The commercial Marathi theatre is witnessing a resurgence of sorts, as unconventional plays like Sangeet Devbabhali recently completed its 250th show, and is still going strong. This is indeed noteworthy for a new play by a young writer-director, and that too on an unusual subject. Old commercially successful plays like Ashrunchi Zali Phule (Tears have turned flowers) and a few other time-tested plays are running to packed houses. In such a milieu, a fresh‚ unconventional play by a young writer-director Prajakt Deshmukh has touched the right chord in getting the crowds back to theatre. This is Deshmukh’s first commercial outing. The play is produced by Bhadrakali Productions, a theatre powerhouse.
A throwback musical
Sangeet Devbabhali is a period-drama that depicts life in the 16th century rural Maharashtra. It is a musical like they used to have in the good old days of Balgandharva in the 1920s and 1930s, when actors were accomplished singers too. This modern musical has only two female characters who hold audience attention for a good two-odd hours. It is story of two women, Avali and Lakhubai. Avali, also known as Jijabai, is Saint Tukaram’s second wife. The popular culture has depicted Avali as a woman who had troubled Saint Tukaram a lot on mundane matters. Avali is often compared with Greek Philosopher Socrates’s wife Xanthippe. Given Avali’s straightforward pragmatism, she could never understand Tukaram’s spiritual quest, his utter devotion to Lord Vittal. And yet, with her hard, back-breaking work, she keeps the kitchen fires burning.
The play opens with Avali taking lunch for Tukaram in the jungle, a daily routine for her. On one particular day, her foot is pierced by a thorn. God Vittal personally takes out the thorn, while Avali lies unconscious in the jungle. This in turn arouses the curiosity of Rakmabai, wife of Vittal, who initially fails to understand the position Tukaram occupies. She takes on the guise of a stranger Lakhubai, to know more about Avali, and why God touched her foot!
Ultimately, Sangeet Devbabhali is the story of two women, marginalised in their lives, who find comfort in each other’s company, and they develop a feeling of kinship. This musical weaves multiple tales in one; it presents Avali’s plight of deprivation and desertion, her constant denial of Vittal’s superior position. The play has lot of abhangas of Tukaram which provide Sangeet Devbabhali its musical texture. A word of caution is necessary here. This is not a feminist play of self-actualisation – here, men are centre-stage in all respects, endowed with all good qualities.
Shubhangi Sadarvate (Avali) and Manasi Joshi (Rakumai/Lakhubai) are two trained actors who carry their roles with professional ease. Their singing prowess is really top-class. The music is composed by Anand Oak who has used historical abhangas and some fresh ones written by playwright and director Prajakt Deshmukh. A mention must be made of the versatile stage-design by Pradeep Mulye. The stage-design and the lights take us into the hut of Avali one moment, and the very next moment we are transported to Bhandara Hills, where Saint Tukaram used to retire for meditation.
The missing Tukaram?
Though this is a top-class production, some issues troubled me. Why did the playwright not get Tukaram in the script? If Tukaram were to appear, it would have given this play an altogether different perspective on devotion to God, His place in day-to-day life, can one really attain moksha while practicing domestic life? How does one keep detached from issues around us? The entry of Tukaram would also have brought in a male perspective, which is lacking in the present avatar of the play. Tukaram occupies an important place in the history of saint poets of Maharashtra. The tradition of saint poetry starts with Dynaneshwar who wrote Dyaneshwari when he was in his early 20s, in the 12th century A.D. Since the days of Dynaneshwar, saint poets have become integral to Maharashtra, and in this long tradition, Tukaram holds an eminent position. Tukaram’s poetry was revolutionary, and challenged the vested interests. So finally they managed to sink his poetry in the River Indrayani. The character of powerful saint poet Tukaram would have raised the intellectual height of this play. Despite this handicap, Sangeet Devbabhali is a huge success, and definitely worth a dekko.