Playwright Yashwant Shekawat’s work, based on the writer’s biography authored by his wife will be read this weekend

As initiatives that seek to revitalise the theatre scene go, Studio Tamaasha’s New Writing series of readings is significant in a milieu where plays based on original material are still thin on the ground. The series focuses on dramatic (read, rehearsed) readings of new plays by a diverse set of playwrights. It’s an airing of fresh material that the venue hopes will become, “a journey of discovery for audiences.” For writers, listening to their own words, spoken out with characteristic gravitas and presence, provides both validation and verification.

Tamaasha’s earlier, immensely beneficial, string of daytime theatre residencies are now stalled due to their change of address. In their new compact space, the commitment to cultural cross pollination remains steadfast. The series was flagged off in July with a reading of Annie Zaidi’s Untitled 1, and in August, Swetanshu Bora’s Guilt was the next choice. Untitled 1 won Zaidi The Hindu Playwright Award in 2018. The final shortlist of three works for the endowment included Bora’s play, which has since been staged in Bengaluru by the playwright. This month’s edition of New Writing takes up Yashwant Shekawat’s Munshi Premchand, which is based on Premchand Ghar Mein, Shivrani Devi’s memoir of her husband.

Feminist intent

Shivrani and Premchand (whose real name was Dhanpat Rai) were married for 30 years, from 1906 till his death in 1936. She was a child widow, and he, wedded off earlier at the age of 15, was estranged from his first wife. In her paper, Revisiting Premchand: Shivrani Devi on Companionship, Reformism and Nation, scholar Jyoti Atwal speaks of how Premchand responded to a matrimonial ad included in a book aimed at the deliverance of Kayastha child widows, written by Shivrani’s father. Still only 16 and shorn of any agency, Shivrani describes her marriage as transactional, with a fixed dowry, far from the act of noble deliverance some scholars credit Premchand with, although she would later come to respect his forthrightness. For its outspokenness, credited by some to the fervent ethos of the Progressive Writer’s Movement during which it was written, Atwal’s lede describes Shivrani’s memoir as a “cultural product of middle class consciousness [that] can be identified as a specific form of indigenous feminist practice.” It is a text written in 1944 that has been marginalised when it comes to works on Premchand; with son Amrit Rai’s Premchand: Kalam ka Sipahi (1962) considered the definitive biography, winning Rai the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1963 for its objectivity.

Yet, it is significant that Shekawat’s play has unearthed Shivrani’s account, and allows Premchand to be seen through the uncoloured gaze of his wife, an independent spirit in her own right. Shivrani often jousted with her husband on matters of opinion or principle, and was even imprisoned multiple times for her part in the Independence movement. She was also a published writer, contributing stories to women’s journals like Chand, and Premchand Ghar Mein was a memoir “[crafted with] a strong imprint of her own personality and experiences,” according to academic Rachael Hyland.

Literary cult

At Tamaasha, actors Priyanka Setia, Dilip Pandey and Ajeet Singh Palawat will give voice to Shekawat’s, and by extrapolation, Shivrani’s words. What emerges will likely be very different from Premchand’s own articulation of the human condition, marked by realism and empathy. Although there are plays written by him — like Karbala, Prem ki Vedi and Roohani Shaadi — it is his canon of short stories that continue to provide grist to theatre enthusiasts, especially those in the amateur circuit. For instance, the Prem Utsav is a ten-day annual festival flagged off on Premchand’s birth anniversary on July 31, and last month’s edition featured 50 plays based on his writings, all directed by Mujeeb Khan, usually performed in smaller sets in the show, Aadaab Main Premchand Hoon. So the cult of Premchand is still alive, if only to keep his brand of Hindustani alive, at a time when literary language is being subsumed by market forces.

Munshi Premchand will be read at Studio Tamaasha on September 21 at 7 p.m.; more details at bookmyshow.com

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