Sangeet Bari and the evolution of Lavani

Posted on 5 April, 2017 by Team Wishberry

A dance drama that chronicles the historical evolution of Lavani — that seemed good enough reason for me to attend Sangeet Bari — An evening of Lavani at the famed Prithvi theatre in Mumbai. I was a little circumspect about the language barrier and if in case it would dampen my spirit —the show was house full; the audience excited. I found myself sandwiched between a group of men ‘high-fiving’ at the prospect of watching the show and a couple who seemed to be experts in the field! Nervous energy kicked in and I wondered if I had made the mistake of not inviting a friend who understands Marathi well!

All those fears were allayed once Savitri Medhatul, the director of Sangeet Bari introduced herself — She asked for a show of hands of people who didn’t understand Marathi and I sheepishly obliged — I had very little company — Savitri went on to assure us that Lavani is not experienced via the brain — it deals with matters of the heart!

Sangeet Bari, at its core, is the culmination of Savitri Medhatul and Bhushan Korgaonkar’s (the writer) journey into the labyrinth of history to discover the roots of Lavani. And the performance speaks of this colossal experience. The duo, on stage, introduces the performances; tells inspiring tales of women who fought through social and economical storms to become acclaimed dancers of repute, as well as introduces a deeper understanding of the form. For example, I learned that there are two major kinds of Lavani — Nirguni Lavani and Shringrar Lavani and that Lavani had to change gear and become more mainstream (read Bollywood) because of the demands of the audience. Today, Lavani tries to engage one and all — dancers seductively gyrate (sometimes break into belly dancing as well) to popular Hindi songs as well as transform into messengers of yore when singing, and performing to classical Lavani songs.

What I witnessed was enthralling magic — I am not exaggerating (although, I can be accused of hyperbole at times!). Sangeet Bari threads the narrative with thorough explanation of how Lavani transformed itself through the ages to become the heartbeat of Maharashtra and today, it is well on its way to becoming a popular mode of musical expression in mainstream Hindi cinema (Pinga, Pinga, anyone?).

The performances were riveting and Savitri was right — when the dancers took stage, the barrier of language disappeared. The energy of the space wonderfully transformed into a baithak and with the encouragement of the performers, the audience was itself — irrespective of the fact that they were huddled in the auditorium of a Juhu theatre, they cheered, they whistled and sang along, and of course, they were rightly heckled by the seductive Lavani performers who ‘tore’ into any sign of sexism. These women were in control — yes, they were performing and seeking the attention of the audience (largely male during this performance and historically as well when Lavani was performed for either patrons or the masses in general) — they were in charge of what happened to that attention. Therefore, a gazing young man was brought to his place; he was told to stop gawking! The director took a man whose phone had rung during the performance to task first and then the dancers did the same. I don’t think that he will ever keep his phone switched on in theatres after what happened.

The performances themselves were a reminder of the fact that Lavani, as a medium, is essentially about women reclaiming their space and negotiating with the ‘male gaze’ in their own way. Therefore, when Akanksha Kadam pointed towards her body and reminded the audience that it is well-maintained, it was exhilarating for me — here was a ‘big’ woman dancing to the beat of a fervent dholki, unmindful of the ‘airbrush’ generation’s expectations!

Similarly, when Sangeet Natak Academy Award winner Shakuntalabai Nagarkar transformed into a ‘man’ (a jacket and a Gandhi ‘topi’ sufficed!) she didn’t need any other prop. Her gait transformed, her dancing changed gear and she ‘became’ a man — in the process reminding men that it is not manly to view women as commodity or to try and lure them or invade their personal space in the name of ‘being a man’. Her feigned jealousy when her co-performer ‘made eyes’ at a man in the audience was hilarious! It made the men uncomfortable and the women; free. ‘Shringrar ras’ was on full display at Sangeet Bari, but what was also on display was raw emotion.

The last performance, especially, after Shankuntala Bai’s admission that she will continue to perform come hell or high water, was a fitting qawali — Aakar mere qabr par, tumne jo muskura diya (When you visited my grave and smiled at me) — it almost felt like Lavani and through Lavani, the innumerable performative traditions in India, were appealing to us — don’t let this heritage die, don’t let these art forms vanish into the cacophony of modern times.

At the end of the performance, the walls of Prithvi’s hallowed auditorium seemed to hum — Iss anjuman mein aapko aana hai baar baar (You will have to return to this meeting spot again and again and again).

P.S.: Sangeet Bari’s Hindi edition will premiere at the NCPA in May. I’m going to be there. Are you?

All photographs courtesy Sangeet Bari

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