In July 2014, two talks were organised at the Drama School Mumbai under the banner of Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh. The platform was established as early as 1935 and has continued to nurture and spread Marathi Culture in Mumbai. The talks at the Drama School were delivered by Virchand Dharamsey (on Parsi Rangabhoomi) and Sushama Deshpande (on Tamasha). While the talks were largely for the students of the Drama School, they were immensely revealing about the forms. Thanks to Amol Patil of the Drama School, the talks were recorded and Priti Bakalkar of Theatre Professionals painstakingly transcribed them. In this issue we publish the talk delivered by eminent Tamasha artist Sushama Deshpande, who talks about the practice of Tamasha and artists.
The meaning of the word Tamasha means fun. _Gammat _in Marathi. There are two types of Tamasha - one is ‘Dholaki Phad’ and another is ‘Sangeet Baari’. First we will talk about Dholaki Phad.
In Dholaki Phad there is a structure. It starts with ‘Gan’, ‘Gavlan’, ‘Batavani’ and ‘Rangbaaji’. Gan is a form of Ganesh Vandana.
Gavlan is about all the fun and songs between Lord Krishna and his female followers also called as Gavlans.
Batavani is a form in Tamasha theatre where there is a character of ‘Songadya’. This character has a lot of fun and interaction with the audience.
Then there is Rangbaaji. Here they are expected to perform Lavani. These days Lavani has become more like an Orchestra. So, the artists will sing and dance and perform to loud music and colourful lights etc. They are expected to perform in Lavani style. Then there is an interval and after that Vag.
This is the basic structure of a Dholaki Phad performance- “Gan, Gavlan, Batavani , Rangabaji and Vag”.
Dholaki Phad is quite organised now. They travel in trucks with their sets and artists. At a time about 100 people are travelling together. The artists from Dholaki Phad work on contract basis. They are mainly from ‘Mahar-Maang’ community; however, it is changing now. In fact, there is a saying “Bamana ghari lihine, kunbya ghari Dane aani mahara ghari gaane” which loosely means Brahmins will have writing material, Kunbi (tiller community from western Maharashtra) would have seeds and Mahars would have songs.
This business is seasonal. It takes place mainly between the Marathi month of Chaitra (which is the first month of Hindu calendar- coinciding with March-April). In the month of Chaitra, villagers do some function/ritual for the God of that particular village. A tithi is fixed as per Hindu calendar (tithi is an auspicious date and time as per Hindu calendar). This day is selected to have a function in the name of God of that Village. This function is called ‘Yatra’. It is expected that everyone from that village should come back to the village from wherever they are for this Yatra and worship the local God and take its blessings. There is a Tamasha committee which organises the ‘Vag/ Tamasha’ during this time; this is the usual practice. The Dholaki Phad artists do their business usually in these yatras.
Narayangaon in Pune district (well-known Tamasha artist Late Vithabai bhau mang Narayangaonkar hails from here; she had five daughters, all of who are in this business) so this village has a designated place where all various artists put up their tents. The Tamasha Group Manager available on the ground organises these events. In older days even without any mobile phone they used to manage/ organise these events very well. So from Chaitra for about 3-4 months they do their business. But now-a-days these Dholaki Phads have started doing performance outside these four months at theatres on contract for festivals like Ganeshotsav or on demand at sugar factories etc.
Because this contract is only for a few months, when they are not performing, they do farming. When the next season starts, they again perform.
The other form of Tamasha is Sangeet Baari.
Sangeet Baari starts with a “Tarana”. Tarana is a style of singing. After the Tarana they perform different types of Lavani and at the end ‘Bhairavi”. This is the basic form.
What is this form about?
It is about ‘flirting’. In previous times these artists used to go from village to village with their tent. People used to come to them to watch their performance because these women flirt with the audience members. Nowadays, there are various Tamasha theatres all over Maharashtra. In these theatres, there are different groups whom they call ‘Phad’. These groups stay on the theatre. The groups have a few artists- for example there is a harmonium player who is called “Master”, there is a dholaki and tabla player who is called “Vastad” and the singers. This is the structure of the group.
The performances starts at a particular time given by the theatre, each theatre may have different starting times depending on what kind of crowd it expects, transport time, weather conditions etc. So once the bell goes the performance starts. The first group starts with Tarana and the last group will end with Bhairav. In between there will be different types of Lavani performances.
There are different forms of Lavani. Lavani is a form of song about the man-woman relationship and flirting. There are different shades in these songs. There are various poets who have written Lavanis , for example Anant Phandi and Saganbhau.
Paththe Bapurao is the man who changed the structure of Lavani, earlier Lavani used to be in a typical meter eg. Baleghati lavani, chhakkad which is a bit faster, chaukachi lavani- this is singing based (Yamunabai Waikar from Wai is known for this particular form). Each of these forms have a different meter/ beat.
