Chora Charnadasa (Charandas the Thief) was shown on the last day of Alva’s Nudisiri 2012 soon after the presentation of Dutavakya which I covered in the last blog. Chora Charnadasa is based on the famous play by Habib Tanvir, which itself was an adaptation of a classical Rajasthani folktale by Vijaydan Detha. Present Kannada play has been written by Dr. Siddalinga Pattanashetty, adapted and directed by Mandya Ramesh and performed by Natana, Mysore.
The protagonist of this play is a petty thief, Charanadasa. He is a professional thief who takes pride in his profession and ‘hard work’ and a strong sense of ‘integrity’ and ‘work ethic’. He under the influence of a guru, pledges never to tell a lie. He sticks to his pledge, even at the cost of his life. This superb tragic-comedy, in a thoroughly entertaining and artistic manner, brings into focus the moral and ethical degeneration of our society, in which, paradoxically, it is a thief who ends up being more honest than those who supposed to be the custodians of our morality.
Charanadasa’s further activities and where it leads him form the rest of the narrative. An interesting storyline has been transformed into a laugh-riot by current satire. The nataka in the political theatre of Karnataka is ready fodder for the satire. Brilliant performances by all on-stage artists especially the by the person who played Charanadasa and the off-stage technicians and singers make every moment of the drama wholly enjoyable. Almost all the recent scandals of Indian politics finds reflection in the conversation as well as the narratives including the famous Bharathiya Jagalavaduva Party, and the upcoming Karnataka Jagalaganta Party ;).
Spoof on media’s role in covering the political events is highlighted with a “Zero TV” which does the live broadcast and breaking news coverage of the events unfolding in the stage. When they don’t get interview with Chora Charanadasa, they drag in a beggar into the studio for detailed interview and discussion. The whole episode clearly mimicking few well known Kannada TV channels has come out beautifully and shows how our life is controlled in this electronically manipulated era.
The entire theme of the play is constructed around contradictions. There are liars, scoundrels, thieves, but they are men of principles as well. There are custodians of law, but they are breakers of it too. There are saints and sanyasis, but they run after money as well. There are men of intellect, but it is very easy to deceive them. There are rich, affluent people, but at heart, they are the poorest. There are paupers, but at heart, they are very rich. Thus, the theme of the entire play is embedded in a remarkable juxtaposition of opposites, one after another.
In the play, as has been pointed out, truth and lie go hand in hand. People who deceive and cheat others turn out to be humanitarian as well. This paradox is well worked out through the portrayal of the central character, Charandasa. He is a thief, who steals golden plates. He is all the time chased by a policeman. He robs the poor farmers, snatches jewellery from a wealthy merchant’s wife. He even enters into the temple and steals whatever he finds there. He is even not afraid of anything while robbing the Queen of her five coins. But, stealing and giving go hand in hand in his case. On the one hand, he is a thief, and thieves are not supposed to be humanitarian. They are supposed to run away with whatever they get. But, Charandasa never does that, he first steals and then returns.
He robs a wealthy merchant’s wife, he is expected to run away with all the booty, but, instead of this, Charandasa cannot see her weep. He returns immediately whatever he has snatched. Actually, he inadvertently takes five vows before the Guru, according to them, he will never eat in golden plate, never presides an elephant procession, never marry a queen and never be a king. He also says that he will never lie in future. Now, on the one hand, he is not ready to abjure stealing, which he calls as his “Dharma”, on the other hand, he pledges to remain truthful. No doubt, he does not give up stealing, but he also adheres to his oath of becoming a truthful man.
A thief is generally supposed to be selfish, mean and egocentric. But, Charandasa is of a helping nature. He robs the landlord not for his own sake, but for the sake of the entire village. He robs the Queen not to enhance his fortunes, but to make his presence felt. Later on, time tests him. He is given opportunity of leading a procession, marrying a queen, eating in a golden plate and becoming a king. But, he refuses to do any of the things. Had there been any other common man, he could have pounced upon this golden opportunity without caring for future consequences. The Queen happens to be young and pretty.
He is expected to surrender, but no, he is very firm. This explains the nature of paradox. Here we have a man who is immoral, thief yet he is a man of noble principles and promises. He took vows in a joking way and yet he adheres to them in a serious manner. He prefers to die rather than succumbing to all pressures.
