Mahatma Phule – father of Indian social drama

In 1855, Mahatma Jotiba Phule wrote his play Tritiya Ratna (Third Gem), which is also called ‘Tritiya Netra’ (The Third Eye). This play was the harbinger of social theatre

‘Tritiya Ratna’: The First Modern Indian Social Play

The history of Marathi theatre is believed to have begun with Vishnudev Bhave’s Sitaswayamvar Aakhyan. This play was first staged in 1843 in the durbar of Shrimant Rajasaheb Appasaheb Patwardhan at Sangli. Since Bhave was a dramatist of the defeated Brahmins, the narrative was based on a religious scripture, and hence belongs to the brahmanical tradition.[1]

In 1855, Mahatma Jotiba Phule wrote his play Tritiya Ratna (Third Gem), which is also called ‘Tritiya Netra’ (The Third Eye). This play was the harbinger of social theatre. That is why Phule is known as the father of not only Marathi but also Indian social theatre. He had written this play with the objective of bringing about social change. Phule was an active social worker and thinker. He not only theorized social change but also worked for it and built a movement for social reform. He launched a school for Shudras, Atishudras and women.

He fought against the Varna and caste-based fundamentalist system, rooted in the Hindu religion. He opened the well in his house to the Shudras. He founded the Satyashodhak Samaj. To further his objective, he wrote many books including Sarvajanik Satyadharma, Jatibhed Vivek Saar, Brahmanon Ka Kasab, Gulamgiri, Kisanon Ka Chabuk, among others. He also wrote the drama Tritiya Ratna. He and his wife Savitribai were thrown out of their home and Phule had to face murderous assaults – all because he worked for social change. But undeterred, he continued his battle all his life.

Mahatma Jotiba Phule was, basically, not a dramatist. But he wrote Tritiya Ratna only to get the message of his social movement to the people at large. The play had sociopolitical content and was revolutionary in the sense that it was for the first time in India that a play was used as a tool in the quest for truth and for public instruction.[2] All the contemporary social issues were rooted in religion and the caste system. In the social set-up prevalent then, Dalits, Bahujans, untouchables and Backwards were mercilessly exploited. Their human rights were denied to them. Ignorance, illiteracy, superstitions, outdated traditions, Varna and caste systems, untouchability and economic exploitation had blocked the way to progress of these communities. Phule wrote this play to free these communities from slavery, to bring about social change, to awaken the exploited and victimized sections, deprived of all progress and to raise their level of consciousness. He expounded the importance of education, its consequences and advantages in the drama. He tried to cleanse the social, economic and cultural environment of the contemporary exploitative society. Through this play, he expressed his desire to build a humanistic, egalitarian, mature and independent society, based on scientific reasoning – a society free from slavery and the one that recognises the human rights of all its members. Suffice it to say that Phule’s thoughts, actions and his literary works heralded Marathi social theatre.

The Bahujans had lost the battle against the system which only served the interests of the elite. He blamed the caste system, religion and fundamentalism for this defeat. “If Bhave and Kirloskar’s plays represented the subconscious quest for the realization of the self among the elite classes, Phule blamed internal enemies for the social defeatism and by declaring a war on them, brought the real self of the Bahujan society to the fore”.[3] In short, Tritiya Ratna was inspired by social concerns. It was about social consciousness, revolt, rebuilding and renaissance. Its objective was social change and the establishment of a new social environment.

Tritiya Ratna experimented with many aspects of creative writing. It changed the very criterion of subject matter, intent, craft, style, character, language, dialogue and theatric struggle. It gave a new perspective to society. It opened new possibilities of stage presentation. It inaugurated a new tradition of revolt. Generally, Govind Ballal Deval and his play Sangeet Sharda are considered the first social dramatist and social play, respectively. But this drama did not have social change as its primary theme. Sharda was a realistic presentation of a Brahmin family and society that could have been in any part of Maharashtra. It also sought to establish that close ties existed between the Deshastha and Konkanastha Brahmins.[4] It was not written with the objective of public awakening or public instruction. It did not raise any social questions. It did not aim at social change. As for Phule, his primary objective was social change. “The contemporary Marathi dramatists lacked a sense of social reality. They also lacked the will to raise social issues. In this respect, Tritiya Ratna is an excellent play. The writings of the dramatists of the Bhave tradition failed to reflect the contemporary socio-political conditions. They lacked the vision to comprehend the social reality – something which Mahatma Phule had aplenty”.[5] Tritiya Ratna introduces us to Phule’s deep and penetrative vision of the social reality.