Mali Kolati and Bhatu Kolati and Kalavat (this is Muslim community) are the communities who primarily perform in Sangeet Baari. These communities have community rules; as per these rules if a woman is put in Sangeet Baari, she will not be allowed to marry. The reason is very simple, because primarily this is a male dominated society, so once a woman is put in Sangeet Baari, she is required to dance and flirt with men. They do not marry but they have their relationships, their own children outside marriage. They provide for them but it is a very tough life. They earn a lot of money, they acquire property; they provide for their family members. Previously, they used to buy a lot of gold but now they invest in houses and lands etc. They have a good business sense. As a child when they start their training of song and dance they also get their business training.
It may also happen that a particular Tamasha artist has four daughters, she might decide to put only one daughter in Tamasha and get the other three married. Then only that one daughter will be taken to the Tamasha Theatre.
As I mentioned earlier, the Tamasha theatres conduct business at a particular time. There are tickets available at the ticket window. The tickets are priced at a very nominal amount. So once, you enter the theatre, you will see different groups in the theatre, then naturally you will like a particular artist and you could do “daulat jyada” (splurge money) on the artist and ask the artist to sing/dance to particular songs of your choice. In theatre whatever money you splurge on the artist goes to that artist directly and the ticket sale money goes to the theatre owner.
Theatre owners are a whole new chapter.If you go to the theatre and like somebody, you feel this lady should perform only for me, then you can have a Baithak arranged for yourself. So in theatre, there are rooms, called Baithak rooms. If you organise a Baithak, the lady will come to the room and flirt with you. It’s a private show. When I was working with these artists, one Baithak used to be for Rs. 500/- and now it is for Rs. 5000/-. So you have an AC room, you can order alcohol, there is a musician and this lady will flirt with you through Lavanis, of course in an artistic form, but now slowly prostitution has also started creeping in. Previously, these ladies used to say that ‘we don’t do prostitution. Our strength is artistic flirting.” I have seen them flirting and the way they flirt is just unbelievable.
In the month of Shravan (in Marathi), they organise a puja in the theatre and invite all clients for food. At such functions at a time they would be flirting with minimum three men and each person would think she is flirting only for them. She would go from here to there, without the other person knowing that she is flirting with another man. I have seen how they manage the men and it is shocking. In this business, the women are business minded so naturally they have developed their own styles and principles.
Now, the month Shravan has started, so in this month people will organise the ‘puja’, particularly ‘Satya Narayan Puja’. So, this group would organise a puja- as I mentioned earlier, when you are on the stage (not in a private show) whatever money you get is the group’s money. So if your group organises the puja, you will stand in the beginning and at the end of show, so the men/ clients come for puja and you will see them just splurging money on the music. Then at the end of the evening whatever money is collected will be counted and let’s say if there is collection of Rs. 1.5 lakh, then the phrase used in Tamasha language is “Meri puja Rs 1.5 lakhs ki ho gayi” so that way they will ask each other, ‘kiski puja kitne ki ho gayi’?. Nowadays, the theatre owners have started to ask these artists to do at least five Baithaks (of course the number differs with each theatre) and then the groups can organise such functions for themselves.
One thing I forgot to mention is the economics of a Baithak. It is completely different from a show at the theatre. If you are paying 1000 then 50% will go the theatre owner and balance will go to the group. You cannot negotiate on that because they are the owners and they organise everything. There is a theatre in Sanaswadi, when I visited it recently, I saw there are 30-40 rooms in this theatre, the theatre stage was empty, but these rooms are occupied day and night. Now with mobiles, the lady artist will have 3-4 mobiles which makes it easy for her to be in touch with 3-4 gentlemen-clients at a time. But previously, mobile phones were not there, that time you had to take permission of the theatre manager and only then you were allowed to go out of the theatre, without such permission you could not go out. Particularly in Sangeet Baari, there is usually a one year contract, so if you enter into a contract then from this Diwali to next Diwali you are bound to that theatre, somewhere around next Dussehra they decide on whether they want to continue with the contract or not.
The theatre owners have their association, they come together, they have their strong rules on what to do and what not to do. These ladies know that they have to deal with these men. But in last few years these dancers have started their own theatre, so there is a theatre in Chaufula, there a theatre in Nagar Road etc. Artists like Sushama Kale, Rajshree Nagarkar have started their own theatres.
As I mentioned, Bhatu kolati and Mali kolati are involved in Sangeet Bari. Mali kolati are mainly singers and Bhatu kolati are more notorious, they do ‘the business’, their way of talking, conducting themselves is great fun.
So that’s the basic framework of Sangeet Baari.
I have now given you the framework of Dholaki Phad and Sangeet Baari.
So, this is the type of business they are doing. They have their relationships, very strong relationships at times with different political people. I have heard such stories. Despite the relationships they have to stay alone. They do a lot of fasts and their fasts are really strange. There is this fast called “Khada Upwaas”, in this type of fast these women stand from 7am to 7pm, but if they get any request for Baithak during this time then they can sit but as soon as the Baithak is over they have to stand till the fasting period is over. They do these kind of fasts for blessings from God for the person they are in relationship with. Of course, after a certain age they have to stop these fasts. They have very interesting relationships with their previous customers. If their children have any issue, they take the children to these customers to sort out the problems. It is very interesting to watch the way they discuss about their past at such times.
