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The Battle Continues

Wednesday, January 03, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

When an actress with a ‘sexy’ image is not allowed to perform in a city, or when condom ads are sought to be sanitized, the protestors would do well to go back into Indian history and read about Raghunath Dhondo Karve, who advocated birth control as well as sexual freedom for women in the early twentieth century, and for nearly three decades brought out a publication called 'Samajswasthya', to propagate his views.

The son of social reformer Maharishi Karve, he went one step ahead and challenged conventional thinking on matters of sexual liberation, for which he was repeatedly hauled into court on charges of obscenity. R.D. Karve is the subject of a much-admired Marathi play, 'Samajswathya', written by Ajit Dalvi and directed by the Pune-based Atul Pethe, who also plays the lead role. The play completed fifty shows recently in Mumbai, and has been travelling to various festivals.

The play opens with Karve typing a piece, when his wife Malati (Ujjwala Damdere) is approached by a rural woman, who wants to know about birth control. A few minutes later, Karve is arrested for obscenity in his magazine, and has to defend his views before an unsympathetic judge and a religious leader who objects to the way Karve has supposedly vilified characters from mythology. His lawyer puts up a brilliant defense, but Karve is found guilty and fined. Interestingly, Dr Ambedkar (Ajit Sable) defends Karve in his second case, but loses.

Traditional Indian society was not prepared for Karve’s revolutionary views then; he was fired from his job as a mathematics professor at a Mumbai college for his writings on abortion and birth control. It looks like the conservatives are still protesting loudly, in spite of progress on so many fronts. As Karve says in his conversation with Ambedkar, people’s feelings are easily offended, and he could well be referring to what is going on currently.

During the same period, elsewhere, writers Saadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai were also fighting court cases on being accused of obscenity in their stories. Karve was even sent a court summons once, after his death.

The play portrays Karve as a progressive rebel, and one who practices what he preaches – he and his wife chose to remain childless, for which she has to suffer social scorn. He may have been against marriage, but his relationship with his wife is one of tenderness and camaraderie.

Pethe had earlier directed GP Despande’s play 'Satyashodhak' based on the life of another social reformer, Jotiba and Savitribai Phule. It is important to remind audiences of the work of these great men and women, whose battle for an equitable and enlightened society is not over yet.

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