his anger stems from remorse and repulsion at his own doing. When Nana tunefully handles the confrontation, asking Ghashiram to bow to him at regular intervals, Ghashiram, mad with fury becomes even more tyrannical; resorting to killing those who he feels deserve punishment.
Those who hold the reigns of administration, policymaking and politics, need an empirical approach, devoid of personal emotions. The necessity for ideological vials like justice, empathy and clinical decision-making is what decides how one administers over the human aspects of power– gaining the support and reverence of citizens. This support is necessary for retaining power, especially for an outsider. Ghashiram’s hamartia (fatal flaw) is the fact that he is driven by personal emotions—first revenge and then after his daughter’s death, anger. His understanding of power is nothing different from Nana, but it feeds his personal demons. While Nana represents Machiavellian politics, Ghashiram represents banal despotisms, stemming from emotions. Therefore, his rise to power and consequent downfall, have no impact in Poona. After his death, Nana announces festivities for three days. Poona returns to its old ways where “Ganapati dances the Ganapati dance, Brahmans of Poona bow and prance.”
Right from the sanctimonious Poona Brahmans to the stage setting of hymns and religious ceremonial— religion, culture, ceremony and caste is used to ironically portray the crassness and rot in the society, that is covered under the garb of the sacred. In a scene, Nana tries to seduce a girl praying before Ganapati. At the end of the ceremony the girl points to the God and says “he will see” to which Nana replies “that idol of holiness?” At that moment the façade of ceremony collapses, reducing a God to a mute idol. The Poona Brahmans of the city spend their days shuttling between bhajans, lascivious tamashas, temples, prayers and gambling dens, pious wives and dancing girls. Tendulkar portrays the manipulation of the sacred by showing the hypocrisy towards it. He also depicts how easily those in power distort faith, wielding it to give direction to their own politics and will.
In an interview, Tendulkar was asked whether he conceived the play as an expose of Brahman corruption and pretensions, or as a study of the power game in more general terms. Tendulkar disagreed and replied “I had in mind the emergence, the growth and the inevitable end of Ghashiram; also those who create, and help Ghashirams to grow; and the irony of stoning a person to death a person pretending that it is the end of Ghashiram.” When power play in politics moves horizontally, pitting individuals against individuals, rather than on administration, policy and ideology, Tendulkar’s core message from Ghashiram Kotwal, becomes even more pertinent. Tendulkar says that Ghashiram Kotwal is not a historical play. Ghashirams are creations of socio-political forces, which know no barriers of time and place. He says that he did not intend to comment on the morals or the lack of them, of the Peshwa, Nana or Ghashiram. “The moral of the story, if there is any, maybe looked elsewhere”.