Know your Lavani

A day-long festivity of the Marathi performance art curated by a scholar


Noted lavani performer Anil Hankare
Noted lavani performer Anil Hankare

“People respect classical dancers, then why not us?” The question asked by a young Lavani performer in a documentary film titled Natale Tumchyasathi (Behind the Adorned Veil), is a pertinent one and a growing section of historians, academicians, theatre practitioners, writers and musicians have begun to engage with it. The spiritual form of dance and music traces its roots back through centuries; and is often mistakenly confused for the theatrical tradition of Tamasha. Researchers Savitri Medhatul and Bhushan Korgaonkar who made the documentary in 2009, released a book Sangeet Bari in 2014, which fleshed out the lives of lavani performers, in greater detail. Last year, they came up with a stage production by the same name—a many-layered production with lavani performer Shakuntala Nagarkar, Mohanabai Mahalanglekar among others, speaking about her personal life and depicting her professional life on stage, as well. This year saw another Marathi theatrical production by Rajashree Sawant Wad, who enacted a script drafted by noted theatre actor-director Sushama Deshpande. The play was titled Tichya Aaichi Gosht arthat Majhya Athvanincha Phad (A Mother’s Memories of her Performance).

Now, Sejal Yadav, whose Ph.D research at Jawaharlal Nehru University is on the politics of performance, specifically in alternative cultural institutions of Bombay, has curated a day-long series of events on 3 December, which will include a screening of the documentary film, followed by a discussion with the filmmakers, a photography exhibition by Sandesh Bhandare and even a lavani master class with noted performer Anil Hankare.

Read edited excerpts of an interview with Yadav, who has been in a scholar in residence since August at the Godrej Culture Club.

Your impetus to study lavani?

Hailing from a maternal lineage of performers and being a student of political science, studying performances and cultural practices is my passion. My M. Phil thesis was titled ‘Politics of performance: A case study of changing forms of lavani in contemporary Maharashtra’ and through it I tried to build upon the discourses and political debates around lavani. The day-long festival that I have curated will further explore the divergent, styles, genres and forms of lavani, academically, musically and performatively. Lavani has seldom has been studied as an art form independent of the theatrical tradition of Tamasha.

The agency of female desire versus the patriarchal context of lavani performers—please separate the strands for us.

There are various forms of lavani—shirngarik (erotic), adhyatmik (spiritual) and powada (ballads). No exact date can be traced as the point of origin when lavani came to be constructed as a form of dance. While its origin can be traced back to the 13th century, It was during the 19th century Peshwa regime that lavani blossomed into its myriad forms due to the patronage it received from the upper caste Brahmin peshwas and the Maratha leaders and rulers of western Maharashtra. Historically, lavani performers belonged majorly to the Bhatu, Kalwat, Kolhati, Mahar, Matangi and Dombari castes, and they are recognised as Dalit in the state of Maharashtra. Lavanis have been composed on themes revolving around heterosexual erotica that explicitly describe sexual fantasies, sexual positions, foreplay and several other genres. However, due to its bold commentary on the themes around sex, gender and caste, lavani has been caught in a storm of debates around its practices. While the women lavani performers mostly belonged to the lower castes of Maharashtra, the lo-shahirs who composed lavanis that revolved around the sexual desires of women predominantly were and continue to belong to the upper caste, upper class sections of Maharashtra. Dr BR Ambedkar was of the opinion that lavani is an exploitative medium through which upper caste Brahmin men sexually objectified and later, prostituted Dalit women. In the contemporary context, several Dalit feminists argue that lavani should be considered as respectable form of art and should be further pursued with dignity and rigour due to its radical commentary on region-based articulation of femininities and masculinities peculiar to the geography of Maharashtra. In the year 1948, former Chief Minister of Maharshtra Balasheb Kher had imposed a ban on Tamasha and lavani since some of it was explicitly sensual and were considered too obscene and lascivious for “public entertainment”. Since then we observe that the modern forms of lavani have been sanitized to such an extent that articulation of female sexual desires through “explicit and lascivious” lavanis have ceased to exist in contemporary times.

As a pro-performance feminist I am deeply troubled by these legal and quasi legal bodies that regulate and censor a female performer’s desire, both through the medium of lavani, and through their contested personal lives which do not necessarily adhere to strict heteronormative structures like marriage.

Choice is a privileged term and so is this the politics of it.

Hence, in case of lavani performers most of them are still struggling with the triple marginalized position of being a Dalit-woman-lavani performer within the upper caste, middle class-dominated structures of patriarchies in Maharashtra.

A personal learning from your research.

“Feminized” dance forms like lavani which have seldom been critically documented in history should be extensively studied to further understand the close nexus of upper caste heteronormative patriarchies that still drive academic, educational and performative discourses in India.

The Lavani LIVE! Festival will be held on 3 December from 11 AM to 7 PM at Godrej One, Vikhroli East (Entry from Eastern Express Highway). The entry is free. Visit www.indiaculturelab.org for schedule and RSVP details.

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