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Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla: A play that celebrates Shivaji’s true greatness

Intolerance in contemporary Indian society has risen to such an extent that any piece of work that is even slightly politically incorrect is, never mind its factual correctness, immediately ‘banned’ by a political party that is most hurt by it. You also have cases where totally innocuous(and rather ordinary) films like Aarakshan and Rajneeti have had to face the wrath of thoughtless political parties. All these factors make a potentially controversial work like Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla a very significant play of our times and hence it is being discussed on a cinema forum.

The central idea of the brave play is to bust myths related to the great ruler of Maharashtra, Shivaji. It also tries to shed light upon a side of the Emperor that is very rarely highlighted. In the play, Yama has been sent by Lord Indra to fetch Shivaji and also his ideas to heaven. On their way to heaven, Shivaji tells Yama that he has forgotten his ideas back in the human world and thus returns to the earth to get them. He keeps his Turban with Yama as collateral, but Shivaji doesn’t return for long. Yama is thus forced to run around looking for a head to fit the turban on. The turban thus becomes a metaphor for Shivaji’s ideas. The play then, very effectively, goes on to show how political parties have wrongly used Shivaji to gain mileage amongst the masses.

It tells us how Shivaji was not at all anti-muslim which some political parties like the Shiv Sena portray him to be. He was instead a compassionate and secular ruler. Almost more than one third of his soldiers were muslims. His personal bodyguard was a muslim himself. Shivaji brought about a major cut in the taxes of the peasants, never tolerated humiliation of women, dealt sternly with corruption, built mosques out of his own treasury. Such just policies are what made him widely popular amongst his masses and not only his exploits against the Mughals. In fact, he fought most of his major battles with the Rajputs. The play tells us how history has been purposefully twisted and passed on to people over generations. Shivaji’s great escape from the Agra fort is widely known. But what has not been equally known is that a Muslim prince Madari Mehtar played the most crucial role in the escape. The significance of his act is probably equivalent to Bajiprabhu Deshpande’s valiant rear guard battle at Panhala Fort, but it has sadly never been as celebrated as the latter. The play cites many other such examples to show how politicians have misused Shivaji’s name. The marathas who now majorly control the political world of Maharashtra proudly call Shivaji as their very own, but their ancestors themselves along with the Brahmins had opposed Shivaji’s coronation as in their view he was a ‘Shudra’.

One of the forms of narration adopted in the play is that of a ‘powada’. A ‘powada’ is a folk form of Maharashtrian poetry where the performer called ‘shahir’ sings passionately about political and socially relevant happenings, often with sharp humour. This makes this play accessible to all sections of the society and does not limit itself to the elite urban class. Also, given the nature of a ‘powada’ the play doesn’t ever get drab or boring. The idea and the songs of the play have been written by Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat, who is widely popular for his emotionally and politically charged poetry amongst the rural masses.  The play is brilliantly written by Rajkumar Tangde with some exceptional dialogues and is performed with great energy by his theatre group from the drought-prone Jalna district in Maharashtra. Tangde has interspersed the play with hilarious situations which go a long way in grabbing the audience’s attention.  Nandu Madhav, who played the role of Dadasaheb Phalke in the film Harishchandrachi Factory has directed the play. He rehearsed it with the theatre group for more than three months in a field in Jalna. The co-ordination and the energy from the exhaustive rehearsals are clearly visible.

The scale of the thought behind Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla is gigantic. Such insightful and impactful pieces of work in India are as rare as gems in any form of art let alone popular ones like cinema or theatre. Needless to say, Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla is not to be missed at any cost. Catch it before some political party might go on to ban it. Experiencing the drama unfold on stage will be the best lesson in history you would have ever had!

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