G. P. Deshpande : Trapeze Artist of the Mind

Sudhanva Deshpande

G.P. Deshpande (fondly known as Go Pu or GPD) was one of India’s pioneering experts in Chinese Studies (he taught at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University for nearly four decades, till 2004), a leading Marathi playwright, literary and cultural critic, poet, polymath public intellectual, Marxist, founder-editor of the Journal of Arts and Ideas and long-time columnist in the prestigious Economic and Political Weekly. GPD inhabited many worlds with ease, wit and charm, but remained, at heart, a small town boy (he grew up in Rahimatpur, district Satara), gazing at the world with wonder and joy, but also a sharp and unique insight that only someone from the periphery has.

His first play was Udhwastha Dharmashala, about a radical left-wing professor being persecuted by his university. Satyadev Dubey was the first one to see its dramatic potential –though the play had little ‘action’, he had full faith in this politically charged ‘drama of ideas’. Encouraged by Dubey, Shreeram Lagoo took it up. It was a virtuoso performance, one of Lagoo’s best. This was 1974. The following year, Mrs. Gandhi imposed the Emergency. Udhwastha Dharmashala proved to be prescient.

Rajinder Nath then produced it in Delhi, with a young Om Puri, freshly out of the NSD, in the lead. When Om Puri moved to Bombay, he produced it with himself, Naseeruddin Shah and Neelam Mansingh Chowdhury. Shyamanand Jalan directed it in Calcutta with himself and Chetana Jalan in central roles. Many other productions followed all over the country.

You could say that GPD pioneered the political play of ideas and discussion in India. Satyadev Dubey directed three of his plays – Andhar Yatra in 1987, Chanakya Vishnugupta in 1989 (also produced by Lagoo in Marathi) and Raste in 2002. In the meanwhile, GPD had written Satyashodhak, bio-play on Jotirao Phule, for Jana Natya Manch in 1992. Atul Pethe directed it in 2011 with actors drawn from the Pune Municipal Corporation’s sanitation workers. With over 100 performances in an year, the play was a tremendous success, and helped re-introduce GPD to an entirely new generation of Marathi theatre goers and radical activists.

GPD’s engagement with Phule was long and continuous. He commissioned translations of Phule’s Marathi works, and edited the seminal volume Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule for Left Word Books, and later wrote a slim but rich book, The World of Ideas in Modern Marathi: Phule, Savarkar, Vinoba for Tulika. GPD viewed Phule as revolutionary, not a reformer, because he was the only one who consistently argued that caste is a system that cannot be reformed, it has to be annihilated. In that sense, Phule was of course the precursor of Ambedkar, but GPD’s originality lay in showing how Phule carried forward the anti-caste agenda of the medieval bhakti movement on the one hand, and is the forerunner of socialism on the other (his follower Narayan Meghaji Lokhande was an early organiser of the Bombay working class). In other words, Phule opposes caste not from a moral-ethical standpoint alone, but as an exploitative and oppressive system.

GPD joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) sometime around the Emergency. During the Emergency, he wrote critically against Mrs. Gandhi’s government in the EPW, going so far as to calling her The Czarina. His friends cautioned him, saying that he might be arrested, but GPD didn’t flinch. His youngest brother, Vikas, a socialist and at the time a disciple of George Fernandes, was arrested as soon as the Emergency was declared, and remained imprisoned in Pune’s Yerawada jail right till the end.

Though GPD was never an activist in the strict sense of the term, my guess is that he wouldn’t have minded being arrested. There was once a hilarious incident when only he and I were at home in the evening and a couple of men arrived, spoke to GPD, and drove off with him in a white Ambassador car. When he still hadn’t returned till late at night – we didn’t have a phone in those days – there was panic since he wasn’t at any of the places where he might have been. I was no use – no, I said to repeated questioning, I had never seen the two men before; I didn’t hear what they said to Baba; he didn’t say where he was going and when he’d be back; no, they didn’t spend too much time at home; yes, it was a white Ambassador. At 2 a.m., my mother and some close friends were convinced that GPD had been picked up – till the man himself returned, happily whistling tunelessly, after having had a drink or three with two younger Marathi writers who were visiting Delhi.

In any case, his writings against the Emergency caught people’s eye, both on the Right and the Left. I remember once Arun Shourie – then an anti-Emergency crusader, a star journalist, traversing that brief interregnum of his career when he went from being a lapdog of the World Bank to the lapdog of the RSS – came visiting our JNU home. I have a vague memory of GPD telling me, much later, that Shourie wanted him to join some anti-Emergency group, but GPD parried because he didn’t trust the younger man’s politics.

