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Towards the non-bourgeoise tales from screen and stage:Amar Singh Chamkila and Lavani ke Rang by Sharad Raj

Updated: Apr 30




The two are completely different, the songs of Amar Singh Chamkila of Punjab and Lavani of Maharashtra. While Chamkila was a pop singer nicknamed as “Elvis of Punjab”, Lavani is a traditional folk art of Maharashtra that is centuries old. But both have rustic roots and are immensely popular amongst the people. Both challenge the status quo, the prude upper caste norms and bourgeoise tastes. Both are considered obscene by many sections of society. Chamkila’s songs were overtly sexual, Lavani too is naughty and erotic, perhaps not as direct.

 

Chamkila first had Sonia and then his wife Amarjot as his partner in those sexed songs, so in a manner of speaking both the man and the woman had almost equal presence even though the stardom of Amarjot and Chamkila was driven by Chamkila. Lavani on the other hand is dominated by women performers with male musicians and song writers, however. On the stage it is the finesse of the women artists whose erotic explosion sets the stage on fire. But Lavani is not just erotic or shringari but also nirguni or spiritual, socio-political and dwells on a variety of subjects. And there are kinds within kinds of Lavani. Chamkila too turned religious after a point even though it was under pressure from the social and religious clerics of Punjab.

 

Both Chamkila and his songs and Lavani found themselves represented in two entirely different art forms: cinema and theatre in the month gone by and both need to be discussed for their similarities and differences that go beyond the medium.

 

 

Lavani Ke Rang

Writer-director: Bhushan Korgaonkar

Artists: Pushpa Satarkar, Gauri Jadhav, Latabai Waikar, Shraddha Nagarkar, Chandrakant Lakhe, Vinayak Javale, Sumit Kudalkar, Akshay Malvankar, Shakuntalabai Nagarkar and Geetanjali Kulkarni.

 

On a Friday afternoon the uber cool elitist precinct of Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, Mumbai known for star studded plays, is swarmed predominantly by rustic Marathi speaking people, peppered with the middle-class audiences like me. The haloed Mecca of theatre in Mumbai, where the walls breathe Becket, Shakespeare, and Mohan Rakesh alike; where Edward Albee and Gene Genet are involved in an absurdist arrangement with the audiences, where the upper lips of most are stiff, had a candor hitherto unseen. The best was yet to come, as we entered the theatre, and the musicians took their place. The performance started with a long musical opening with dholki and peti being played in tandem with the tabla. For the first 10 minutes it was just the percussions with the peti, with no actors on or performers on stage, it was just sounds resonating in space, a rather bold beginning, until Geetanjali Kulkarni appeared in classic Lavani style to introduce the various colors of Lavani and what it is and what should we expect. The first learning was that Lavani is played not enacted. Geetanjali’s introduction itself was laced with naughty innuendoes and a body language that was free and abandoned. And the audiences whistled, exclaimed, and clapped! At the outset one knew this is going to be a completely different experience, a far cry from the deathly silence that is there when Vladimir and Estragon are Waiting for Godot or Naseeruddin Shah and family are reading complex texts of Ismat apa and Manto. It was slowly graduating into a carnival, and it finally did as Pushpa Satarkar, Gauri Jadhav and company came on stage. The cat calls and the festivities took over in tandem with the vivaciousness and energy of the performers. The Fabindia crowd in the audience also warmed up soon, throwing caution to the wind and it transformed into what we call a jalsa (celebration)soon.

 


Lavani Ke rang artists at Prithvi Theatre (2024). Picture by : Sharad Raj


What emerged as Geetanjali, a sutradhar of sorts, enunciated the finer nuances and complexities of Lavani was the assertion of freedom, the free spirit with which the Lavani performers play Lavani. This freedom on display is psycho-sexual, spiritual, and social, as the case maybe. One that is beyond middleclass and hypocritical upper caste norms.  The way I saw it in my limited experience of watching Lavani is that these were truly empowered women. This is not to sidetrack the exploitation that Lavani artists have gone through the ages with changing times and social context, but to enunciate what came across as the core of Lavani. Empowered freedom. Freedom that was not in denial but in acceptance of women as sexual beings, with desires and a body they celebrate. Geetanjali in fact stressed upon the rights they have over their bodies where they choose who they will co-habit with if at all, as well as reproductive rights  that belong to Lavani artists. The women decide if they will keep the baby and it is not determined by the father’s name. The child is given the mother’s name. The characters or archetypes these artists represent on stage celebrate themselves with absolutely no inhibition thus breaching the traditional proscenium protocol and making a direct impact on our sensual selves.

 


Lavani Ke rang artists at Prithvi Theatre (2024). Picture by: Sharad Raj


But this abandon would be incomplete if the audiences are stuck in their traditional bourgeoise molds. However, that Friday afternoon, led by the rustic members of the audience we all slowly left our inhibitions to make it truly an utsav(festival). It is only when the players/ performers of Lavani are in sync with their audiences and vice versa that Lavani, like any folk form, is complete. It is the collapsing of the fourth wall in the true sense of the term that makes the Lavani experience fulfilling. A far cry from the drawing room dramas and academic elitism, Lavani is a physical experience that is transcendental. No wonder the audiences joined the players in the end for the final wrap. They all became one, the performer and the rasik(audience), eliminating all rudiments of duality.

