G.P. Deshpande

One who lit many lives

Print edition : November 15, 2013

An extraordinary life: Govind Purushottam Deshpande (1938-2013). Photo: Sanjna

Marxist scholar, playwright, and academic G.P. Deshpande’s life was driven by grand passions. His intellectual range and capacity to move ahead while retaining the essence of what he already possessed inspired an entire generation of radical academics.

GOVIND PURUSHOTTAM DESHPANDE, renowned Marxist scholar, playwright in Marathi, and Professor of China Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in his professional academic career, who passed away on October 16, occupied a unique position in the intellectual universe of the country. His life was marked by extraordinary transitions: coming from a Socialist Party background, he made a transition to communism; from Ancient Indian History, in which he did his Masters, he made a transition to China Studies; steeped in Marathi literature and culture, he became a leading exponent of Marxist aesthetics; and settled within the cloisters of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), engaged in teaching China Studies, he became not just an outstanding creative dramatist, but an acute critical scholar of modern Indian theatre, a person in close interaction with the likes of Satyadev Dubey, Shriram Lagoo and Amol Palekar.

But what was even more remarkable than these transitions themselves was the fact that they did not entail any abandonment. He lived simultaneously both what he transited from and what he transited to. Thus, he remained a Sanskrit scholar even as he became an expert in Chinese; he remained steeped in Abhinavagupta even as he came to terms with Mikhail Bakhtin; he kept deepening his understanding of China even as he wrote fascinating plays in Marathi; and he emphasised caste, in common with the Socialists, even as he grappled with Leninist dialectics. His uniqueness lay in this incredible space that he straddled, this capacity to move ahead while retaining the essence of what he already possessed.

It is this range of his that fascinated many of us, young radical academics at the JNU in the early 1970s. Most of us had returned from abroad where we had been influenced by the student movement of the late 1960s, and by the theorists who had influenced that movement, George Lukács, Louis Althusser and Herbert Marcuse. We moved in that rarefied atmosphere; but GPD, as we called him, opened up India to us, sensitised us to the centrality of caste, to the writings of Jyotirao Phule, and B.R. Ambedkar. And he did so not by debunking Lukács, or Althusser or Marcuse, or Lenin or Luxemburg.

On the contrary, he did so while sitting down with us in study circles, reading and making sense, along with us, of Lenin, Lukács and Luxemburg. It is this capaciousness of his intellect, this enormous range and diversity of intellectual substance that could be packed into it, not as mere eclectic hotchpotch but as organised theory, which made us look upon him as our mentor and guide. We came to be known as the “Deshpande gang”, which, in due course, associated itself with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). GPD’s move to communism would appear intriguing to many, but it was a very conscious and thought-out decision. He once told me that it had been his ambition to be associated with a communist party. At the core of it was the deep impression made on him not just by the Vietnam War, which of course affected everybody, but by the post-revolutionary transformation in China, culminating above all in the Cultural Revolution, of which he became the most sympathetic and insightful exponent in India. He saw the communists not just as a group of “idealists” dreaming of a better society, but as the only group among all such groups that meant serious business. In particular, what he admired about the communists was their “will to power”.

And the CPI(M) of that time, which had the moral integrity and the intellectual confidence to be critical of both Russia and China, even while facing semi-fascist terror in West Bengal, long before the Emergency generalised repression to the country as a whole, and which, through all these travails, exhibited a remarkable “will to power”, had a natural attraction for him, as indeed for many others.

Association with the CPI(M) entailed having to work on a “mass front” and we took part in the activities of the JNU Teachers’ Association. Being Left, however, meant that our activities had to be informed by a “theory”; and the “theory” we espoused was that the uniqueness of JNU arose from the democratic space it offered, of which the student movement was the best guarantee. This movement it followed had to be defended against all efforts to repress it, whether they emanated from the administration or even from the teachers. We went, under GPD’s leadership, to extraordinary lengths, sometimes in retrospect even questionable lengths, to defend the students, which, oddly enough, was appreciated not just by the students, but even by the teachers and the administration, since it was seen as a principled stand; and GPD was among the most popular faculty members in the university.

But association with communism also brought conflicts in its wake for GPD. He wrote a regular column in the Economic & Political Weekly, where he was often critical of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, a position contrary to the CPI(M)’s. His response to remonstrations from the party was that nobody would read him if he just gave the party line in his column, which was his way of saying that he had an obligation to his readers to be true to his views, just as he had an obligation to the party; he was willing to discontinue his column but not renege on the obligation to his readers. It is a sign again of the stature of the party at the time that it did not press matters. Through such ups and downs, of which the difference over Tiananmen Square was the most serious, GPD retained in one form or another a lifelong relationship with the party. He also had personal rapport with several legendary Communist leaders, notably B.T. Ranadive, with whom he would often discuss trends in Marathi literature and for whom he wrote a moving obituary in the Economic & Political Weekly.