He was also spotted by a man whose politics he did trust – the legendary communist B.T. Ranadive. BTR was responsible for bringing GPD into the Party. “I’ve seen your play,” the older communist said to the young playwright, talking of Udhwastha Dharamshala, “and I like it.” He paused for a moment, and then continued: “You may be surprised that I say I like it.” The play, after all, contains a sort of a sympathetic critique of the Communist Party, and BTR had the public reputation of being a strict disciplinarian. “But I think you are doing something that no one else has done. You are talking of politics, of ideologies, of ideas, in an entirely new way. Nothing in Marathi writing is like what you have written. And I think you have an astonishing grasp of and ability with the Marathi language. Your Marathi is simultaneously historical and modern. I can’t think of any other writer who writes the language as you do. For someone so young, this is extraordinary.” GPD was in his late thirties. “But let me also say this,” BTR continued. “Some on the Left will criticize you. Ignore them. You see, our job is to criticize. Your job is to ignore us, and keep writing.”

But what really persuaded GPD to join the Party was BTR’s impassioned plea that “We have to join the battle of ideas.” This was a phrase I was to hear again and again as I grew up, and particularly after I came into the movement myself, and most certainly GPD made it his entire life’s purpose. If GPD had a gravestone, this might have made a fitting epitaph: “He joined the battle of ideas.” GPD retained a deep respect and admiration for BTR through his life, and took his work in the Party very seriously, including, for instance, intervening in the teachers’ association in JNU, and defending the students’ movement.

But when he criticized the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan in his EPW column, and BTR suggested to him that he might tone down his critique a bit, his response was unequivocal: if he merely towed the Party line in his columns, why would anyone read him? He was willing to forgo his column altogether, he said, but not write anything that went against his professional judgement, and that further compromised his commitment vis-à-vis his readers. That he refused to buckle is to his credit, of course, but, I often think, it is to the Party’s credit that it was willing and able to accommodate views that went against its position.

Later, too, on the question of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, his critique was sharp: “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.” These words were written as a Party member. He walked that thin line adroitly – on the one hand, retaining his independence of thought, and on the other, being deeply respectful of the Party and in fact arguing in favour of the Leninst notion of the tightly disciplined, cadre based, vanguard party.

He was the critical insider, someone who remained sympathetic to the Party and the movement at large long after he stopped being a Party member, and as a rule never declining any invitation to speak he got from the Party or any of its mass organizations. My mother’s work in AIDWA and the Party was a source of deep pride for him, and he supported it in his own quiet way. He was often critical of this or that stand of the Party, and we’d often talk about it. But the one thing he never did was to indulge in loose talk or to carelessly criticize the Party in public. This was the only important Communist Party anywhere in the world, he reminded me more than once, which had the courage, and the ideological caliber, to maintain its independence from both the Soviet Union and China.

GPD, then, was a warrior of ideas. Once, several years ago, I was chatting with an old JNU student. He told me about a public meeting that GPD addressed sometime in the early 1970s against America’s war in Vietnam. He said, being an economics student, he had never imagined that quotations from Sanskrit and medieval Bhakti poetry could flow so easily and naturally in an anti-imperialist speech. That this speech – analytical, trenchant, sarcastic, poetic – was delivered by this small, slim lecturer with a boy’s face made it even more remarkable.

In time, many of us got used to GPD’s speaking style, but back then, it is true, it must have appeared sui-generis and all too unique. Recently, I met a young Marathi novelist. He said he was startled – pleasantly – at how easy it was to make friends with GPD, but even more stunned at the range of his reading and his ability to pull out the precisely apt quotation at the perfect time. Apart from Ram Bapat (a towering Marathi intellectual, GPD’s closest friend, who died in July 2012), he said, GPD is the only person he knew who could discuss Marx and Vinoba in equal depth – not to mention, I thought to myself, Panini and Mao, Kalidasa and Hegel, Vijay Tendulkar and Wittgenstein.

As I listened to this stranger talk about him, I had the vision of GPD as a trapeze artist of the mind – soaring, connecting points you could never think were connected with breathtaking acrobatic ability, eliciting from his audience a collective gasp of wonder and admiration. That agile, supple mind, forever curious, forever inquisitive, is now gone, leaving the world of ideas bereft.

(Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, Delhi, and the Managing Editor of LeftWord Books. He is also GPD’s son.)