Marathi theatre, Warkari tradition and women

Feminine condition: A still from the musical drama, Sangeet Devbabhali  

The opening play at the recently concluded IAPAR International Theatre Festival in Pune was Nirupan from the locally-based Rang Pandhari Natya Sanstha. Written and directed by Ishwar Andhare, the production has been mounted by a team of largely under-25 players, and has been reaping awards at one-act-play competitions this year, including the lucrative first prize at last month’s Dajikaka Gadgil Karandak.

Raising questions

Nirupan takes us to the very heart of Maharashtra’s Warkari tradition, and raises the kind of questions that have brought it within arm’s reach of controversy. The Warkaris undertake the annual 21-day pilgrimage called wari, to Pandharpur (hence, widely called the Pandharpur yatra), where resides their deity, Vithoba, a manifestation of Vishnu. An important element of the tradition is the performing of kirtans, which are essentially musical narrations delivered on one’s feet extolling Vithoba’s virtues through the poetry of Vaishnavite saints like Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar.

In a setting that is both contemporary and old-world, Andhare trains his lens on the absence of women kirtankars in the movement. Their tribe has certainly seen a resurgence in recent decades, even if seldom accorded the same status as male exponents of the form. At Pandharpur, they are particularly scarce on the ground.

In Nirupan, the passing of a religious figurehead at a Warkari cloister (or math) brings to the fore ideological differences between his disciples, Daas Maharaj and Kartik Maharaj, who take over the administration of the math. The former proposes that the late founder’s daughter, Madhura, should present the concluding kirtan on the final day of rituals. Trained in religious discourse and ethics, Madhura is not without credentials or fervour, but must make way for her five-year-old brother to be ultimately anointed successor. In the play, both she and her mother discover the agency to call out institutionalised sexism, but the arbiters of their destinies remain men. While Nirupan recreates the interiors of the math in elegant if minimalistic fashion, and there are lively musical interludes, it is ultimately a text-based dialectic play in which both sides receive an airing, although its own moorings are skewed towards a progressive resolution (although this does not come to pass). Warkari practices came into being more than seven centuries ago and were open to all individuals irrespective of caste, creed or status, yet its relative social egalitarianism was still seeped in patriarchy. For Andhare, this was likely what sparked the play.

Women in focus

There are other relevant plays that bring to light what one might term the feminine condition as linked to these traditions. While the status quo is embraced by the musical drama, Sangeet Devbabhali, it is empathetic towards its women protagonists. The play focuses on Tukaram’s wife, Avali, by imagining an extended encounter between her and Rakumai, the consort of Vithoba, the eternal object of Tukaram’s devotion. In the play, the devotional poetry (or abhangas) of Tukaram are mellifluously sung live by its two leading ladies, Shubhangi Sadavarte and Manasi Joshi. Unlike kirtans, there is a centuries-old tradition of women performing abhangas, dating back to Dnyaneshwar’s younger sister, Muktabai (circa 1200), who incidentally gives her name to a prominent latter-day woman kirtankar, Muktabai Maharaj of Alandi, the home-town of Dnyaneshwar’s family. Much more progressive was Sushama Deshpande’s play Baya Daar Ughad (literally, ‘Woman, open your door’), whose musical texture is derived from the forgotten abhangas authored by women saints who lived between the 13th and 18th century. The play puts forth the radical idea, derived from the collective philosophy that emerged from their writings, that these women embarked on wari-like pilgrimages, not necessarily due to the calling of spirituality, but to escape the shackles of domesticity for months on end.

Batting for art

One play shut down by fundamentalist forces comes to mind. Abhijeet Khade’s Thararli Veet dramatised the exploitation of women on the Pandharpur yatra. At one point, 50-odd actors took the stage in a stunningly choreographed sequence simulating the wari, even as the saris of women disturbingly spiraled into the air. A fringe group called the Hindu Janujagruti Samiti took up cudgels against the play citing the ‘hurt sentiments’ of Warkaris, and Khade was forced to halt the run of his award-winning play prematurely in 2011. Meanwhile, Andhare’s play, albeit dealing with a less incendiary aspect of Warkari culture, continues its showings in Maharashtra (its latest staging was at Ratnagiri) without a major run-in with self-styled custodians of the faith.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 3:58:13 AM |

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