When I first came to know him in 1973, Udhvasta Dharmashala had already established him as a front-ranking playwright. An account of the witch-hunt of a progressive teacher in an academic institution, it was a trend-setter in modern Indian theatre as it introduced to the audience a complex clash of ideas. A number of plays, Andhar Yatra, Chanakya Vishnugupt, Satyashodhak (on the life and struggles of Jyotirao Phule) followed from GPD’s pen, and all of them in varying degrees belonged to the genre of “discussion plays”, which, in his own uniquely Brechtian fashion, he pioneered, at least in Marathi theatre. He wrote the scripts for three episodes, if I recall correctly, of Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, and also edited an anthology, Modern Indian Drama, of translations of plays written in Indian languages, for the Sahitya Akademi in 2004.

Apart from his academic and political writings, he also wrote extensively on culture. A collection of such writings, Dialectics of Defeat: Problems of Culture in Post-Colonial India, was brought out by Seagull Books, Kolkata, in 2006. Awards duly came his way, among them the Maharashtra State Award in 1977 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for play-writing in 1996.

Marxist aesthetics

His essays on culture, however, were a part of his attempt, together with a group of cultural activist friends, to revive the discourse of Marxist aesthetics in India. The first episode in this attempt was a seminar held in Kasauli in Vivan Sundaram’s house in 1979 on “Marxism and Aesthetics”, whose papers were published in a special issue of the Social Scientist, guest-edited by GPD. Following that seminar, a new journal was launched, The Journal of Arts and Ideas, of which GPD was the first editor. While this journal, notwithstanding the undoubted excellence of its standards, could not be sustained, the initiative that marked its launch survives to this day in the form of a movement of cultural activism, which, with Sahmat at its apex, has already played a stellar role in the struggle against communal-fascism in the country. GPD was one of the founding members of the Sahmat Trust of which Bhisham Sahni was the first Chairman.

GPD’s activities as a public intellectual included speaking extensively to audiences all over the country. He was an excellent speaker in English and Marathi, witty, forthright and easily comprehensible. He was, consequently, always heavily in demand; and he always obliged by accepting invitations to speak, notwithstanding the immense strain it put on him. After a volume of Jyotirao Phule’s writings, edited with an introduction by him, was brought out by LeftWord Books, it was decided to draw attention to the book, and through it to Phule’s writings, by holding a series of meetings in Maharashtra, attended by him, myself, and Sudhanva Deshpande on behalf of LeftWord. At these meetings, the current conjuncture in India and Phule’s relevance to it was to be discussed. The meetings I attended were in Aurangabad, Pune and Satara. And these saw massive turn-outs of cultural and literary personages, which was an expression of the intellectual respect commanded by GPD in Maharashtra. His appeal, however, transcended Maharashtra; it was a countrywide one.

But neither the crowds that thronged to hear him nor his own “idealism” could ever make GPD starry-eyed. He was literally an embodiment of Romain Rolland’s phrase “pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will”. He worked tirelessly as a Marxist intellectual, but never for a moment fell into the trap of underestimating the enormity of the hurdles that stood in the way of a revolutionary transformation of this society, or of believing that the revolution was just around the corner. Neither the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which, in its later days, he had never been a great admirer, nor the onset of “reforms” in China, which he saw as the progenitor of Tiananmen Square and other such conflicts in the future, could dent the optimism of his will; they only served to reinforce the pessimism of his intellect.

In pursuit of grander passions

What struck one most about GPD at close quarters was the grandeur of his personality. It is not uncommon even for Marxist academics to busy themselves with the “small change” of academic work: with routine teaching, routine publishing of minor papers to keep enlarging one’s bio-data, periodically attending seminars, and keeping in touch with the “profession”. GPD was free of all this. Though a scintillating teacher and an insightful researcher, he never engaged in the “small change” of academic work. He was driven by grander passions and used his academic work to express these passions. He once even confided to me that he had lost interest in China Studies, since the era of “reforms” did not enthuse him much. Theatre, always his first love, claimed him more than China Studies after the heady days of Mao Zedong were over.

Likewise, he was completely free of any pettiness, any malice, any hint even of a concern about his personal career. These things simply would not strike him. He had the exquisite arrogance of being “GPD”. And “GPD” would never stoop. Besides, his impish sense of humour that did not spare himself would also never allow it. The loss a few years ago of his life-long companion Kalindi, a feisty activist of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, must have been a big blow to him; but though obviously forlorn, he never talked about it. He lit many lives, including my own.

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