The artistes sang and danced in abandon, thumping the stage with their feet and undulating their torsos, looking coy, puckering lips, gesturing, and had many facial expressions to enact various forms of love between man and woman, writes Arun Bhatia.
For an ex-Mumbaikar, the documentary style theatre production of Sangeet Bari was quite a treat, as the director Savitri Medhatul, in her charming Marathi accented Hindi, explained Lavani, the folk art of Maharashtra.
It was during the Festival of Laughter and Forgetting at Ranga Shankara. The house was full. (I was lucky to get a seat). Savitri is ebullient, full of energy, can herself wiggle and bump and grind doing this ancient folk song/dance. She even conducted an impromptu workshop of half an hour for early comers to the evening show.
Fifty spirited audience members, mostly ladies, but even a few men, took lessons of Lavani steps. The Kali Billi Productions dancers demonstrated in the foyer under the staircase. Ranga Shankara reverberated that evening with loud percussion sounds of dholak, tabla, raucous cheering, whistles, claps, and even catcalls. After all, Lavani is an erotic art form, and the lyrics are raunchy.
Upon the stage at the start of the show, in sutradhar fashion, Savitri exhorted the audience to clap and encourage the performers so that everyone could have a good time. “Can anyone whistle? Seetee bajao?” and in response, someone in the audience put two fingers in mouth and let out a phweeeep sound… and she nodded approval. She took a quick count of the audience who understood Marathi, and consoled the fifty percent who didn’t by saying that while the lyrics were Marathi the commentary would be Hindi, and English. “So, pervagilla.”
Lavani, the song/dance form dates back to the 16th century, when tired soldiers of the Peshwas needed to be entertained. Women do the provocative dance, wearing nauvari (nine yard) saris. They form a bun (juda in Hindi or ambada in Marathi) with their hair. They wear heavy jewelry – necklace, earrings, anklets(payal), waistbelt (kamarpatta), dupatta, bangles – and a heavy bindi of dark red colour is on their forehead. The three Kali Billi Productions artistes sang and danced in abandon, thumping the stage with their feet and undulating their torsos, looking coy, puckering lips, gesturing, and had many facial expressions to enact various forms of love between man and woman.
There were those of a married woman during menstruation, sexual union between husband and wife, soldiers’ amorous exploits, wife’s bidding farewell to the husband who is going to war, pangs of separation, childbirth and adulterous love.
Sahitya Akademi’s K. Ayyappanpanicker has opined: “The Lavani poet outsteps the limits of social decency and control when it comes to the depiction of sexual passion.” However, one scene and song that evening was of a wife whose navra (husband) had given up drinking daru (liquor) and she was celebrating with wiggles and thumps and expressing joy.
On a stage with no sets nor props, Savitri seamlessly weaved into the performance. Lavani (from the Sanskrit lavanya –beauty-) is loped into two distinct performances: Phadachi Lavani is sung and acted in a theatrical atmosphere before a large audience and Baithakichi Lavani is sung in a closed chamber for a private audience by a girl.
The youngest of the three dancers was an accomplished singer, too, and did three scenes seated in the Baithakachi Lavani form, in full throated abandon. We were not a small selected audience in a chamber but a full house, but appreciated the genre. Two of her songs were in Marathi but one, in deference to a Bangalore audience, was a popular Bollywood Hindi song “Bus ek baar mera kaha maan Leejeeye” sung seated and with great emotion.
Throughout, there was interaction with the audience. In one such scene the two dancing ladies were trying to survey the audience to pick one as a likely prospect for marriage. They pointed to one, and appeared to discuss, put their finger on lower lip in deep thought, and rejected. Then another, also rejected, till they picked and pointed to a bald man in the third row and with finger on her chin and goo goo eyes, she asked: ”Mujhse shaadi karoge’?” The chap squirmed in his seat and nervously giggled. So she asked in English:”Will you marry me?” and the bald man squirmed some more. She asked:”Where are you from?” and got the answer:”Germany”. So on the stage, she seemed to go into ecstasy, rolled her eyes, did a waltz jig, and gesticulated as if she was on a dreamy Lufthansa Frankfurt flight on her honeymoon.
Before the interval, Savitri asked those who had attended the workshop to come on stage to romp with the performers. At first one came, then two more, and quickly the stage was full of ladies thumping on the stage. Two men who had practiced were urged to join in, and quickly, there were four men wiggling and thumping. There were wide grins and haw haws and phweeep off stage and on.
In those 135 frenzied minutes, Savitri explained even a further aspect: There is Shringari Lavani (emotional) of which we got a lot that evening, and Nirguni Lavani (philosophical). “There are also devotional (bhajan) Lavanis!” she said, to our utter surprise and bewilderment.
The dancers’ energy was infectious, the atmosphere electric, we lapped it all up and went clap clap clap, wah wah, phweeeep.
Arun Bhatia is a resident of Bengaluru and an avid reader, writer, and photographer. He has also modeled in TV commercials.