 

Lavani, as mentioned earlier is not only sexual, which is known as Shringari Lavani but also spiritual known as Nirguni Lavani and in eastern traditions the two are often one and the same, only the form changes. But Lavani also is deeply critical and comments on social practices, as pointed out during the performance of Lavani Ka Rang.  Caste plays a role in Lavani where often the performers and composers are from different castes, as are the patrons where caste hierarchy and gender equations comes into play. Not to forget the folk and classical dichotomy. Classical as we know is predominantly upper caste and chaste. Geetanjali also takes a potshot at gharana singing in fact, while Lavani is the art of the people. And it is not for the faint hearted! Lavani Ke rang is a complete experience and very enriching.

 

 

Amar Singh Chamkila

Producer; Window Seat Films, SaReGaMa

Director-Imtiaz Ali

Cast: Parineeti Chopra and Diljit Dosanjh

Music: A. R. Rahman

 

Imtiaz Ali’s Amar Singh Chamkila opened with a lot of fanfare and sensational reviews on Netflix on April 12, 2024. People were impressed by the film and expressing themselves in hyperboles on social media. Well, an Imtiaz Ali film, whose earlier films like Jab We Met and Highway are fantastic, with music from A. R. Rahman on a pop icon of the eighties who was killed at the age of 27 along with his wife Amarjot, had to be watched. Watching Amar Singh Chamkila was quite a disappointment on more than a few fronts. Cinematically the film did not work and culturally it was even more problematic. As an experience an exact opposite of Lavani Ke Rang, sanitized to the core and reductive like how.

 

Imtiaz decontextualizes Amar Singh Chamkila completely and represents him as a unidimensional pop-icon who perhaps was killed either for the vulgarity of his songs or by his enemies who were jealous of his tremendous success. Diljit Dosanjh though does a fine job as also Parineeti Chopra in whatever little she has to do in the film. Imtiaz completely skims over the caste-based working class oppressive context of which Chamkila was a most definite product, thus also trivializing the non-bourgeoise content and spirit of Chamkila’s songs, where they are nothing more than a way to name and fame devoid of their usurping value. A far cry from the earlier example of Lavani in this article. Caste is just a passing mention in a scene in the whole film as pointed out by noted scholar and musician Shri Madan Gopal Singh in his article that is shared here.

 



Any music of the kind Chamkila was known for is not possible without more than a significant contribution of the woman partner. Imtiaz is aware of the role that Surinder Sonia initially and his wife Amarjot play in his music and thereby his fame. What will the devar do if there is no bhabhi as an equal partner in the carnal games? Are the two not equal partners in amorous games? Yet, Amarjot is just a bystander, an accompanying singer to Chamkila in the highly glamorized world of Imtiaz, where Chamkila is operating in isolation and only he alone seem to be the sole reason for his stardom. Despite Chamkila going out of the way to marry her so that his songs gain the popularity they deserve but in the film Amarjot just toes the line.

 

Madan Gopal Singh’s article in Tribune India:

 

 

Cinematically also Chamkila falls short. If you ask me the writers and the maker seems rather clueless of what they want to do and what they want to achieve. The problem with aspiring to be different while in the rat race of mainstream success is that often we are blinded by the notion of “being different”. This is not the first time Imtiaz has fallen prey to this. Not just Imtiaz, why are popular filmmakers today shying away from writing scenes that are full-bodied, with a structure and pay-off and allow us a peep into the characters and make us experience the narrative and the emotion? There can be only two reasons: either they think that good old art of screenwriting is something the modern-day youngsters will not have the patience to wade through and appreciate or they simply don’t know how to write! Most films in the last two decades with a promise of “being different” have had this malaise. The result is that we engage with the film only at an informative level and not at any emotional level. A film experience cannot be akin to fast food. Purely consumptive.

 


Parineeti Chopra & Diljit Dosanjh in Chamkila (2024)


Amar Singh Chamkila has the same problem. Even before we can enter a scene the scene is cut and more often to a voice over live action and animation montage wherein lies the real meat of the story! Now one may argue that one is being too much in favor of conventional screenwriting and times have changed. Sorry they haven’t. We have lost the art of writing for nowhere in the world films are being approached in such a slipshod manner as in Bollywood. Do what has been tried in Chamkila but then do not promise a narrative experience of a musical. Then be a Godard. Have the guts to go all the way and abandon any desire for a blockbuster. Amalgamate your form with a deeper artistic experience and cultural criticism. But you cannot do that for the film is shallow and problematic at socio-cultural level, as pointed out above and in Madan ji’s article. So, all one can do that is go by the “cool factor” and sadly it has worked for the film thus mirroring the deteriorating quality of our films and audience tastes. Who Framed Roger Rabbit made thirty-six years ago by Robert Zemeckis employed live action and animation combination brilliantly in a crime thriller. Why can it not be done now?

 

Imtiaz too is sitting on a fine combination of newsreel documentary and animation along with live action but seems rather lost on how to convert it into a compelling postmodern experience and leaves it as a gimmick and a substitute for poor writing. The making is even more lethargic. Therein lies the difference between the experiences  Amar Singh Chamkila and Lavani Ke Rang provide, albeit in two different mediums, but here it is not about the medium but how true and experiential one can get when one gets an opportunity to make something that was supposed to be iconoclastic.

 

 














 

Sharad Raj is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker, Senior Faculty at Whistling Woods International and Editor of Just cinema.

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