Famous Marathi critic Kamlakar Nadkarni has described this play as the first play centered on a social problem. Dr Anand Patil says it is an “action-based social play”. Professor Rosalind O’Hanlon terms it “social drama of the rebel shudras-ati shudras”. In the words of Dr Gangadhar Pantavne, it is a “Dalit social drama”. Professor Datta Bhagat calls it “the first modern social drama”. Girish Karnad, G.P. Deshpande, Sudhanwa Deshpande, Dr Yashwant Manohar and other well-known personalities have also stressed the social angle of the play.

The Play

The play has five acts. The storyline is simple and straightforward.The play is not bound by any particular theatrical style. It has props of V-effect or alienation theatrical style and is marked by a new craft, new theatrical style, and negation of the changeover in the character of the jester, new language of dialogues, absence of music or songs and concept of total theatre. The play has eight characters: a farmer, his wife, a Brahmin Jairam Joshi and his wife, a Christian missionary, a Muslim man, Damu Joshi and the jester. The drama plays out at four locations: the farmer’s home, Damu’s home, Joshi’s home and the temple.

The glutton Jairam Joshi pandit visits the poor farmer’s home, when the latter is not at home. The pandit tells the farmer’s pregnant wife that her unborn child is under the spell of an evil ‘griha dasha’ and forces her to part with ‘dakshina’ to perform a ritualistic puja to propitiate the evil stars. The farmer’s monthly earning is only Rs 4 but the pandit issues a religious commandment to the broke farmer to borrow Rs 10. He performs a fake puja and takes away the eatables and the material used for the puja. He forces the farmer and his wife to do physical labour. They are only given the “prasad” and that too from a distance. He terrorizes them in the name of God, religion, the planets and stars, fate, luck, curses and the trouble that was certain to befall their unborn child. In the end, a Christian priest arrives. He opens the eyes of the farmer and his wife. He tells them how and why Joshi had trapped them. He introduces them to the real character of the pandit and advises them to join the night classes run by Phule. The farmer and his wife realize that they fell into the trap of Joshi because of their ignorance, lack of education and superstitions. The jester essays the role of a spectator and analyst. He explores the truth and brings it before the people. The jester is representative of Phule who presents his views through the drama and indicates the direction the social change should take.

The basic objective of the play is to educate the people, to awaken them. “Vidhya ke bagair mati gayee, mati ke bagair gati gayee. Gatee bagair, vitta gaya, itna anarth ek avaidya ne kiya” (For want of education, wisdom was lost, for want of wisdom, the ability to discern right from wrong was lost, for want of this ability, money was lost. Such is the disaster brought about by lack of education) is a maxim propounded by Phule and is reflected in the drama. “If the farmers had acquired education along with tilling their land, such Joshis would have run away long ago”. “If a Joshi can save a person’s life, why don’t the British padlock the hospitals and give the responsibility of saving the lives of the people to the Joshis?” And “The talk about stars and planets is a lot of bunkum. The zodiac sign of Joshi and Jogaibai is the same. Then why Joshi is enjoying ghee-roti while all the pain, all the troubles have come to Jogaibai?” Through such dialogues, Phule introduces us to his scientific and pragmatic thought-process. “Education opens the third eye of the humans. It is the third ‘ratna’ (jewel), which can be used to struggle against ignorance, illiteracy, superstitions and injustice.” Phule was saying this when the elites were describing education as a “sin”, when the Shudras did not have the right to education. A contemporary “Sanatani” scholarly poet was saying, “If you send your children to school, your family will be stigmatized.” In this context, Phule’s emphasis on education shows his revolutionary thinking. Thus, ‘Tritiya Ratna’ is a revolutionary play.

