Deepa Gahlot: This sangeet isn't just song and dance

Ladies Sangeet brings on stage all the drama of a grand wedding, but could do more to put the spotlight on changing patriarchal notions

Ever since the overblown ‘wedding video’ that was Hum Aapke Hain Koun became a blockbuster, the Indian wedding has become a popular plot device, or at least backdrop, for a succession of Bollywood movies. It’s surprising that mainstream theatre (such as it is) did not pick up the trend — it has scope for song and dance, romance, emotions and comedy.

Mercifully, Purva Naresh has not taken the Bollywood shortcut in Ladies Sangeet. There is a lot of music, but thanks to Shubha Mudgal, it is traditional folk and semi-classical
Mercifully, Purva Naresh has not taken the Bollywood shortcut in Ladies Sangeet. There is a lot of music, but thanks to Shubha Mudgal, it is traditional folk and semi-classical

In recent times, Bharat Dabholkar’s Blame It On Yashraj has become a box-office smash with its plot about a Hindu girl falling in love with a Muslim boy, which caused a small tsunami in both families. Add to that the band-baaja-baraat of an extravagant wedding, and audiences in India and abroad are lapping it up so that the production shows no signs of tiring or shutting down.

On a smaller scale, there was Akash Khurana and Tahira Nath directed Rafta Rafta, written by British-Indian Ayun Khan-Din, that begins with a wedding and goes on to other family conflicts, done with a large dash of humour. The Hindu-Muslim match is not as much a problem here, as the new couple’s inexplicable failure in the bedroom, which, embarrassingly for them, becomes everybody’s business.

And because everybody loves a good wedding, just the title of Purva Naresh’s Ladies Sangeet brings a smile to the face and, going by the audiences in large auditoria, the desire to buy a ticket. The ladies sangeet is a ritual that used to be like a bachelorette party, with women letting their hair down singing raunchy songs. Now it is a part of every big-budget wedding, with costumes specially being made for it, and choreographers being hired to teach the wedding party — no longer women only — the latest Bollywood steps.

Mercifully, Purva Naresh has not taken the Bollywood shortcut in her play. There is a lot of music, but thanks to Shubha Mudgal, it is traditional folk and semi-classical. Some of the songs are a pleasure to rediscover, particularly the one used at the climax.

In her family’s ancestral haveli, Radha (Shikha Talsania) is getting ready to marry her steady boyfriend Sid (Siddharth Kumar). She begins by grumbling about the heavy lehenga but eventually starts having severe jitters about the wedding. Her parents Yash (Joy Sengupta) and Megha (Loveleen Mishra) are estranged, because of his infidelity. Still, the mother is telling the daughter what she must do to look pretty, entice the husband and keep him tied to her.

Around the impending wedding is the usual tumult of relatives, and the problems they bring with them — an aunt’s thwarted showbiz ambitions, another’s complex about her dark skin, her daughter tied to her apron strings. An uncle married to a former bar dancer finds that his wife is not invited to the wedding, though she lands up anyway and the expected explosion does not happen. The festivities, are being supervised by the bride’s grandmother (Nivedita Bhargava), a dominating woman who believes in tradition. She wants to teach her skittish granddaughter, the bride’s sister, classical bandishes, while the young girl wants to do her own kind of singing. It comes as a shock to the gaggle of women that they will not be allowed to dance to film songs — the stern old lady won’t allow it.

Amidst all the confusion, is the comic relief of a wedding planner, with his outlandish plans for the couple’s ‘entry’ and the neon-lit “Radha ‘Heart’ Sid” sign constantly going on the blink. He senses the tension in the air and is world-weary enough to know that these days, one wedding is not enough — most people go through at least two.

The play had potential to be an incisive look at the way ideas about marriage have altered with every generation, or how old patriarchal notions of the ‘nayika’ (a coy woman pining for her lover) in classical bandishes should change now — the grandmother and granddaughter have arguments about that. The notion of class, gender equations, family relationships, parental control, youthful rebellion, outdated ideas of beauty or desirability — so much is touched upon, but superficially and not with enough humour (though the lack of over-the-top melodrama is a relief). If the grandmother’s character is a bit clichéd, the mother is downright weird. For a highly educated woman, she has oddly outdated ideas about marriage, sex and ‘how to keep the man in check’, even though her own formula of silence and withholding intimacy haven’t worked for her relationship with her husband.

All the conflict moves towards a supposedly startling revelation at the end — which one can see coming much before it is mentioned — forgiveness and redemption.

As a piece of fluffy entertaining evening at the theatre, Ladies Sangeet may work out fine, but it could have held a mirror to today’s materialistic society standing at the crossroads and wondering which way to happiness... if marriage, family and wealth is not the right direction, then what is?

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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