Another paradox dealt within the play is: Spiritualism v/s Materialism. This is evident from the conduct of the Guru and the Priest. On the one hand, there is religion represented by the Guru and the Priest. As Guru is supposed to be a man of restraint, a man who has renounced all worldly considerations, a man who is selfless and benevolent. The Guru in the play also asks his followers to give up their vices, and yet he is a man of this world, he is more concerned with money than with salvation.
Affluence vis-a-vis Poverty and Poverty vis-a-vis Affluence is yet another set of contraries that one encounters in the play. The contrastive interplay of the oppositions like: Defending and Offending, Making and Breaking, Preserving and Violating, however, constitute another interesting paradox. These contraries are central to the character of the Havaldar. He is a policeman. He is supposed to preserve the law, punish the offenders and maintain peace in the town. He enters the stage chasing Charandasa, he threatens him at his mischief, and he even warns him against going astray. But, he also violates the law. He instead of catching the thieves, takes commission from them and lets them go. He befriends them and aids them in their unlawful deeds. For example, he says to Charandasa, “If you have, just tell me and I won’t report. We’ll share the booty”.
Yet another set of oppositions that captures attention and is a source of delight lies in the counter play of the oppositions such as: Sublimity and Pettiness, intellectuality and foolishness, Wisdom and Buffoonery. The case of the Munim and the Minister can be cited to substantiate these paradoxes. First there is the Minister, who is expected to have some integrity in him. He is also supposed to be a worldly wise man, since he is next to the Queen. So, one expects in him an amount of dignity and intellect to see through the pranks of unsocial elements. He enters the stage with his head high, as if he will never be trapped. But, how easily he is trapped and be fooled by the Guru and the Havaldar. A man who is supposed to run the country along with the Queen is reduced to an easily manipulable fool. He condemns the Munim at his incapability of differentiating between a Chor and a Minister. But, ironically enough, he himself is not able to dissect beneath the incognito of the tricksters. Then there is the Munim, an accountant, who is expected to be again an intelligent person, that’s why, he is hired to maintain the accounts. But, ironically, he also turns out to be a good for nothing fellow. His wisdom and intellect never enables him to see whether he is talking to a minister or a chor. On the other hand, he is hired to preserve the accounts, but he himself steals five golden mohurs and later on is sacked.
The contrast between the dominator and the dominated, the ruler and the ruled, the commander and the commanded is yet another set of contraries that is enacted in the play. The Rani perhaps is the best example for this kind of paradox. On the one hand, she is Rani, the Queen, ruler, commander, authoritative, dominator of the country. And yet she is ruled, controlled, dominated by not only physical passions but her personal concerns as well. She is supposed to command everyone, but see the irony, she herself falls down at the feet of Charandasa. She implores him to marry her. Later, she beseeches him not to tell anything to the outer world whatever had passed between them in that closed compartment. Charandasa, though a thief he is, is ready to die in order to preserve his vows and dignity. The Queen, paradoxically, is out to kill others- a ruler and yet so weak in her character! As a Queen, she is expected to save the life of her country folk, but for her personal gains, she takes the life of her people, even the one she loves and admires.
To conclude, it can be said that Chora Charandasa is a remarkable play steeped in paradox. These paradoxes not only make the play interesting, but make it complex as well. Habib Tanvir supposed to have commented about the play as “Habits are hard to shake off. Just as a drunkard cannot leave drinking, a liar cannot leave lying and a thief cannot leave stealing, truthful men cannot leave telling the truth. If habit is vice and truthfulness becomes a habit, then that too is a vice”
Habib Tanvir (1 September 1923 – 8 June 2009) was one of the most popular Indian Urdu, Hindi playwrights, a theatre director, poet and actor. He is the writer of plays such as, Agra Bazar (1954) and Charandas Chor (1975). A pioneer in Urdu, Hindi theatre, he is most known for his work with Chhattisgarhi tribals, at the Naya Theatre, a theatre company he founded in 1959 in Bhopal, and went on to include indigenous performance forms such as nacha, to create not only a new theatrical language, but also milestones such as Charandas Chor, Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damad and Kamdeo ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna.
