On the warm evening of Wednesday,May 30,Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir was bustling with activity. The showcasing of a popular,and possibly controversial,play was in the offing. With a name like Shivaji Underground in Bhim Nagar Mohalla,the expectations from the play were indeed high. After making a much-lauded debut in Mumbai,the presentation was premiering in Pune. Nursing slightly mixed anticipation about what lay ahead,we settled into our seats at the newly-refurbished hall of the Rang Mandir. Conversations buzzed all around as the hall slowly seemed to fill,in effect even stretching the starting time to 20 minutes beyond the appointed hour. After two feeble bells of warning were rung,the lights became dim and the announcements began. Thus,in a mixed air of gajras,synthetic perfumes,and sadly,soiled socks,began the show.
The play begins with a robust round of singing by most of the cast members standing in a semi-circular arrangement,wearing similar white kurtas and blue patiala pants . From point go,one knows that the acting is going to be frontal,high-pitched and interspersed with energetic ballads. It was going to be our first tryst with the traditional form of Maharashtrian poetry and performance called ‘Powada’. With origins rooted far back in the 17th century,’Powada’ performers are called ‘shahirs’,who employ awe-inspiring lung power to relate stories and current happenings. Shivaji Underground in Bhim Nagar Mohalla lets up no time in establishing its agenda of myth-busting about the one historical figure who has united and divided opinions of the young and old in modern-day Maharashtra. Written by Rajkumar Tangade and directed by Nandu Madhav,the play gets the opposing ends of arguments,perception and stories about Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj on one stage. History,and its authors,are questioned through temperamental dialogue exchanges and some sharp-edged sarcasm that inspired applause and laughter in equal measure.
We found the tightness of the narrative the most engaging facet of this close to two-hour long play. The ballads never slipped in their energy levels and the cast held together so well that there were no lapses of awkward silences. We relished the first half of the show primarily because of the impeccable comic timing of the character of Yamraj. Every quirky movement by him symbolised the hypocrisy that the play was out to point fingers at. The pace of the play at this point was in keeping with our tenuous grasp of Marathi. But after a vada pav-chai break,the narrative revved up. Words flowed unabated,leaving us in knots at many moments. Our understanding was assisted by the very vocal audience reaction,but that too dipped to its lowest during a protracted academic discussion on Shivaji’s history. In the end,the play’s biggest credit was in being able to communicate its central idea to us,inspite of our linguistic handicap.