Vijay Tendulkar’s Silence! The Court is in Session is a critique of gender discrimination in patriarchy and the women’s fight against the injustice done to her. He represents the problems faced by independent women in India. The word ‘Silence’ symbolizes the patriarchal conspiracy to silence the voice of a woman in the name of social justice and ideology.
Vijay Dhondopant Tendulkar, born in 1928 in Mumbai, was a leading Indian playwright, television writer, literary essayist, journalist, and social commentator. He emerged as a rebel against the established values of a fundamentally Orthodox society with the production of successful novels. He has become an important spokesperson for the suppressed women. Many of his plays present the position of women in contemporary modern society. Plays like Kamala, Silence! The Court is in Session, The Vultures and His Fifth Woman bitterly criticise the status of women in the patriarchal society. In the course of the plays, his women characters gain knowledge, strive for freedom and dignity.
Silence! The Court is in Session was originally written as Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe in the Marathi language and was first performed in 1967. It is a play within a play, as a group of amateur theatre actors known as “Sonar Moti Tenement (Bombay) Progressive Association’s Mock Lawcourt” assemble to present a mock-trial of “social importance” to spread “enlightenment.” On the day Silence! takes place, instead of presenting a pre-planned case, they decide to improvise, accusing one of their own, Leela Benare, of infanticide. Through this performance, a play-acted court investigating a fictionalized crime reveals the unmarried Benare’s very real secret pregnancy.
Under normal circumstances (i.e. in real life), the court forces its audiences to engage with moral issues and contemporary news items, but the play-acted court that adjourns in Silence! instead becomes a means to harass and embarrass one of the members of its troop. Uncomfortable with discussing Benare’s condition explicitly, instead the members of the troop hide behind the mask of “theatre” to dig into and criticize Benare’s personal life. Performances, songs, and poems throughout the play reveal what characters are unable to express in everyday life, exposing their inner thoughts and feelings.
Benare, a schoolteacher, often recites bits of songs and poems that she has taught her classes. These pieces of verse reflect her inner thoughts, which she is unwilling, or unable, to express directly. Benare, secretly pregnant, is also secretly looking for a husband who could help prevent her from becoming an unmarried mother. Benare is in fact at risk of losing everything in her life important to her, a thought she will not express out loud but will say through the songs. Through performance, Benare is able to grapple with private desires and painful traumas that she can’t express in other ways.
Stage performances also offer characters the opportunity to become what they long to be. Kashikar and Sukhatme in particular become their characters during the mock trial. Sukhatme dons a lawyer’s robe and Kashikar a judge’s wig. When the trial becomes more serious in the third act, Kashikar adds a black judge’s gown that the stage directions note increase his “Gravity and dignity.” Sukhatme is a failed lawyer and so likely appreciates being able to try a case, however ostensibly fictitious. The power-hungry Kashikar meanwhile and enjoys having authority over an entire courtroom.
Rokde, the servant to Kashikar and Mrs Kashikar, desperately wants to be allowed to participate in the play and sees an opportunity when other cast members do not show up to the rehearsal. Given little status and independence in his daily life, this offers him the potential to be, for a moment, important and free. He already knows the lines of one of the other men by heart but is rejected by Karnik, Kashikar, and Mrs Kashikar.
The play-acted trial itself is a way for the central characters to attack Benare’s life and choices without actually attacking her. Although everyone pretends it is just a game, the accusations and emotions are real; the stage becomes a platform for the actors to express their thoughts and feelings that go unspoken in day-to-day life.
A blurry line thus exists between performance and reality. When Benare becomes so emotional that she must leave the room, the group realizes the mock trial has struck a chord and that they are pursuing a real “crime,” or at the very least a real instance of unwed motherhood. Ponkshe, Rokde, and Karnik had already suspected Benare’s pregnancy, but her emotional response confirms their suspicions.
At the play’s conclusion, a villager interrupts the verdict and everyone breaks character except for Benare. Mrs Kashikar comments that Benare has “taken it really to heart. How sensitive the child is!” For most of the players, the performance of the trial has allowed them to confirm information about Benare they’d already suspected. For Benare, the trial is a devastating probe into her personal life, made possible only because of the framing of it as a theatrical exercise.
Theatre, poems, and songs within the play thus allow characters to express hidden truths and emotions. By performing as someone else, even someone similar to him or herself (as in Sukhatme’s case) characters are able to be more aggressive, more inquiring. However, the lines between performance and reality are not always clear; for Benare’s fellow players the trial is a kind of game, but for Benare her real life is being laid out for everyone to critique, and the theatrical exercise proves as emotionally devastating and trying as a real trial would be.
Benare is a prey of male chauvinism, used simply to gratify the quench for bodily thirst and deserted at the end of her destiny. She represents all the women in India who are suppressed, oppressed and marginalised. The play dwells on an extremely sensitive, social and political issue, namely, the conflict between the male chauvinists and an individual woman.
Silence! The Court is in Session is an effective play with a very impressive language and style. It is just another play presenting the picture of Indian society. The play exposes the social hypocrisy and its dubious double standards. The play is well constructed that presents a realistic picture of the current situation of India’s modern society.