S onatawas written by noted Marathi playwright and author Mahesh Elkunchwar. Sohag Sen of Ensemble staged the play recently in Kolkata. Elkunchwar is a powerful figure in contemporary Indian theatre and writes originally in Marathi. He first made his mark in Indian theatre with Holi (1970) and with time, came to be recognised as one of the most translated and performed playwrights in the country.
Elkunchwar wrote Sonatain English and the Ensemble production follows this language with a smattering of Bengali and Hindi. It is a single-set chamber play featuring three women in their forties/fifties who are single, successful, independent and live life on their own terms. That said are they really living life on their own terms? If yes, then are they happy with their lives at present?
It is an entirely character-driven play that explores the mindsets of three women. Dolan, a Bengali, works with a MNC in a big post. Aruna is from UP, a professor of Sanskrit, constantly pursuing research for her scholarly books. Subhadra is a journalist (Maharashtrian?) who does not live with the two friends and visits them often like a thunderstorm.
They are very close and share a volatile relationship that is a realistic blend of love and hate woven with the shock of betrayal. Desisting physical proximity, Subhadra actually enjoys the bashing she gets from her boyfriend while Dolan revels in a red slinky dress that does not fit her but she loves it all the same. They are also in conflict by virtue of their contradictory natures that is sometimes confrontational and sometimes harmonious.
All this unfolds layer by layer as the fixed set, mood lighting and beautiful music wash over the drama lending another dimension to proceedings, revealing unpalatable truths, till everything comes back to square one.
Sonata means “a composition for an instrumental soloist, often with a piano accompaniment, typically in several movements with one or more in sonata form.” In this play, Beethoven's famous composition is used but the term also stands as a metaphor for the “solo” lives of the three women taken individually while the “togetherness” is comprised in the “accompaniment in several movements with one or more in sonataform.”
The music is low-key when Aruna wants to listen to the famous Moonlight Sonata composition by Ludwig van Beethoven and the mood changes for a while. The lightning change when Subhadra arrives after a fight with her boyfriend is almost palpable. The Hindi film songs that make Subhadra and Dolan break into a jig embarrasses Aruna who watches but desists from joining in.
It is difficult to keep an audience captive in a single-set chamber drama with three women going through their midlife crisis. But the acting by the three actresses, their costumes befitting their contradictory nature, their attitude towards life and among themselves so realistic that an audience member sits fascinated.
The presentation moves fluidly through time, telescoping between the past and the present, without taking the characters physically back to their youth. Sohag Sen who has directed the play, is unbelievably young and smashing as Subhadra, the one that gets a regular bashing from her boyfriend. Anasua Majumdar as Dolan is wonderful who insists that she will go on a diet but binges on chocolates and wine. She also renders a Tagore song at the behest of Aruna and the mood changes to a sombre and serious strain. Yama Shroffs's Aruna is prim, proper, matronly and convincing.
One side bar that one might miss out on is that though Aruna and Dolan are often referring to cooking rice for dinner or going out, they do neither and this focusses on the women's obvious dislike for cooking. Aruna likes to keep things in order while Dolan constantly drops things everywhere, annoying her flat mate.
It takes time to imbibe these movements through time but once you get the hang of it, you are mesmerised by the small touches of humour. Dolan unabashedly keeps switching channels to watch male hunks while the puritan and reserved Aruna wants to either stick to her laptop or watch news channels only. Subhadra and Dolan are forever trying to defy their ageing bodies with make-up and costume that do not fit them and dancing merrily. None of this appears odd except to Aruna who does not smoke or drink and winces when the other two are free in their use of cuss words. But as the play moves on, one discovers that she actually begins to enjoy the taste of wine and even asks for more! When Aruna is asked, “Don't you ever cry?” She laughs and says, “Yes, I do, when I watch Hindi films” and there is laughter all around.
The three women in Sonata and their stories offer one a completely different perception of middle-age in women. The patriarchal perception is that women, once they reach middleage, ought to feel guilty about doing anything that smacks of “youth” such as looking at young hunks on television, wearing glossy red gowns or using vocabulary they ought not to use.
At another level, written in 2002, it offers a microcosm of globalisation where three women are sort of relocated in a cosmopolitan city and surround themselves with wines and chocolates and music to sustain their sense of happiness. Do they experience happiness? Do they have any ideology? Why should they because as one of them says, “We are not even feminists.” They are just women living the way they want to.
Take a bow, team Sonata!