A note by Salil Tripathi and David Windsor
Despite what might be inferred from this passage, Durga Khote was not a political conservative; she was in fact a radical for her times, choosing to act in an industry where young boys acted as women, since acting was considered a “bad” profession. That was truly remarkable, since “girls from good homes” did not perform in public. (That problem is depicted accurately by Shyam Benegal in his 1978 film, Bhumika (The Role), based on the tragic life of another Marathi heroine, Hansa Wadkar.)
Khote was an active participant of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), a progressive, left-leaning movement of artists, writers and playwrights with links with the Communist Party and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), and which was incorporated as an all-Indian movement in 1943. The IPTA and the PWA can be seen as part of a remarkable cultural flowering just prior to independence, and many of those involved would define Indian literature and cinema, and to a large extent define its concerns, in the period immediately following Independence. Khote was committed to “democracy” as she understood it. Her family opposed and campaigned against Indira Gandhi’s emergency (1977-1979) which suspended civil rights.
Khote came from an enlightened family, and had enlightened children who married beyond their caste–also remarkable, considering that most must have married in 1940s/1950s. Her daughter-in-law is the renowned stage director, Vijaya Mehta, whose credits include reviving great Sanskrit plays like Mrichhakatika and Hayavadana (reinterpreted by Girish Karnad into Hindi and Marathi); performing Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle in Marathi (as Ajab Nyay Vartulacha); and getting a German team to perform Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in Germany. She also acts in films, and is at present the director of the National Center for the Performing Arts at Nariman Point in Bombay. Other relations married into the princely Holkar family. One of the grand-daughters, Tina Khote, made a film on Durga Khote’s life.
Durgabai, as she was known, lived her autumn years at Alibag, the waterfront beach area which, in a very crude way, can be likened to Martha’s Vineyard (summer homes and all that, for the super-rich). Her grandson, Ravi, makes movies; another grandson, Deven, works with TV, and another relation formed a company called Durga Khote Productions, which produced Wagle Ki Duniya, a TV program created by the noted cartoonist, R.K. Laxman.
Rushdie’s intellectual, aesthetic and political debts to the PWA and the IPTA are hinted at in a number of his novels. In Midnight’s Children, there are Saleem’s Mumani and Mama, Pia, an actress, and Hanif, a scriptwriter trying to bring social realism to Bombay films, “writing about ordinary people and social problems” (p. 242). At artistic gatherings at their flat on Marine Drive, “the air was thick with political, and other, chatter” (p. 246). Among others described as turning up are members of Uday Shankar’s dance group–whose involvement was crucial to the initial success of the IPTA. Given that so much of Midnight’s Children is based on Rushdie’s own life–in an interview with the principal of the school Rushdie attended he says that the school-based incidents in the novel all actually took place–it’d be interesting to know who were the artists, musicians and writers who were part of his parents’ social group. M. F. Hussain and Bhupen Khakkar obviously knew them pretty well, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the story that set off The Moor’s Last Sigh. Rushdie pays homage to three writers in the latter novel: Ismat Chughtai, Sadat Hasan Manto and Mulk Raj Anand. The last named was of course crucial to the setting up of the PWA (it is interesting that the PWA was an example of a writers association in India that managed to overcome some of the language barriers, including English and Urdu language writers), as well as being a supporter of modernist painting in India. The other two writers were also members of the amazing milieu of Urdu writers in Bombay, though Manto did run into trouble with the PWA (or at least, with the more communist members of it) who found his works too pornographic and pessimistic.
It is unfortunate that more attention hasn’t been drawn to this part of Rushdie’s heritage – the progressive writers’ and artists of Bombay.