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Lavani’s feisty women

As a stage artiste herself, Rajashree Sawant Wad has always been drawn to the frisson of the dance form.— Photo: Courtesy Punit Reddy  

The art of lavani is a cultural mainstay in Maharashtra. As a stage artiste herself, Rajashree Sawant Wad has always been drawn to the frisson of the dance form, and the feistiness of the women who bring it to life for nights on end during tamasha season.

Ms Wad had read Yogesh Bahulkar’s book, Tamasha Vithabaicha Ayushyacha , on lavani exponent Vithabai Narayangaonkar. The account of the glory and the agony of a life lived and lost on the anvil of unfettered performance sparked the desire to portray such a formidable woman on stage.

Wad was also perturbed by the marginalisation of such folk performers in society. “When a film star performs lavani on screen, she is celebrated for her artistry,” she says. “But the actual dancers from whom the art is taken are looked down upon.” Even the overlooked accompanists, like the dholki samrat, come from long-standing artistic traditions in their own right.

With her new Marathi play Tichya Aaichi Goshta, Arthat Mazya Athavanincha Phad ( Her Mother’s Story , or The Caravan of My Memories ), Wad appears to have finally found an appropriate vehicle to celebrate the unsung heroes of lavani.

The play was written by the well-regarded theatre actor, director and writer Sushama Deshpande, in 1994. Ms Deshpande performed it herself over the years, a run of more than 100 shows.

The script, so redolent with the soul of lavani, was a godsend for Wad. She was struck with the Deshpande’s graciousness: “Even before I could complete my request to perform her piece, she said, ‘Take it.’ She has loaned us her properties, even her costume. This is a big thing. As an artiste, it is very difficult to part with an article you’re particularly attached to.”

The new production is Wad’s own interpretation of Deshpande’s text. “Sushama tai didn’t attend any rehearsals, because she didn’t want to see herself in the part. She felt it would taint my performance.”

Last Saturday’s premiere at Pune’s Marathi Cultural Centre marked the first time Deshpande watched Wad’s rendition of the fictional Heerabai, her incandescent protagonist.

A tamasha artiste who belonged to traditional lavani theatre or Sangeet Bari, Heerabai was an unmarried single mother, and her story is recounted by her journalist daughter. Though it’s filtered through the lens of the gender and caste politics that informed those times, the milieu depicted in the play could just as easily be contemporaneous.

Deshpande’s generosity perhaps has something to do with her own indebtedness at being bequeathed a legacy that has enriched her own life immeasurably.

In the early 1990s, she had spent three to four years with many lavani dancers, including doyennes like Shakuntala Nagarkar and Mohanabai Mahalanglekar. She observed the minutiae of their lives, and watched their performances in public baithaks, sometimes as the only female spectator in an audience full of clamorous men. “I never interviewed them,” Deshpande says, “I just wanted to experience their lives.”

The initial months were difficult because the women were especially taciturn, before finally opening themselves to her empathetic scrutiny. “Later, I knew their children. I was even a confidante for the men in their lives. I was struck by how empowered they were, despite being entangled in a web of exploitation.” This long gestation was potent enough for her to pen the script for Tichya Aaichi Goshta … in a matter of days. The women who were her subjects were certainly impressed, even asking, ‘How did you manage to know so much about us?’

Deshpande rues the fact that authentic lavani performances, which were delicate games played between performer and patron, have now been reduced to desultorily suggestive set-pieces by latter-day dancers. The art of the seasoned coquette appears to be on the wane even as Sangeet Bari communities are slowly dissipating. With this venture, Wad takes on a constellation of relationships and personal histories to represent by herself, peppered with earthy song and dance interludes that aim to capture the true spirit of lavani. This is yet another artistic challenge for a consummate if underrated actor, best known for her tempestuous performance in Sunil Shanbag’s S*x, M*rality & Cens*rship .

“This play has been my dream project and I have put my heart into it,” she says, “Playing this amazing woman has given me a lot of attitude as an actor, and as a person.”

It is this fortitude that she will attempt to translate for her audiences.

The author is a freelance writer and theatre critic



Performances

have been reduced to desultorily suggestive

set-pieces




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