Gieve Patel’s plays explore electrifying themes drawn from the dark side of life.
“The tragic vision of life is often misunderstood as dark and gloomy.”
To enter the world of Gieve Patel’s plays is to ready oneself for an emotionally shattering experience. There is nothing pretty-pretty or sentimental about women fighting to the death for custody of a child (“Princes”), or when a man with a dreadful eczema woos a much younger, penniless girl (“Savaksa”) or when a successful barrister gets obsessed with his son-in-law (“Mister Behram”).
Dysfunctional families are a staple with playwrights, Arnold Wesker’s “Roots” or many of John Osborne’s works come to mind. But Gieve’s plays go beyond mere realism. Written and performed memorably in the 1970s and 1980s when Bombay theatre was looking for indigenous writing, routine Broadway adaptations having run their course, the plays, which are now available in a new compilation, launched by Seagull Books in early October in Mumbai, are major works, crying out to be staged again.
Rooted in the Parsi context
Gieve’s plays are unique, says eminent theatre critic Shanta Gokhale, because he is perhaps the only Parsi playwright writing about the community in a rural milieu, particularly the middle-class, impoverished Parsi city-dweller coming to a village. But his locales — village and district town in late 19th century Gujarat, with evocations of the city too — constitute “three microcosms of India”, as the playwright points out. So while being rooted in the searing specificity of the Parsi context, he is able to address quite electrifying themes, such as the obsessive nature of love; power, with its numerous perversions; self-delusion and how it cleaves relationships; the way women are mistreated. Further, what makes these plays definitely not soothing is the way Gieve uses language, Gokhale points out. He is a poet, who deploys image and metaphor and ellipses to compose a tragic denouement. “The tragic vision of life is often misunderstood as dark and gloomy,” Gieve says. “But it’s because great plays — from the Greeks to Shakespeare and the moderns, Ibsen, Strindberg and Eugene O’Neill — face up to the tragic stature of life itself that they, in a way, free us from darkness.”
Gieve Patel was born in 1940 in Bombay. His parents were from Nargol, a village in Bulsar district, southern Gujarat. His father was from a land-owning family, which gave Gieve access to Warli life, a theme that gains in cadence and centrality by the time he was writing “Mister Behram”.
“The Warli labourers worked on our estate, and that was magical, another kind of life from the Parsi life that I was used to,” he remarks, seated in his studio on Nepean Sea Road, which offers a view of Hanging Gardens’ verdure. He is wary though of looking at any art from the point of view of ‘current issues’. “I address life first — because issues’ will change. What is unchanging is how human beings get involved in these issues and how they interact under circumstances of great strain.”
Language (in Mister Behram)
The language of the play, an intended artifice, is a lapidary mix of Gujarati English, interspersed with literal translation that has been further chiselled to pierce like shards of glass. Emotions run high here and what is spoken mirrors the almost animal violence within. “How can you be taken in! How can you! If we were not around he would take the child in his teeth and carry him off.”
Amid such conflict, which is never black-and-white, “There is also a tremendous amount of love and caring (in families),” the playwright points out. Like the insistence on food? “Yes, yes, absolutely. So then that becomes a backdrop against which the darker forces are seen in stark relief. Perhaps the ultimate heartbreak is this: there is this battle between these two forces happening in the same individual.”
Mister Behram, the self-righteous, reformist lawyer, is quite the guilt-inducing, exploitative ‘parent’ at home, and Nahnu, a Warli youth, who has been taken into his fold, cannot see it. Nothing could say this more dramatically than the opening scene where Nahnu, rechristened ‘Naval’, sees a goat giving birth, as the sun beats down, blinding him and bringing on a seizure: it’s a heraldic image of doom.
There is detailed, moving description in “Savaksa” of a poor man drinking tea with a slice of bread at a railway station. “Focusing on details is very important to me,” Gieve says, “because it is through this that the whole milieu and the life around it are illuminated. You touch universal things not by making large, broad statements but by looking more closely at details. And not trivial details, either,” he qualifies, “but specific details that are telling.”
The ability to observe closely may have originated from his career as a doctor, he laughs, but that’s only the beginning, he adds cryptically, of the long gestation period his work involves. “Things that are important to you remain with you. Then you fashion and refashion.”
Mister Behram: What is the play all about?
Gieve Patel’s Mister Behram, an Indian-English play that has been performed widely across India and has been translated into Marathi by Shanta Gokhale. First staged in English in 1987 under the direction of Gieve’s wife, Toni, this avatar of Mister Behram brings in a “fresh ethos”.
The play is set in the days of the Raj. Mister Behram is an unusual but successful and rich lawyer who had not only adopted and educated Nanhu, an orphaned Waarli boy, but also gave consent to his daughter Dolly (Neelima Deshpande) to marry him.
It turns out that the father has an almost pathological obsession for the boy; love that is reciprocated by Nanhu himself. However, Behrams love is sexual, one with homoerotic undertones, while Nanhu’s is not. In one instance Behram says
“At sowing, planting, reaping, resting, have I not studied these bodies convinced of a mystical knowledge immured within each of them, each piece of flesh derived from the clods of earth on which they tread season after season! Our bodies are dull dough before this vision. And the colouring…generations of sunlight on that naked frame have burnished each turn of skin from wheat to bronze to a dark clotting in the folds.”
Family dynamics play out against this strange backdrop – Dolly and her father competing for Nanhu’s affections, with Rati, Behram’s devoted wife, struggling to assuage emotions and gain his love. Only when Dolly becomes pregnant, does Behram break.
A parallel trajectory to the central storyline has political overtones. The British district collector, Mr Watts wants the British to take over the neighboring grasslands to set up an army cantonment, a move resisted by tribals. When Nanhu, a London-educated barrister thanks to his godfather, excels in court, Mister Behram, himself a celebrated barrister of the district, feels upstaged. He has no compunction humiliating Nanhu in Mr Watts’ presence by asking him to strip to his native tribal loincloth, ostensibly to show off his splendid body. Nanhu complies, breaks down, and a shocked Dolly leads him away.
Love, ego, desire to humiliate, possess, subjugate are interwoven into the dark-headed tapestry of this drama. Homoeroticism is a prevalent theme in the play, especially seen in Mister Behram’s dialogues, and the play seems ahead of it’s times, exploring homosexuality in a way never been done before. Yet, there is a subdued quality to the authors writing, as if he knew that the audience of that time would vehemently oppose not to the relationship between Behram and Nanhu, a sexually tinged one, but the nature of their relationship-almost an incestuous attraction between father and son, one where Mister Behram aims to reap “unspeakable pleasures”. The ending of the play is a shocking one, where we see Rati constantly treating and portraying Behram as a martyr despite his mistreatment of her, and the play causes you to reflect on the various issues in India during that time.
I’ve kept this review short and sweet because the play is so complex I could write pages and pages on it! If you get a chance, definitely read it. It might be a little voyeuristic and creepy, with hints of pedophilia but it’s a good read. Make sure to pay attention to the important and bizarre stage directions! This review summed up the highlights of the play but in no way was it intended to go in depth-or else it would never end! Visit these links for more information:
https://s3.amazonaws.com/tess57/mister%20behram%20and%20other%20plays.pdf –> you should be able to download the play here