Harem Scarem

Infamous Indian drama makes its long-awaited NYC debut

How often do New York theatergoers get a chance to see a premier work from a major Indian dramatist, staged with the collaboration of the writer himself? Almost never. Vijay Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder was written and first performed in 1974 and hardly qualifies as a new play. Thirty years after setting Indian censors aflame, it makes its New York debut in a spare, lucid, and altogether thrilling production from the Play Company. At a time when the airheaded confection Bombay Dreams passes for subcontinental theater, Sakharam Binder not only feels vital, but painfully necessary.

The play's eponymous protagonist is many things: "I'm a rascal, a womanizer, a pauper," he says with effulgent pride. The truth, we learn by the end, is a whole lot bleaker. Played to smug perfection by Bernard White, Sakharam is a fortyish bookbinder who offers lodging to cast-off women in exchange for housekeeping favors and the occasional fuck. The drama focuses on two of his concubines—the introverted and ultra-religious Laxmi (Anna George) and the arrogant and slutty Champa (Sarita Choudhury). Their sequential stories are told in highly diagrammatic fashion—Laxmi brings out the Fagin-ish slave master in Sakharam while the insatiable Champa reduces him to a lovelorn puppy.


Sakharam Binder
By Vijay Tendulkar
59 East 59th Street

The two tales eventually come together in the final third of the piece, when Laxmi returns from exile and befriends Champa, much to Sakharam's bewilderment. A sort of ménage à trois ensues, but Tendulkar is foremost interested in exploring the psychological power struggle that consumes his three characters. The conclusion is a shocker—think Macbeth, and also much of ancient Greek tragedy. Sakharam's macho bluster is finally deflated, and for a moment we pity him. Almost. Tendulkar's flawed hero is more than just a luggish misogynist: He's profoundly (and disgustingly) human—a model of insecure masculinity to rival Stanley Kowalski.