Dr. Shankar Shesh (1933-1981) was a prolific writer and playwright in Hindi.
In the year 2015, his sons established ‘The Dr. Shankar Shesh Foundation’ to promote interest in Hindi plays and writing. Since then the Foundation has held the annual Shankar Shesh Festival. This year the festival was ambitiously organised in the month of October, holding plays in ten cities of the country, including Mumbai. In Mumbai his Are! Mayavi Sarovar, written in 1973, was staged at the Royal Opera House (ROH) and St. Andrews auditorium.
Ancient theme, contemporary relevance
Shesh’s Are! Mayavi Sarovar is a well-known play. His other plays include Ek Aur Dronacharya, Raktabeej, Poster, etc. His plays have been staged by stalwarts of Hindi theatre like Satyadeo Dubey, Dinesh Thakur, M.S. Sathyu, among others. Bollywood films like Gharonda and Durinya were based on his novels.
This year the Dr. Shankar Shesh foundation commissioned Salim Arif to direct Are! Mayavi Sarovar, and the result was a spectacle which forced one to think deeply about gender equation prevalent in Indian society through the centuries. Dr. Shesh has cleverly drawn on colourful Indian mythological motifs, and used them brilliantly to comment on gender inequality across the strata of Indian society, and of course, power struggle.
The play tells the story of King Ilavalu and his beautiful wife Sujata (mother of his hundred sons). As per their practice, they take regular holidays in deep jungles. In one such sojourn, they come across a very unusual place where ‘trees hang upside down’ and ‘donkeys sing raag Bhimpalasi’. They find a beautiful ‘mayavi sarovar’ (mag ical pond). Entranced by the beauty of the lake, the King decides to take a bath in it ignoring the protests of the queen who senses that something terrible would happen. When the King comes out the lake, he is transferred into a queen.
The new lady tells the queen that he enjoys being a woman, and now she should go back to their kingdom and rule in his name.
The queen retreats and the new lady falls in love with a Brahmin hermit, marries him and bears him a baby, a boy. In due course, Sujata, the original queen, comes back to the forest to fetch the king. A clash takes place between Sujata’s son who she thinks is the rightful heir to the Kingdom, whereas the King-turned-woman feels that her son from the Brahmin priest is the legitimate heir to the kingdom. This raises the philosophical debate about the child and his/her lineage. Is a man more important than a woman in bringing children to this world? This leads to the age-old debate about gender equation which is relevant even in the year 2018. In the heat of this gender-discussion, the Brahmin raises another equally relevant point about Indian caste-system: Can a Brahmin’s son become king, a prerogative of Kshatriyas? This play by Dr. Shesh carries these heavy-duty debates on its shoulders, with ease.
Salim has used the format of musical play and wants audiences to indulge into ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, so that they digest the transformation of man into woman, a trick used by many playwrights. His team has smartly contemporarised the play originally written in early 1970s. There are cell-phones and selfies to ensure that it appeals to today’s audiences.
The play has a traditional ‘sutradhar’ to take the narration forward. This role has been played by Sunil Upadhyay. The play has some top class acting from King Ilavalu (Paras Gandhi), Queen Sujata (Simran Tondon), and the new woman (Mohit Mehta). Salim Arif has roped in good talent to compose music (Anadi Ravi Nagar), and choreography (Shreekant Ahire). The play has been produced by Lubna Salim, and designed and directed by Salim Arif. The play leaves the audiences with a feeling that some issues in our ancient society will perhaps never go. Caste system, inferior status of women in our society, etc., are issues which will perhaps be discussed in 3018 too! Sad, but true. Does it mean that the efforts of social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and others, have been wasted? Yes, and No. ‘Yes’, because these issues have not disappeared from our society even today, and ‘no’ because they are not present in the same cruel form as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Playwrights like Dr. Shankar Shesh hold a mirror to us and force us to confront the harsh reality that we would prefer to sweep under the carpet.