Maharashtra has a rich culture of theatre and drama, within which sangeet natak occupies a special place. Literally meaning a musical drama, a sangeet natak combines prose with poetry, and drama with songs to convey a story. For those who would not get the local context, an opera comes closest in understanding what a sangeet nataki is, but beware, a lot will be lost in translation if one is used in naming the other.
‘Sangeet Devbhabli‘ is a sangeet natak — a recent one, which itself is a rarity, considering there are only a few artists today who’d be willing to put so much of love and labour in the creation of one today, and fewer would be willing to spend three hours watching it. This play, however, lacks the opulence of the sets that typically characterised sangeet nataks based on mythology and history. It also takes a leaf from one of the best chapters of history in Maharashtra — but it is the history of the subaltern, the Bhakti movement, which swept across the state in the 17th century. It is a part of the story of Tukaram, poet and saint of the Bhakti movement, and his wife Avali.
The plot is established even before the actual play begins, with a rather regular affair in the lives of Tukaram and Avali. One afternoon, like many others, Sant Tukaram was consumed in chanting Lord Vitthal’s name, oblivious of time, place, people and consequences. His wife Avali spent hours looking for him in the mountains near Dehu village, with lunch in her hand. What happens next is quite unexpected.
While walking barefoot, a wild thorn pierced her foot and she fell unconscious. A few hours later, when she woke up, she found herself in her own house. She saw a strange lady doing her household chores and taking care of her. The stranger introduced herself as Lakhubai, and indeed she was Rukmini, wife of Lord Vitthal, in disguise.
Lakhubai came to help, but she had other intentions. When Avali fell unconscious, it was Lord Vitthal who plucked out the thorn from Avali’s feet. Rukmini is baffled with the thought — why would her husband, a great God, touch an ordinary woman’s feet? She wanted an answer.
The play thus begins, with Lakhubai trying to convince Avali to take her in as a house help. Reluctant and suspicious at first, Avali finally gives in and there begins the spiritual journey that both these women undertake in the quest of finding answers to the questions that have wrapped their lives.
What did the two women have in common? One is a divine Goddess with the autonomy to make her own decisions. The other is an ordinary homemaker tied down to her household and family, with little or no agency. In spite of the vastness of difference in their positions, both of them, in their own respective ways, come across as willful and strong, drawing opinions that are independent of, and in contradiction with their husbands’ philosophies.
Neither husbands are ordinary men. One is the Lord himself, omniscient and all pervading; the other is his greatest follower. Vitthal is the God that people would find solace in, and Tukaram is the instrument through whose words Vitthal’s followers would experience Him in the most endearing role, that of a mother.
The two women, however, remain, if not oblivious, unimpressed by the greatness of their respective spouses. Their grievances are personal. Rukmini craves to be the sole companion to her Lord, and resents the presence of his lover Radha in his life. Unlike Radha, who had contented herself with the memories of their togetherness as adolescents in the past, Rukmini is the jealous wife who demands her rightful position beside her husband and is upset to the point of separating herself when she discovers that she could never erase Radha’s love from his heart.
Avali, on the other hand, desperately wants Tukaram to break away from the life of abstinence and indifference (as she sees it), and return as the ‘householder’ whose sole attention should be towards the needs of his family, rather than the world at large. Similar to Rukmini nursing a grudge against Radha and all of Krishna’s lovers, Avali, too, berates Vitthal for destroying her domestic haven and luring Tukaram towards spiritual oblivion. Both the women, in this sense, are possessive women and appeared to be selfish and petty at various times.
Avali continuously bickers with Tukaram, abuses Vitthal and rebukes him to regain his lost social position. She longs to spend more intimate time with him, and her wildest dreams are that of Tukaram flinging his writings in the river and returning to her as her beloved husband. Rukmini stands by her resolve of not forgiving Vitthal for his transgressions and refuses to enter Padharpur Temple (his home) with him.
Both the women, at some point of the play, connect their own personal stories with the larger experiences of women around them. This is the fate of the one of our sex; they lament and connect their own plight with the women who have to bear the misfortunes that men in their lives bring in with their fantastic ideas.
Avali remains untouched by the social transformation, which the philosophy of Tukaram brought in around the world at large. Her anger against Vitthal is driven by hunger and poverty that Vitthal bhakti brings upon her household and Tukaram’s single-minded devotion (obsession?) of Vitthal.
Many will criticise her for standing on Tukaram’s way of reaching God. Some would scorn her ignorance and lack of understanding of the immense influence his abhangas had. None, however, can deny that sharing a life with a man utterly detached from domestic life can be full of trials and suffering.
Thus, while many a wife have been sidestepped, ignored and overshadowed as history only chooses to remember the greatness of their great husbands; Avali has made her mark as Tukaram’s biggest and constant critic as the very antithesis of his philosophy of detachment from the material world.
“Why have you never thought of leaving Tukaram?,” Lakhubai asked Avali one day. Avali’s answer, which comes from the depths of her heart, takes you to understand the complexities of her mind — which we never had a chance to discover in the face of her constant banter. At one end is her vulnerability as a woman in a patriarchal world, something which Rukmini does not share. At the other is her true love for Tukaram, which saves her from victimhood.
Avali asserts that while she could never reconcile to the loss Tukaram brought in the house with his obsession with Vitthal, she loves him so much that she chooses to not forsake him, just as Rukmini chooses to separate from Vitthal. Both the women are at the receiving end of their husbands’ decisions, and yet, both of them determine their own course of action to redeem themselves.
It is Vitthal who, more than anybody else, values Avali’s love and her selfless attachment to Tukaram, which is rare and complete in itself, even if it is trifled against the all-encompassing love Tukaram has for the whole of humanity. He knows that it is her love that sustains Tukaram, distracts him, and prevents him from leaving the house for a singular spiritual journey like his brother.
It is only Vitthal who sees Avali’s role in making Tukaram stay back and spread, as he was destined to, the message that would lead to reaching out to the self, to breaking of hierarchies and coming close to finding God in the love for each other. And maybe, this is the reason that he descended from his abode to help Avali, his child who had his name on her lips as much, and sometimes more than Tukaram had!
The women strike an unlikely bond with each other. Even as Rukmini (Lakhubai) resents Avali abusing her husband, her empathy as a woman makes her question Vitthal more than once, if he is justified in letting his devotees blindly worship God and abandon their human duties. Avali gradually draws closer to Lakhubai and sees in her a female companion to share her bittersweet feelings. They converse, rant, laugh, sing and cry at the banks of Indrayani and near the stove in the kitchen, spaces that women occupy and give life to.
If Avali gave Rukmini a rare insight about life and love, Rukmini gave her the experience of breaking free from the mundane household chores and worries by gently conveying that it is okay to sometimes follow the innermost yearnings of the soul.
The play is about their conversations with each other, with their husbands and with their selves. Tukaram’s soulful chanting flows from the background as does the gentle flow of Indrayani. Dark Vitthal’s stands at the mantelpiece striking his usual pose, gracefully and humbly bearing the constant critical references made at him.
I have recently started developing a liking for Marathi natya sangeet, and try to attend as many such plays as possible. In my previous experiences, the songs of the artists have never failed to receive an encore along with a thunderous clap. In Sangeet Devbhabli, as we sat listening to the poignant retention, transfixed and melancholic, no one clapped and no one called for encore. We simply wanted the play to go on and on.
I remembered something that I had heard with a reference to a song in Marathi film, based ironically on another famous Marathi Sangeet Natak, that we can appreciate some things by applauding, and some things by our eyes alone.
Note: This article was originally published here.