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For nearly 500 years, the preparation has remained the same. She wraps the nine-metre navvari sari around her, carefully accentuating her curves. Looking in the mirror, she ties her hair into a low bun and adjusts her large red bindi. Next comes the jewellery — necklace, earrings, payal, kamarpatta and bangles. Before stepping on to the stage, she looks back in the mirror. She is a Lavani woman. And now, she is being played by Rajashree Sawant Wad, in a play on Lavani performers written by Sushama Deshpande.
In the one-woman play titled Tichya Aaichi Gosht arthat Majhya Athvanincha Phad (A Mother’s Memories of her Performance), Heera — a Lavani dancer — is a proud woman and considers herself an artiste. But when her daughter, who is a journalist, asks her to tell her story, Heera refuses. “You have always been embarrassed of my work,” Heera tells her daughter, “and now you wish to use me for your success? I don’t need you to tell my story. I can tell it myself.”
The folk dance form, which is still very popular in Maharashtra, can be traced to the 1550s, during Peshwa rule. Deshpande says, “In the play, the Lavani woman laughs confidently, seduces men without being seduced, and navigates between the power and politics of a man’s world. They are strong when they are in theatre. They tell me it’s easy to wrap men around their finger.”
Off the stage, it’s a very different story. Deshpande continues,“They think that you can only be right in society’s eyes if you are married.” In the play, Heera is a married man’s mistress and has two children with him. But when he dies and she goes to see him, she is unceremoniously kicked out of his house. “In her mind, she almost believed that her malak was her husband. This is just one of the challenges Lavani women face.”
Pune-based Deshpande first started interacting with Lavani women in the 1990s while working as a journalist. After briefly meeting some of them, she decided to write a play about their lives. After finishing it, she reread it and instinctively tore it up. “I was writing as Sushama, not as a Lavani woman,” she said. In 1993-94, she took another shot at the play. This time around, she tasted success. Before she performed it, Deshpande read out the script to the dancers she had befriended. “Their reaction was simply ‘Wow. You came to know a lot about us!’,” she says.
Last year, she was approached by actor Rajashree Sawant Wad to use her script. When Deshpande agreed, it was the end of a long search for Wad. “For years, I attended Lavani festivals and asked people to write me a piece that I could perform. Nothing really worked out. When I saw Sushama’s script, it was a match made in heaven,” says Wad. Since January, she has performed it five times in Mumbai and Pune. “There are no pretensions in the lives of Lavani dancers. In the play, Heera says: ‘I am not like those urban ladies who go to offices, paint their lips, and have secret affairs they hide. I am a Lavani woman, I say it proudly. I dance, I entertain. Watch me’,” says Wad.
Tichya Aaichi Gosht arthat Majhya Athvanincha Phad will be performed at Ravindra Natya Mandir, Mini Theatre, Prabhadevi, Mumbai, today, 8 pm