An ambitious, hot-headed young yogi at a math somewhere in north India is raring to take charge as the old-school acharya who runs it readies for samadhi. Hinduism needs to become muscular to stop the tide of conversions, the belligerent acolyte argues, it must forcibly quell the exodus of shudras to Buddhism and – if need be – it should rid itself of its liberal scholars and intellectuals.

In the meanwhile, the angry ascetic’s army of fanatics, simply called the “sangh”, is going berserk around town. An over-eager protégé, with half-baked ideas about piety, ends up beheading the acharya. Mayhem spreads, and the rage of the rabble makes sure that all voices of reason and moderation are silenced.

Abhishek Majumdar’s play Muktidham could start with a different kind of disclaimer – that none of the characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and identification with actual persons (living or deceased) and places is intended. Except, it is set in 8th century CE India, in an imaginary town of Birpur, with Buddhism on the ascendant and a Buddhist Pala king on the throne.

Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam
Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam

Past continuous

Untouchability, caste, chastity, patriarchy, marriage, love – the play touches on just about every issue at the core of right-wing discourse today (“Manusmriti margdarshak [guide]” is the chant of the sangh). As for the dramatis personae, they could be straight out of the day’s news about atrocities against Dalits, communal strife or moral policing.

Scripting a play this close to the bone is brave enough at a time when even imagined insults can cause offence. But Majumdar and his Bengaluru-based troupe, Indian Ensemble, did the unthinkable – they took the play right to its heart in contemporary India: Muktidham has just finished a tour of Lucknow, Bareilly, Allahabad, Agra and Gorakhpur, the home of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister who is the head of the math by the same name.

The play, which premiered last year at Rangashankara in Bengaluru, has travelled to Mumbai, Pune and Panjim and arrived a fortnight ago in Delhi, playing at Studio Safdar, on its way to Uttar Pradesh.

Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam
Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam

“The play belongs to Lucknow, Bareilly and Allahabad,” said Majumdar, whose tour of UP was backed by the India Foundation for the Arts. “In Rangashankara and Prithvi you have to give out a printed glossary of words but in UP they got not just the language but the plot and the arguments on religion and politics with ease.”

Lucknow and Bareilly responded with enthusiasm. And as for Gorakhpur, apart from some noise from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – the play was performed at the university – there was no trouble, says Majumdar.

Resetting the stage

So, what pushed Majumdar to pick a play centred around the rising tide of Hindutva, albeit set in a different age? The spark came from the tumultuous events at the Jawaharlal Nehru University two years ago, he says.

“My parents worked at JNU, I grew up on the campus and suddenly everyone I knew, my parents’ colleagues and friends, men like Harbans Mukhia, were all being called terrorists and anti-nationals,” he said. “It was like my home was under siege and I had to respond. If Gorakhpur could come to JNU, I had to go to Gorakhpur, right?”

Instead of doing a contemporary play on politics and religion, Majumdar decided to go back to the past. “We are always being told that Hinduism is under threat and so it needs to become aggressive. I thought why not set the play in a time when Hinduism was actually under threat from the rising popularity of Buddhism. There must have been debates within the community about the way forward. There are remarkable parallels between the India of today and 8th century AD – the rise of cities, centres of debate and cults for example.”

Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam
Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam

In Muktidham, the tussle is between two faces of Hinduism: those would rather break with casteism than lose ground to Buddhism. And the dogmatists who would rather let it all burn to the ground than defy Manusmriti. As for the acharya, he is that rare breed, the believer who would never kill or maim in the name of religion.

“It is the pathos of this liberal believer that touches me the most,” said Majumdar. “He believes, deeply and profoundly, but the ancient knowledge system he believes in has been perverted into something bogus. Imagine a man like that having to explain peacocks shedding tears instead of having sex.”

There is little doubt which faction wins the day in the play.

“Even now you see that moderate voices have been left by the wayside,” said Majumdar. “It is men like Adityanath who have become the face of Hinduism.”

Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam
Photo credit: Richa Bhavanam

Paying homage

It took him and his co-researcher Vandana Menon two years of research to finalise the plot. From Hindu scriptures and the works of Indian philosopher BK Matilal and S Radhakrishnan to the writings of Indologists like Nrisinga Prasad Bhaduri, the team made sure that script couldn’t be faulted on facts.

Though it is set in the north, the play salutes two big names from Kannada literature and theatre. UR Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura (1973) – a novel set in a fictional southern town where the foreign-returned son of a Brahmin priest seeks to overturn ancient structures of caste and servility – was an inspiration, as was the writer’s other great work on death rituals, Samskara. “These two books show us how we can work a plot from something theological,” says Majumdar.

As for the epic scene structures, it is hard not to see Girish Karnad’s great works such as Hayavadana, Yayati, Fire and Rain and Naga Mandala at play.