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‘1857’: Eye Witness Godshe’s Side Of The Mutiny Story

 

Sometimes, it takes an artist’s version of history to become the one that finally lives on in public perception. Akshara Theatre offers Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar’s account of India’s First War of Independence to its audience. 

Jalabala Vaidya

It was the year of India’s First War of Independence, or, as the British who eventually won, called it, the Sepoy Mutiny. 1857 — a watershed year. The Akshara play, 1857: India’s First War of Independence, tells the story very differently to what our Indian history books, till today, describe to us about this momentous event. Akshara has based its production on the eyewitness account of the only Indian writer, Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar (a Chitpavan Brahmin from the small village of Versai in Kolaba district of Maharashtra), to put the whole terrible history into 249 detailed notes elaborated from what he personally saw.

Vishnu Bhatt, born in 1827, was 30 when he started off on what was to be a pleasant and leisurely journey to Mathura, to participate in a huge yagya, a ritual ceremony, being organised by Tatya Tope and Jijabai Shinde, the widow of the famed Maratha leader Mahadji Shinde from Gwalior, where Vishnu hoped to earn enough money to haul his family out of debt. Instead, he ran into the Mutiny.

It took Vishnu Bhatt Godshe 20 years after returning home to Versai village to complete his account, and then, he feared the consequences from the British government if it was published. He implored his friend, Rai Bahadur Chintamani Vinayak Vaidya to hold it back until his death. Vishnu Bhatt passed away in 1903. Chintamani did undertake one publication in 1909, but as a novel, not a historical account.

A group of Maharashtrian historians, realising the book’s immense historical value, worked with Chintamani Vinayak Vaidya, calling themselves the Bharatiya Itihas Shodhak Mandal, and collated the work, publishing it in 1948.

The happenings of 1857 need to be seen in the context of the two previous centuries of European attempts to hijack the immense wealth of sixteenth century India, which eventually, seriously impacted a culture that had existed, despite invasions and conquests, for more than 5000 years. For more than two centuries, previously, the Portuguese, Dutch, French and the British, had been making inroads into the sovereignty of kingdoms on the Indian subcontinent.

Akshara’s play, 1857, presented in our usual economical style, enacts the first outbreak of the Mutiny in Mhow, the East India Company cantonment near Indore, and then carries the audience forward to Ujjain. The scene that follows, showing the kingdom of Dhar’s spectacular funeral ceremonies, clearly demonstrates the wealth that the greedy East India Company wanted to squeeze from Indian kingdoms. To further their attempts, they introduced the Doctrine of Lapse. Now, by what authority the British Parliament could possibly impose itself over independent Indian kingdoms, via the East India Company, is anyone’s guess. It was simply a way to browbeat kingdoms who had accepted a British Resident, that is, a representative of the East India Company, on the promise of payment of a stated amount, as well as the promise that the ruler could adopt an heir, according to tradition. This British perfidy is exposed in a telling scene between the Maharaja of Jhansi, Maharaja Gangadhar Baba (played by Ankur Anand), and the Company Resident, Captain Gordon, played by Mohit Joshi. Captain Gordon asks Rao Gangadhar about rumours that he is a cross-dresser.

Rao Gangadhar Baba: “I am only the prince of a small region but I feel that my fellow princes, who rule over much larger states, have been completely emasculated by rank outsiders from across the seven seas. It was a matter of collective shame for all the native rulers that the British had managed to enter our land, made us subservient to them, and, in a short while, were in a position to exact taxes from us. Since my own sense of helplessness and loss of independence has made me feel timid and inadequate like a woman, I occasionally vent my frustration by choosing to dress in female attire, with bangles on my wrists.”

Captain Gordon:  “I left it at that, I rather like the Baba, but I did ask the Governor General to grant Jhansi’s request and allow him to adopt an heir.  Everyone agrees there is something strange about Rao Gangadhar, but he is a good ruler, hates sloth, upholds justice, is punctual and a hard task master. Petty theft has practically disappeared from the realm, and when people go to bed in Jhansi, they do not lock their doors. In matters of governance, he obeys the tenets of the dharma shastras. Of course, Calcutta has refused my request!”

In a succession of scenes, the play swiftly portrays the rise of Rani Laxmibai to power, the connection between her and Vishnu Bhatt, who has by now reached Jhansi, and her challenge to the British. The Rani is portrayed by Pragya Priyadarshini with intensity. In fact, all the actors have surmounted their youth to present much older people, like young Saakshar Duggal who plays Ram Kaka, Vishnu’s uncle, with amazing conviction.

The Rani had women as senior courtiers who carry a lot of the story at the end, as the Indian army, composed mainly of deserters from the East India Company, led by Tatya Tope, the Peshwa and Rani Laxmibai, engage in battles not easy to present on the small Akshara stage. These decisive war scenes are ably invoked by Rachita Donti and Praggya Jain in their recall of the events. Eventually, as we know, Rani Laxmibai succumbed to her injuries, still on horseback, her horse being led by Tatya Tope at Murar, outside Gwalior. The last scene, where Tatya Tope played by Dhruv Shetty movingly sings the exquisite funeral verses from the Isha Upanishad against a backdrop of flames, brings one to tears.

So ended India’s First War of Independence, a combination of conspiracy and planning interspersed with individual actions of extreme bravery by soldiers of the Company’s army.

The play has gripping scenes, like the catalytic incident where a Brahmin Company soldier (played by Armaan Pratap Singh) is informed by a person from a lower caste (played by P.K. Raj) that the British purchased cow and pig fat from his community to grease the new cartridges.

Real life is not tidy. Events tumble over each other. Facts surrounding incidents, like the killing of British women and children at Kanpur, are one-sided. Both sides have their own version. In such cases, the victor’s version is what becomes history. Akshara has presented 1857: India’s First War of Independence as a play because live performance is an exceedingly powerful method of artistic expression. Sometimes, it takes an artist’s version of history to become the one that finally lives on in public perception.

 

— The author is a renowned actor, playwright and co-founder, New Delhi’s Akshara Theatre. 

 

Featured image: Yuvraj Bajaj as Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar in a scene from 1857: India’s First War of Independence. Sourced from Akshara Theatre.

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