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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Living in close proximity to each other, dance creates and breaks bonds between dancers. Troupes comprise of a duo of sisters as the main dancers or of mother-daughter.

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In August, small stages are set up in the streets of Jamkhed village in Maharashtra to mark the festival of Sakhruba. Beginning 9 p.m. that night, lavani dancers dance for over 12 hours. The next morning sees the women take out a procession towards the police parade ground where the men get a chance to meet them.  And for those who are ready to part with `10,  also a chance to touch the women.

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The dance form of the lavani has been part of Maharashtra’s  tradition for over three centuries. Primarily from the Kolhati community, women dress in exquisite nine-yard sarees, put on layers of make-up, don ghungroos  and dance suggestively to please their all-male audience.

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In ramshackle, tin-shed makeshift auditoriums, on wooden benches, an all-male audience soaks in the vibes of a lavani performance.
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Vaishali:  “We have preserved the lavani tradition for the people of Maharashtra. Yet society looks down upon us. We dancers are considered as temptresses, the lowest sort of women.”
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Ghungroos which end up weighing as much as 7 kg are the final adornment put on by performers before they embrace the stage. 

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Though the dancers almost never marry, they do bear children. The girl child is made to take up dance at an early age and the male child once an adult, lives off the earnings of the women.
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Afternoons are lazy, the period of lull before the charged performance of the night.
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There is a concentration of the Kolati community in Jamkhed. The dancers’ families— parents, brothers and children reside here. Mathura Sona Musle, now a widow, has seen better times when she was a dancer.
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The musicians of the troupe make up another part of the dancing community. As long as the money flows in, the musicians stay. If not, they promptly move on to greener pastures. Many of the children start learning from an early age.

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The Jaat Panchayat or the caste council is the final arbiters for all disputes—murders, domestic feuds and marital problems—in the Kolati community. For them, the panchayat plays the role of justice-provider, and often police and courts are avoided. The panchayat's decision is final, and those who don’t toe the line can be banished from the community.

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Food for the dancers is cooked in a community kitchen on wood-fired stoves.
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Dancers practise their moves.
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A lavani perforamance underway.  Each troupe enthralls the audience for over 45 minutes on stage.
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Shobha, learnt lavani from her mother and has been dancing on the stage for the last 12 years.
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For anywhere between ₹1,500 and ₹2,000 a client can have a private audience with the dancers. These soiree can go on and on, as long as the money flows.