Sisterhood of the bickering wives

Published: Jul 28, 2019, 05:50 IST | sumedha raikar-mhatre | Mumbai

A two-act musical that has travelled the length and breadth of Maharashtra, brings to stage the mythical but scintillating dialogue between the spurned spouses of Lord Vitthal and Saint Tukaram

Pradeep Mulye's set locates the action in neat mimes, with bhakris made in real time
Pradeep Mulye's set locates the action in neat mimes, with bhakris made in real time

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreLord Vitthal sends his wife Rukmini to take care of Saint Tukaram's pregnant wife Aavali whose foot has been pricked by a thorn. Nursing Aavali is no easy task, because she is the same irritable self that she has always been—using cuss words to blame her husband (and his Lord Vitthal) for her penury. Goddess Rukmini, initially unwilling to take on the avatar of a maid (Lakhumai), agrees to stay under a common (leaky) roof and eventually shares a strange love-hate bond with Aavali. Neither women are happy, and neither of their husbands has the time or bandwidth to suggest solutions. As the two men are present only in spirit, women rule the stage. They squabble, shout, argue, laugh, complain, talk and sing together. For two hours, two bickering women—played by Shubhangi Sadavarte and Manasi Joshi—take charge of the show in Bhadrakali Production's two-act musical play, Sangeet Devbabhli.

The play has completed 275-odd shows in a span of two years. The musical, written-directed by Nashik-based Prajakt Deshmukh, has won 39 awards. It has also been included in the First Year graduate arts course of an autonomous college in Ratnagri, and earned a mention in the Forbes magazine's list of discussed plays. Very rarely do one-acts—this one was scripted for Theatre Academy's Rangasangeet 2017 one-act competition—transition into successful professional plays, running uninterruptedly in the monsoon and mayhem alike, across Maharashtra, Goa and Madhya Pradesh. The play, as part of the 8th Theatre Olympics, was also recently performed in Delhi to a global audience.

Actors Manasi Joshi and Shubhangi Sadavarte, who are cast as Goddess Rukmini and Saint Tukaram's pregnant wife Aavali, are seen sharing a strange love-hate relationship on stage. Pics/Ashish Raje
Actors Manasi Joshi and Shubhangi Sadavarte, who are cast as Goddess Rukmini and Saint Tukaram's pregnant wife Aavali, are seen sharing a strange love-hate relationship on stage. Pics/Ashish Raje

Many factors contribute to Devbabhli's popular success, one being its two-member cast and minimalist-experimental-portable set. In fact, for the last three years, two-actor plays (Jara Samjoon Ghya, Piano for Sale, Bai Ameoba Ani Steel Glass, Idiots, Knock Knock Celebrity, Dear Aajo) have become easy options for producers on Marathi stage. The production and per-show costs of such "light" plays are manageable when compared to star-studded period spectacles, especially in connection with confirmed tour dates of much-in-demand actors.

Even the audience seem to appreciate the dialogue-heavy chemistry that a pair is able to kindle on stage. Little wonder that Devbabhli has been performed in places as small as Kankavli, and in the spread-out cities of Baroda and Indore. Producer Prasad Kambli is proud of Devbabhli's (his 55th production) clientele—ranging from the marching warkaris to the office-going weekend theatre enthusiasts and school/college children studying saint poetry. He says people relate to everyday conversations, like the one between Aavali and Lakhubai, because they happen on an identifiable plane. Pradeep Mulye's set design locates the action in neat mimes—bhakris made in real time, clothes washed on Indrayani's ghats, cowdung applied to the floors, and life lived on the footsteps of the Bhandara Hill where an unseen 17th century poet and Bhakti movement champion, Saint Tukaram meditates in a cave.

Music is the soul of Devbabhli. In fact, music director Anand Oak is one of the key makers of the play, who has helped Deshmukh hone the ensemble, before and after it transformed into a full-fledged drama. Just as the casting of singer-actors (Sadavarte and Joshi) is crucial to convey feelings lyrically, the Deshmukh-Oak duo has worked hard on the lyrics capturing Tukaram's live-in-the-moment selfless philosophy (Maan Apmaan Gove/Avaghe Ganduni Thevave – Shed Off the Ego), which is the backbone of the play. They have alternated Tukaram's popular abhangs with mischievous squabbles (in prose and verse) between two women, who outdo each other.

Aavali is bitterly against Lord Vitthal's charm over her husband and doesn't think twice before calling him names (Kaaltondya, Kaala Kaata, Pandhariche Bhoot) because, as the good God, he should have averted Tukaram's neglect of household duties. The disguised Lakhumai controls her anger because her Lord has appointed her as the stopgap maid-nurse; she doesn't have the luxury of telling Aavali not to curse the Lord in front of his wife. When the limping—quite an awkward exaggerated limp for two hours—Aavali goes for backyard chores, Lakhumai vents her suffocation: Rakhu mhane ata nako lakhu roop, pilalele tooch sodvave (I want to be back in my Goddess Rukmini avatar, rescue me from this horror), before Lord Vithal's standing idol. She feels the Lord, instead of wooing her back from the Dindir forest where she had gone in a fit of anger, has added to her woes by sending her to an ungrateful Aavali's service.

Deshmukh, 35, feels the play is about any two women who experience an unexplained sisterhood even while being pitted against each other. Being away from men, women explore their inner selves and react more fearlessly than they do in their domesticated 'public' avatars, says the writer of 20 plays, who is currently making a children's movie, which again draws on Saint Tukaram's teachings.

Three years ago, when he was on the Bhandara Hill (near Dehu, where the saint attained enlightenment), Deshmukh visualised the exchange between Aavali, the demonised wife, and Rukmini, the hurt spouse who yearns for quality attention from her Lord. He decided to build on a mythical dialogue between two characters, who had never met in real life and have differing-yet-similar perspectives on housework, motherhood and tensions of matrimony. Devbabhli took root in the playwright's mind when he was geographically situated in the Dehu neighbourhood, where Saint Tukaram was born and wrote 4,000 abhangs. Deshmukh perceives that as more than just a coincidence.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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