The Indian social system is an admixture of the elements of Varna, caste, sects and fundamentalist thinking. It is closely interlinked with the reality of socio-cultural exploitation. The female character of the play, Jogaibai, is exploited both as a woman and as a Shudra. Women are the foundation of the social system. Jairam pandit targets this foundation. He aims at her womanhood and motherhood. “There is a great difference between the struggle of the higher-caste woman and that of a Dalitbahujan woman. The struggle of the female character of the play, Jogaibai, is multi-dimensional. The emotional, social, cultural, economic and familial facets of her life – all are controlled by the Varna-caste-religion based  system”[6]. This play is also a discourse on women. It projects the role of women in bringing about social change and this is one of the specialities of the play.

Well-known Marathi critic Arvind Vaman Kulkarni, in his criticism of the play based on the theory of ‘cultural hegemony’ of Marxist thinker Gramsci, gives it a new meaning.[7] “In our country, the concepts of former birth, rebirth, ‘Karmavipak’, laws of ethics, etc were used by the Savarnas and especially the Brahmins, who were experts in teaching and learning, to build a philosophical framework. They laid the foundation of a social system based on inequality. A rulebook was prepared in the form of ‘Smriti’ scriptures for the convenience of the Brahmins and other Savarnas. This rule-book accorded Brahmins the status of ‘Bhudev’ (Lord of the land). They enslaved the Shudras, who were deprived of knowledge and education. In the name of God, in the name of religion, they maintained their domination. Fate is supreme. A Shudra’s life is what it is, because of God’s will. On this philosophical basis, they exploited Shudras sociologically, economically, culturally and religiously. Those who offered resistance were ordained to go to hell.”[8] This was the cultural hegemony of our system. Mahatma Phule, through Tritiya Ratna, made the first attempt to break this hegemony through the medium of drama. He gave a befitting reply to this cultural hegemony through counter-hegemony. ‘Tritiya Ratna, is, thus, not only a play but also a symbol of counter-hegemony. Tritiya Ratna countered the theory of social, religious and cultural hegemony with the objective of bringing about social change.

Bertolt Brecht’s “V-effect” or theory of “Alienation” is famous the world over in the fields of art and culture. Brecht propounded this theory to resist capitalism and afford a place to communist, socialist ideology in the world of theatre. He aroused the consciousness of the audience and made them think. Brecht gave a distinct identity to this theory through Epic theatre. Brecht experimented at many levels – at the level of craft, language, character, dialogue and system. It is surprising that Mahatma Phule expounded this theory through Tritiya Ratna. We can see all the elements of this theory, this theatrical style in this play. And that too, 75 years before Brecht!

As a play, Tritiya Ratna has many shortcomings. It does not fulfil all of the traditional criteria of drama. It does not have theatrical or artistic merit. But its deeper meaning and the possibility of experimentation with its presentation make it special.

To sum up, Tritiya Ratna has a unique place in the theatre of social change. The play also heralded Indian social theatre. Unfortunately, for 125 years, this play remained hidden from public view. It was rediscovered in 1979. For the last 30 years, this play has been the subject-matter of discussion, debate and research.

[1] Natki Nibandh, G.P. Deshpande, Lokvangmay Griha, Mumbai

[2] Natak Thevanitali, Kamlakar Nadkarni, Pandit Publications, Kanakvali

[3] Vismarnaat Geleli Natke, Arvind Vaman Kulkarni, Padmagandha Prakashan, Pune

[4] ‘Tritiya Ratna – Adhya Marathi Natak’, Dr Satish Pawade, NB Prakashan, Amaravati

[5] Tritiya Ratna – Anuvaad, Sushila Bharati, Vishwabharati Prakashan, Nagpur

[6] Adhunik Marathi Vangmayacha Itihaas (Vol 1), editor, Dr A.N. Deshpande

[7] Tritiya Ratna Evam Isphut Rachnayein, editor, Hari Narke, Govt of Maharashtra

[8] Mahatma Phule Samagra Vangmay, eds Dhananjay Keer, Dr SG Maal

Published in the April 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine

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