(Pranay Krishna, General Secretary, Jan Sanskriti Manch, pays tribute to GP Deshpande)

Govind Purushottam Deshpande (1938–2013) or GPD as he was fondly called, breathed his last on 16, October, 2013. GPD’s intellectual personality, in its versatility as an expert on International affairs, a playwright who was an undisputed pioneer of the ‘play of ideas’ in Marathi theatre, a cultural theorist, a linguist, an essayist, an actor and a poet, a teacher and a humble human being marks him as a rare persona living up to the “renaissance values’ in our own context and dark times.

Starting with his first play “Uddhwasta Dharmshala” in 1974, described as a ‘a critique on the failure of leftist movements in India from the inside and the predicament they find themselves in’ by a fellow Marathi dramatist, to his later day plays such as “Raste’ (late 1980s) and “Akhercha Rasta”, he kept alive his critical and questioning engagement with the left (both mainstream and radical) of which his own self remained an inseparable part. That is why, this engagement in theatrical form was often expressed as a predicament or dilemma, most honest. Above all, he remained a ‘critical insider’ to the left movement in India in all dimensions of his creativity and he appreciated all those who treaded that path. However, this criticality was dedicated to the enrichment and advance of the left movement only and in that sense he was uncompromisingly a Marxist. Talking about Prabhakar Urdhwareshe’s Sahitya Academy Award (1989) winning autobiography “Haravlele Divas’ (The Lost Days) he wrote, “It is a story of his short-lived association with the CPI in the forties and the early fifties. He calls those days as ‘haravlele’, which means irretrievably lost, but also suggests a sense of sorrow and regret at the loss……I have read very little by ex-Party people which attempts such a balanced and an “optimistic”, to use Urdhwareshe’s word, view of the left movement. It is a pity that the media in Marathi celebrated the book as one more anti-Communist testament which it clearly is not and Urdhwareshe has repeatedly stated that it is not intended to be so…there is little doubt that Urdhwareshe’s writing is informed of a great deal of sympathy for and confidence and optimism about the future of the left movement.” GPD alone could differentiate Urdhwareshe’s criticism of the Indian left from that of turncoats and traitors.

He was one of the most renowned scholars in Chinese Studies, yet, with his Internationalist concerns and training as a Marxist, he was equally equipped to dissect and interpret the political happenings in any part of the world. His commitment to the core human values inherent in Marxism enriched his criticality vis-a-vis all ‘official’ versions of Marxism, whether Soviet, Chinese or Indian. His understanding of the Tiananmen Square killing of students by Deng government of China in 1989 was quite different from that of the mainstream left in India. He wrote in June 24, 1989 issue of EPW, “What has happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing has nothing to do with socialism. How does it matter if the cat is black or white if it catches mice, Deng had asked. The cat has killed the students, but to argue that it has done so because it is red is patently untenable.” In another of his articles in EPW issue of Nov. 25, 1989 he remarks, “China has decided to introduce compulsory military training for youth in all universities and institutions of higher learning. Evidently military discipline becomes necessary when there is little or no ideological discipline.”

As a cultural theorist and art critic, GPD was very thorough in delineating the ‘politics of cultural forms’ from Chinese opera to Indian folk art. In the arena of Indian theatre he alone had the confidence to criticize “excessive dependence on folk forms, their blind and unthinking use” as well as a “very ahistorical and apolitical use of Brecht” in the same breath. Surveying the literary scene, forty years after Independence (1987), he wrote, “The higher up you are on the economic ladder the less are you likely to be in a position to read and appreciate Kabir or Tukaram and Purandardasa. Indeed there are more anglophiles today than there ever were during the colonial times. ….. And then the Utsavas. They have made our writers and poets turn their writing into an export commodity…. It is time that our people—the people who matter that is—stopped this export drive which makes the artists neither true to themselves nor true to their art. If the rural and folk forms have to survive it is important that the artistes are permitted to survive…..Or consider the state of affairs where it takes the Ford Foundation to locate good groups and centers and finance them. It speaks for the general blindness and the bureaucratization that has come to dominate our own culture policy, such as it is. The Film Institute is in serious trouble. The state of health of the National School of Drama is precarious.” All that is worse today. It is important to harness his insightful observations to recreate an alternative peoples’ cultural initiative in 21st century India.

In 1990s, GPD was increasingly concerned with the rising tide of ‘Hindutva’ and the modus operandi of ‘identity politics’ in India. He tried to reinvigorate the cultural resources this country historically inherits to counter the resurgent anti-people cultural politics in the era of LPG. His profound knowledge of Indian Philosophy, medieval saints’ poetry and Marxism characterized his unique location from where he could historicize and lay bare the ‘politics of cultural symbols’ with confidence. He could deconstruct the use of Shivaji as “Hindutva icon” only because he knew so well how the anti-brahminical movement of Maharashtra had visualized and valorized him as ‘anti-brahminical peoples’ warrior’ in a different temporal context. The interrelationship of class, caste and gender in Indian society was always his field of study and creative expression. In 1990s and later on he further developed it. In early 1990s, when entire country was caught in anti-reservation movement in the wake of implementation of Mandal Commission report, he stood out as probably the only Professor in JNU who could counter the anti-reservationists forces on the campus from a class perspective.

Bringing Jyotiba Phule’s writings in English and resurrecting his historical and contemporary relevance against his relegation to the status of a ‘social reformer’ alone, through his play “Satyashodhak”, was definitely a much needed cultural intervention. Although Jan Natya Manch had staged the Hindi version of ‘Satyashodhak’ way back in 1992, it was fairly recently that Comrade Mukta Manohar of Pune Safai Karmachari Union along with Director Atul Pethe, put together a production of ‘Satyashodhak’ performed by members of the union, in original Marathi, all through Maharashtra and even in Delhi. As the play depicts, towards the end of his life, Phule recognised the power of working class organisation, encouraging his followers to join the many unions being formed in Bombay and other cities at the end of the 19th century. No wonder that a troupe composed of unionised Dalit workers appearing on stage in a play on Phule, brought this message alive.

One of GPD’s books is titled ‘Talking Politics Culturally’. For half a century, he talked politics culturally. It would be beneficial for all those on the left, who are engaged in “Culture and Politics’ to learn how he talked, what he talked and for what purpose. GPD shall always remain an inspiration for practitioners of culture who dedicate themselves to the creation of a just, equal and humane world.