The dancer raises her outlined eyebrow and bites her glossy lower lip with practised innocence, and the crowd goes crazy. Had they been wearing traditional pink and saffron phetas (turbans), they would surely have tossed them in the air.
But this is 2010, and the setting is a multiplex in Mumbai. An audience that includes women and children is swinging to the Lavni Mala jau dhya na ghari (Let me go home) as the movie Natrang plays to full houses across Maharashtra. The film starring Atul Kulkarni released on 1 January and has been having a successful run.
The return of the Tamasha to the silver screen is just a part of the story: of the rise, fall and rise of Maharashtra’s folk music and its star attraction—Lavni. This is not just a filmi comeback; Lavni, in its authentic theatrical form, is spreading to the national and international stage too.
Evergreen: (clockwise from top) A photo from the book Dancing Maidens: The Seduction Called Lavni; a poster of Natrang; and Lavni artist Surekha Punekar. Shirish Shete/Dancing Maidens
The success of Natrang mirrors the social graph of hundreds of Tamasha artists over the past century or so. Marathi cinema in its prime was based on Tamasha—which includes play, song and aradhana, besides Lavni—drawing both themes and artists. From 1960-75, the bold voice of Sulochana Chavan recorded some unforgettable Lavnis before the decline began, with cinema adopting modern themes. When it came to performing for a live audience, veterans such as Yamunabai Waikar could cast a spell—but the 1950s were a different era.
Circa 1980s, the jingle of ghungroos (dancing bells) was drowned in a chorus of catcalls. Art was incidental; it was raw entertainment for a usually drunk crowd. In the flaking rooms of Kala Kendras—public cultural forums with options of private shows—along the Pune-Solapur Road, Lavni was the rustic’s delight. The dance form that is a combination of nritya (dance), adakari (acting) and sangeet (music) was left to survive just on its erotic strain. Usually dressed in gold-bordered, nine-yard saris, hair tied into flower-adorned buns, artists were worth their availability, not art, as customers replaced connoisseurs. But the slide down the social order is now in reverse mode.
Lavni comes from the Sanskrit word lavanya, which means beauty. Although it is identified today by its erotic lyrics layered with multiple meanings and seductive dance movements, few know that it originated in the devotional music tradition of Maharashtra. A combination of shringar rasa and bhakti makes Lavni unique. The form became popular with the Mughal armies that were entertained by troupes in areas that were under invasion or influence of the north. “That also explains the influence of Kathak on Lavni,” says Prakash Khandge, head of the Lok Kala Academy at Mumbai University.
But the art of seduction through dance and music found true patronage with the Peshwas in the 18th century. That was when beautiful dancing damsels could make the elite and moneyed classes drool at their feet. Many believe (though other historical factors can hardly be overlooked) that the later Peshwas’ love of Lavni played catalyst to the end of the Maratha empire in 1818. This Lavni for the classes, known as sangeet bari, thrived on its seductive and erotic flavour. Lavni for the masses continued with the travelling Tamasha troupes. Ballad poets, or shahirs, such as Honaji Bala, Parshuram and Patthe Bapurao, composed some of the most versatile Lavnis, replete with everyday humour and wit.
The peak period for Lavni ended with the fall of the Peshwas in the early 19th century. With royal patronage gone, over the next century Lavni moved to private kothas in the Marathwada and Pune regions. Shunned by the educated and affluent, it was no longer considered respectable to be a Lavni fan. Ravindra Jadhav, the director of Natrang, holds the cinema of earlier years responsible for further tarnishing Lavni’s image.
“Most plots showed artists as fallen women responsible for corrupting the feudal lords or village Patils,” he says.
In real life too, sangeet bari parties were now performing in Kala Kendras for a purely male audience, often in private settings for the highest bidder. The traditional structure of the show, which began with tarana followed by mujra, gaulan and different types of Lavnis, was tweaked to the demand of the patron. Lavni was crumbling from a folk art to plain titillation. Travelling Tamasha faced tough competition from popular entertainment such as cable television and cinema. So much so that Lavnis now came in filmi flavours, with few takers for traditional songs.
At present, Lavnis can be seen in the approximately 50 Kala Kendras across Maharashtra, most of them in the Marathwada region. There are around 130 travelling Tamasha troupes that perform seasonally and approximately 15 full-time troupes that perform all through the year.
The last decade and more has seen Lavni return to the limelight. Chaya Khutegaokar, a Pune-based performer, credits this change to state-level Lavni competitions. “The Akluz Lavni Mahotsav unlocked Lavni artists from the private chambers of Kala Kendra and put them on centre stage. Today, even women come to watch Lavni shows. Dancers are no longer from the nomadic Kolhati and Dombari tribes alone. Even daughters of doctors want to learn Lavni,” says Khutegaokar, who has completed over 500 shows of her production Karbhari Jara Damana ( Take It Easy ).
The change is visible in the popularity of urban musical theatre productions such as Marathi Bana and Mee Marathi, where the rhythmic percussion of the dholki is met with thundering applause. “I was confident that a Tamasha-based movie still had a market after seeing the way people in cities responded to folk music, especially the youth. I knew that Lavni and Tamasha reside in the heart of every Maharashtrian, even if they are never exposed to the authentic Tamasha,” says Jadhav.
Endorsing his view is 22-year-old MA economics student Kiran Takle from Latur, who is learning Lavni at Mumbai University. “Watching Sandhya V. Shantaram and Lila Gandhi sparked my interest in Lavni. I realized that foreigners were studying and performing our art, but we were not giving it the recognition it deserves. I wish to return Lavni to its place of pride,” says Takle.
The international success of stage production Sundara Manat Bharli (You Stole My Heart), by US-based artist Meena Nerurkar, in the 1990s is one of many reasons that spurred the Maharashtra state government to join the chorus. It recently announced a package for Tamasha troupes, a lifetime award and pension for ageing Lavni performers.
With Sulochana Chavan’s son Vijay Chavan playing the dholki in Natrang, there is reason to hope the next generation may accept this art form.
When a velvety voice beckons “Naka sodun jau, rang mahal” (Please don’t leave my kotha) how can the show not go on?
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