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  • Marathi Theatre Today:An Interview with Shanta Gokhale
  • Shirley Huston-Findley (bio)

Often called the "Grande Dame" of Marathi theatre, Shanta Gokhale is a novelist, journalist, translator, and cultural/theatre critic in Mumbai, India.1 She graduated with a degree in English language and literature from the University of Bristol, UK. In addition to a variety of films and documentaries, Gokhale has published a number of books, including Playwright at the Center: Marathi Drama from 1843 to the Present (2000), Satyadev Dubey: A Fifty-year Journey through Theatre (2011), Veenapani Chawla: Theory, Practice and Performance (2014), and The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai (2015), as well as her translation of Lakshmibai Tilak's Smritichtre: The Memoir of a Spirited Wife (2017). The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale, edited by Jerry Pinto, was released in 2018, and her autobiography, One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told through the Body, was published in 2019.

I met Shanta at her home in Shivaji Park, Mumbai on April 18, 2014. She was one of the twenty-eight female Indian artists I chose to interview during my Fulbright that year. I was primarily interested in Indian women playwrights, but as we drank tea and munched on cookies, Shanta shared with me her stories of the rich history in Marathi Theatre and culture, as well as her perspective on the current state of the art, which confirmed much of what I had been hearing from the broad range of interviewees I encountered in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Pondicherry, and Calcutta.

Familiar with the history of classical Indian dance/drama, its origins in Sanskrit, and its primary influence from Hinduism as depicted in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, I set out with a series of questions regarding contemporary Indian women playwrights based on that knowledge, as well as my awareness of the significant role that feminism has played in the history of India as a nation. What I discovered, however, was the remarkably diverse array of artistic challenges the artists encounter, many of which are discussed in the following interview (for example, the lack of education in playwriting throughout the country, the prevalence of censorship, and the limitations caused by the diverse languages spoken throughout the country). The playwrights also spoke of an absence of copyright protection/unionization for artists and minimal funding, which caused many of the women to look toward the UK for opportunities in training and financial support, as well as the ongoing trials of being female in a male-dominated profession and culture.2

Shirley Huston-Findley:

I'm curious about why you titled your 2000 book Playwright at the Center.

Shanta Gokhale:

Because it focuses on four famous playwrights from Maharashtra: Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar, and G. P. Deshpande.3 Their plays were translated long ago.


Did they all make a living as writers?


One [partly] did—Tendulkar, because he was a journalist as well.


Has playwriting ever been a viable profession in India? [End Page E-1]

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Fig 1.

Cover of Jerry Pinto's edited volume The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale (2018).


In Maharashtra, the situation is different [from other regions in India], because we have a very strong professional theatre. These are people who belong to the so-called experimental theatre. Experimental not in terms of avant-garde, but not doing the commercially sellable things.


So the people doing the commercial stuff are making a living?


Yes, there are periods in Marathi theatre where some pretty important experiments have been carried out, but by and large it is theatre for entertainment and it tends to fall into certain formulas.


It's like our Broadway.


It's like your Broadway, exactly. Without all the jazz. We can't afford that.


And so historically, [playwriting] has not been a profession?


Historically, it has been … this tradition of playwriting started with people who were actually living off theatre and that has continued. That's where mainstream theatre comes from, in Maharashtra. People began experimenting [with...


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