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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 45, October 26, 2013

In Memory of Govind Purushottam Deshpande (1938–2013)

Saturday 26 October 2013, by Shamsul Islam



The death of Govind Purushottam Deshpande (GoPu and GPD to his friends and fans) recently at Pune is an immense loss to academia the world over, Indian theatre and culture. With his death we have lost an intellectual and activist who was known for his intellectual inquisitiveness and debate/dialogue, the two genres becoming a rarity these days. It was a wonderful experience to read him, listen to his lectures (including class-lectures) and witness a play penned by him. The curiosity, challenging the myths, re-interpreting the world, questioning the reality, faith in socialism and eternal belief in the rise of the downtrodden were the hall-marks of his creativity. A darling of converts he was equally effective in winning over non-converts or keeping the debate alive with the latter.

He lived an active creative life, taught at the Centre for East Asian Studies at the JNU, New Delhi. Though he retired from the JNU but true to the maxim that a good teacher never retires, continued to contribute immensely in fields of his choice. He was a popular columnist in the Economic and Political Weekly. He was an inter-nationally acclaimed China expert who long back argued that faced with the unipolar world and hegemonic designs of the USA it would be prudent for both India and China to enter into a judicious relationship. He argued that the ‘neo-conservative’ world order necessitated “a process of mutually arriving at an understanding of the implications of the American monopoly or dominance of the world distribution of power”. If India and China want to avoid a scenario in which they compete for becoming foot-soldiers of the USA, GPD’s sage advice remains valid even today.

He was indeed a successful and popular academician. GPD’s most creative work concerned Indian society, culture and theatre. His mastery over Sanskrit texts, Bhakti poetry and a deep understanding of casteism gave new dimensions to his writings. He looked at them dialectically, holding that ancient India was not a one-way traffic of Brahmanism but had powerful rebellious ideas and movements. He became one of the greatest signatures of anti-Brahmanical writings in Maharashtra and devoted his life to opposing casteism. It resulted in his ‘engagement with Phule’ which continued to be his first love. He completed the translation of Phule’s Marathi works into English, thus opening the gates for the translation of Phule’s works in other languages also. He edited a popular edition of Phule’s selected writings (Leftword Books). He will be remembered for his work on culture and politics titled, Dialectics of Defeat: Problems of Culture in Post-Colonial India (Seagull, Kolkata), a collection of poems, Ityadi Ityadi Kavita (Etc. Etc. Poems).

There is no doubt that drama was his forte. Doubtlessly, he can be regarded as a leading theatre personality of modern India. His notable plays are: Udhwastha Dharmashala (A Man in the Dark), a play about the persecution of a Leftist teacher by the University, proved to be the greatest hit against the Emergency of 1975-77; Andhar Yatra (A Journey in Darkness); Satyashodhak (The Truth-seeker) on the life and times of the 19th-century social reformer Jyotiba Phule which was performed by actors belonging to the Pune Safai Karmacharis Union throughout the country and by Jana Natya Manch and Rastey (Hindi). Most of the plays were penned in Marathi and later translated to English and other languages. For Sahitya Akademi he edited an anthology of Indian plays, Modern Indian Drama. GPD was a renowned theatre critic whose opinions were highly respected. He remained a fierce critic of contemporary theatre in Maha-rashtra which catered to commercial interests.

He is regarded to be the first Marathi drama author to experiment with ‘discussion plays’, the genre of theatre “in which debate and discussion are more important than plot, action, or character”. This kind of literature could be found in Platonic writings or ancient Sanskrit theatre. He greatly enriched Indian theatre and it would be an injustice to his contribution to regard him only as a Marathi writer.

GPD, a great teacher, statesman, creative writer, a fine human being who dared to call spade a spade, is no more but he will remain alive through his writings and the life he lived for upholding dignity for the have-nots. His son, noted theatre personality Sudhanva Deshpande, aptly described him as a “tarpeze artist of the mind”. Let us give him our revolutionary salute.

Shamsul Islam, a well-known theatre personality, is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Satyawati College, University of Delhi.

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