Maharashtra’s tamasha artistes have been widely reviled for their suggestive performances and their community scorned, but there was a time when they were perhaps the only entertainment for ordinary people. But modern times have been hard, putting their profession and way of life at peril.
BY SUDHARAK OLWE
The Circle of Tamasha
The camera goes into forbidden terrain, capturing the agonies and ecstasies of an unfortunate and often misunderstood community.
Location: Sagar and Mangal theatres in Modnimb, western Maharastra, just an overnight drive from Mumbai, the modern megapolis.
Here, some 10 people comprising young girls, their mothers, and their younger siblings live in extreme proximity, huddled in a 10ft x 10ft room. Their valuables are neatly stacked in rows of shining metal boxes. Pictures of their favourite stars and goddesses bedeck the whitewashed walls. The luxuries include colour televisions and stereos.
There are 10 such rooms, each housing one group. All these groups share a common kitchen.
But theirs is an existence that’s far from the ordinary. They are Tamasha artists from the Kolhati community. Tamasha is a folk art of Maharashtra, where the artists sing, dance and enact in a very suggestive format.
The men in the group play instruments like the dholki, tabla or harmonium to accompany the erotic numbers.
Come evening, the women start their dressing routine. They wrap ghungroos (leather straps with strings of metal bells that can weigh as much as seven kilos each, used to create rhythm) around their ankles, carefully apply make-up, drape a heavy and ornate Paithani sari (nine yards long), put fragrant flowers in their hair and head to the theatre.
This is a 35 ft x 17 ft room with a single door and bereft of any windows. At one end, the dimly-lit room has a wooden stage which often creaks with the weight of the dancers. A few torn rugs are strewn in front of the stage, followed by rows of wobbly benches.
The stage is set and the performers move in. When a Tamasha dancer appears, a wave of enthusiasm sweeps the auditorium. Clients offer money and urge her to sing their favourite song. Each troupe enthrals the audience for over 45 minutes on stage. The dancers, with their made-up faces, flowers in their hair and elaborate jewellery, appear like celestial beings to the all-male audience.
They are the stars of the evening, performing the Lavani dance form that has been part of Maharashtra’s tradition for over three centuries, enjoying the patronage of powerful rulers.
But in recent years, there’s been a steady decline in the popularity of the Lavani art form, mainly due to the satellite television invasion. Today, the dance form is popular only with uneducated, rural Maharashtrians and the condition of the women dancers who form the focal point of this art form is now abysmal.
Their ghungroos are symbols of enslavement. The heavy layer of makeup hides the desolation beneath. The dancers, far from being cultural icons who practise a dying art form, are victims of poverty and exploitation.
They bear the stigma of being “nautch girls” and know no other life than to dance their dance with destiny. It is a vicious circle that seems to go on and on.
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