Plays like Agra Bazaar, Charandas Chor, Bahadur Kalarin, Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna, Mitti ki Gaadi, Shahapur ki Shantibai, Mudrarakshas and Raj Rakt, gave immeasurable joy to theatre lovers. In theatrical terms, there was nothing he left untouched. The ancient Sanskrit writers Sudrak, Bhasa, Visakhadatta and Bhavabhuti; European classics by Shakespeare, Molière and Goldoni; modern masters Brecht, Garcia, Lorca, Gorky, and even Wilde; Indian writers Rabindranath Tagore, Asghar Wajahat, Shankar Shesh, Safdar Hashmi and Rahul Varma. He adapted stories by Premchand, Stefan Zweig and Vijaydan Detha for the stage, besides adapting oral tales from Chhattisgarh. He took theatrical seeds from all over the world and nurtured them with the water, air and soil of Chhattisgarh. His plays were as cosmopolitan as they were rural, as modern as they were traditional. And always, just great rollicking fun.
Chora Charnadasa remains Habib Tanvir’s best-known play, and has been performed literally hundreds of times by his world-renowned Naya Theatre troupe all over India and in several countries across the world. It was made into a film by Shyam Benegal, with Smita Patil in the lead, in 1975, and was the first Indian play to win the prestigious Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in 1982. It then did a successful run on the London stage.
Even though the play looks like satirical look of rule of Indira Gandhi especially during the period of Emergency (Charandas chor was conceived in 1975 just before the declaration of Emergency Rule) It was the Right wingers who opposed the Habib Tanvir and his Drama troupe. “These RSS-walas only remember the rise and might of Hitler, they don’t remember the way he went…” This was Habib Tanvir commenting in reaction to the attack he continuously faced during the staging of the plays – Jamadaarin and Ponga Pandit. The attacks would follow him almost like a ritual – to be performed by VHP/Bajrang Dal forces or their proto-types – even in remote places like Lohardaga in Jharkhand or a cosmopolitan city like London.
Within two months of Habib Tanvir’s death in 2009, the BJP government in Chattisgarh withdrew copies of Charandas Chor from educational institutions and libraries following protests by the Satnami community claiming that their leader was insulted in the play. It is believed that Habib Tanvir, while writing the play, had heard from sources that the Satnami Pant leader was a former thief, something that was mentioned in Charandas Chor. It was shocking that a show which has been staged in so many languages, over decades, is suddenly being questioned after his death. Luckily, the ban was lifted soon after.
The play was also made into a film “Charandas Chor”, in 1975, is stuck with the reputation of being a kiddie movie since it was produced by the Children’s Film Society India. Were children in the mid-1970s savvy enough to get the fact that the movie is an allegory about corrupt governments and the erosion of moral values? Although kids may like the Chaplinesque slapstick and the toothy antihero and his sidekick, only grown-ups are likely to get the gentle jokes about the state of the nation and the fallibility of humankind.
Benegal and cinematographer Govind Nihalani take the film as far away as possible from its literary origins. Nihalani uses varying camera angles and framing styles, from close-ups to top shots, to introduce fluidity to the scenes and makes good use of the outdoor locations and the stark landscape. In its use of rural backdrops and unknown actors (Smitha Patil made her debut in this film) and its emphasis on a social message, Charandas Chor is an artefact of Indian arthouse cinema from the 1970s.
The script, by Shama Zaidi and Tanvir (he has a cameo as a stuttering magistrate), skewers hypocrisy and the Indian addiction to ceremony. A minister gets decorated with so many garlands that his face is obscured. The film was made in the same year that the Emergency was declared and individual freedoms were suspended, and it presciently lampoons the tendency of the government to lecture its subjects through slogans like “Stop scratching your head” and “Stop making noise”. Patil’s queen is a whimsical autocrat who could well be the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. The godman in the film is as foolish as everybody else – a joke that’s almost impossible to crack these days. There is enough visual humour in Charandas Chor for it to qualify as a kiddie movie, but the film’s simple yet powerful lament about the death of probity in public life makes it a classic for all ages.
Even though he present play follows a far different narrative theme than the film, film is definitely worth watching for those who missed the play. If you like to see here is the YouTube version of the full movie “Charandas Chor”.