Source : Mumbai Mirror – Ramu Ramanathan
I visited the Naik home for my mathematics and Marathi tuitions. Mr Naik tried to boost my algebra and geometry scores. And Mr Naik’s sister, who was a librarian at LIC Yogakshema, tried to overcome my aversion towards Marathi by offering me a set of “Goodh-katha” (strange) stories. I recall two writers, Narayan Dharap and Ratnakar Matkari, who made Marathi “fun” for me. Khekada by Matkari was the best. The stories spooked me. But hey, I could speak decent Marathi.
Later, I confronted Matkari with Arajak, a play in blank verse based on a chapter from the Mahabharata and Lokkatha 78, a portrayal of Dalit life. This was the age of Satish Alekar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Achyut Vaze. They were the rule-breakers. Lokkatha 78 did so, too. Even today, activists from Marathwada and Khandesh speak about the discussions the play elicited during a tour.
Besides 250 short stories and three novels, Matkari, who is 74, has written as many full-length plays as his age. These include: one-act plays, children’s plays, state competition plays, experimental plays, adaptations, “commercial” plays. A majority of his plays have breached the hundred show mark, and a popular play like Char Diwas Premache with 1,000 shows, provoked inconclusive speculation as to whether he is a true inheritor of Vasant Kanetkar’s legacy.
So, what is the success to Matkari? After reading his theatre autobiography Majhe Rangprayog (a 704 page magnum opus), patterns emerge. For one, he inherited the tag of creator of bitter-sweet comedies of middle-class Marathi lives and marriages. Two, he forged a successful playwrightdirector partnership with Vijay Kenkre and then, Mangesh Kadam. For his more radical work, he donned the mantle of writer, director and producer.
Like most Marathi playwrights he learnt his craft early. His father was literate enlightened and a member of Mumbai Marathi Granth Sanghralaya. He had gobbled up most of the masters from Govind Ballal Deval to Ram Ganesh Gadkari. By the time he was in his late-teens, he had penned his first one-act. On cue, it was broadcast on All India Radio. The date is etched in Matkari’s brain: Feb 14, 1955. As he says, “While attending lectures in college, a parallel track raced through my mind. The entire one-act play appeared like a vision in my head. And I had to get it out of my system, or else I would be unsettled. I would write the play and most of the plays would be performed at the intercollegiate competition.”
By the time Matkari had graduated, he was rated as an “established playwright”. There is the tale of how Vijay Tendulkar, who was editor of a literary magazine, Vasudha, asking Matkari to share his latest one-act plays. Matkari thought the senior playwright wanted to discuss and dissect them. Instead, he handed over the latest issue of the magazine, in which Sharavari was published. Matkari’s first published play.
Like Marquez, Matkari believes playwriting is carpentry. It is hard work and requires discipline. Matkari, it is rumoured, works from 10 to 10. Daily. This habit has been sustained over 60 years. Matkari visualises an entire play from start to finish.
So? In spite of such a massive body of work, why did Ratnakar Matkari not grab the attention of the critics and the theatre bigwigs in Delhi? He has been indicted for his choice of subject matter, which some say is “lightweight”. Plus he has been perceived to be apolitical. Matkari says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been a political writer, but I think I’ve been a social writer.” This is a curious charge considering his support for the Narmada Bachao Andolan plus his sustained work with children in bastis.
Scan the advertisement theatre page in Marathi daily, you realise he is not as performed as a few years ago on the mainstream stage. Indira is just one of the significant play projects. The end of this year will see the premiere of a new Matkari play, Kali Rani. Vijay Kenkre, who has directed eleven Ratnakar Matkari plays, says, “He is a wordsmith. From the construct of the first line, he sets the stage. He comes directly to the point.”
That’s true. Even today most one-act play competitions in Maharashtra boast of one Ratnakar Matkari play. Inasmuch as the revered status for his children’s plays like Nimma Shimma Rakshasa and Albatya-Galbatya. Above all, Matkari’s enthusiasm and passion for theatre remains undiminished. Even as I get ready to exit, enters a young playwright to read his new play, a producer to discuss dates and an illustrator to design the book cover for a Ratnakar Matkari collection of essays.
What is the best place in Mumbai:
I find the art movement at the one-storey bungalow of Bhulabhai Institute in Breach Candy in the 50s and 60s inspirational. The space had studios, where artists such as M F Husain, Vasudeo Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Nalini Malani and Akbar Padamsee worked, and theatre directors like Ebrahim Alkazi, and Satyadev Dubey rehearsed.
A day in Mumbai which you shall never forget:
The 1993 bomb blasts.
One event in Mumbai which cast an everlasting impression on you?
My father had taken me to Gandhiji’s meeting at Juhu. We joined a sea of people.
— (Ramu Ramanathan is a playwright, editor of PrintWeek and a Mumbaikar. This column appears here every fortnight)