I will now talk a bit about the history. As per known history, in pre-independence days, during Shivaji era or even before that they used to entertain armies, they used to wear sarees and sing and flirt with them but then slowly there were females coming from U.P. area, who started courting soldiers. Then since this was a lucrative business, slowly the locals got into it and it is going on. There are many theatres in Mumbai where the theatre is shut but the theatre owner is still doing business, he organises performances for political people etc. He continues to do that. He knows who is available, who is not. Being in the same business, they know who is doing what. The owners are the organisers now. So though, Hanuman Theatre is closed, Madhu Nerale is still in the business. But other Tamasha theatres are coming up, and the business is going on.
There are very few who are practising the original art form, because the clients want them to perform on songs from Hindi cinema and they have to do it. Otherwise their earning will get affected. Previously, when I used to work with them, whenever there was a request for Hindi film songs, they used to perform it in Lavani style.
Nandita here, has attended a Baithak, in fact, every one of us should see a Baithak, because the way they perform, their presence of mind, the way they treat a man, it’s something else. When I used to work with them, my female friends wanted to watch a Baithak. Every such occasion I used to take a man with us, because the artist would insist on it. They used to say, otherwise who will we flirt with. They used to tell me that if I have to see a proper Tamasha show then I must see how the clients do daulat jyada. It’s done in private shows also. So, if you are sitting and the lady is in one corner, she will take a look at all, and then the way she will look at you, you will feel there is nobody else in the room. It’s like she’s saying “come on”… that’s the style.
There’s this artist Shakuntala Nagarkar, she and Madhu Kambikar used to perform together. So, Shakuntala once told me, “Jabbar Patel came to me”, he was directing a show, “he told me to do less. But how to do less? When I am in theatre, even if I can’t see anybody, I know this is the chair and I am going to see that chair”. Even in theatre the way she used to stand and look, any man would think she should be mine and so I must pay her. That’s the art of that style. There are very few such artists remaining now who can hold that kind of command on the audience.
Recently, I went to Sanaswadi, and I see that everyone is now ‘performing’ Lavani. But Lavani is not be performed, it has to be played.
Lavani has different styles and are sung different meters. (Sushama gives demonstration of different styles to explain how these different styles are sung).
The private shows could be for single man or for a group of men, they are comfortable with it, as long as you are comfortable to watch with other men. They do a lot of improvisations but even the improvisations are mostly rehearsed.
I remember the first Baithak that I saw, it was arranged by a friend of mine, who was an IAS officer with Government of Maharashtra. So he told me that, “if you are studying this, I must arrange one show”. I said “thank you, bapu.” So, the Baithak was arranged on a bunglow and we all friends were there. Then she started dancing, every time different style of dance, different modus operendi I can say. So she was looking at my friends, and while dancing she went towards him, and she tripped. She was about to fall, my friend immediately went to support her but in a flash of second she balanced herself and without letting my friend touch her she moved on to next step teasing him. So this kind of timing is very tough to teach but they learn it on their own. They do these kind of things on the spot. If you have noticed they take their palloo on their head in such a way that their face is covered, they do it when they are closer to the client, now nobody can see what she is doing under that palloo, only the person who she is close to knows what she is doing, so if he expects her to do something more for him then he has to pay!
There is no sutradhar in Sangeet Baari, sometimes in Dholaki Phad, the ‘songadya’s role could be similar to sutradhar otherwise there is no sutradhar in Tamasha.
The Tamasha artists are strong feminists, they know who is exploiting them. The people who exploit them are the theatre owners, but they allow them to exploit them because they know, without these theatre owners they can’t do business.
Previously, by the age of 8-9 a girl would come and start staying at theatre. Because they used to think, that way she will learn how to sing and dance and behave, she will learn the tricks of the trade. So they join at that age and by the age of 13-14 they start dancing and their career lasts maximum upto 30-35 years of age. The peak time being up to the age of 25 years.
The groups need to register themselves. They have to take proper permissions, censor certificates for their shows for Dholaki Phad Tamasha. It’s funny, because Batavani presents nothing but socio-political comment. You have to give some structure, you have to take censor certificate. In addition to this they have to manage local people, police etc.
Previously, there were some places called “Maadi”( Hall) , I think Satyabhama Bhandarkar was the last performer for this form - so there is this place which is called maadi, and women used to perform in the maadi and men would come to watch these performances but later on the Government withdrew the permissions for these maadis. So you have to go to Tamasha theatre to see Tamasha. I have met Satyabhamabai and she didn’t have a Tamasha background as such but she used to like to sing and dance so she joined maadi.
The Sangeet Baari artists still follow the tradition of not getting married once they join Phad. But Mali kolati women believe that they can marry once they are done with their career in Tamasha but Bhatu kolati women sneer at the thought and say “kara, kara lagna kara”. because they know it is very tough for a Tamasha artist to find a man who would marry her. But in Dholaki Phad many females get married.
I have a friend who is a Tamasha artist, she has kids, who are well educated and well placed in life. So, one of her sons wanted to marry a catholic girl, my friend was very much against it. Her point of view was that if the society is not ready to marry our girls even if they educate themselves etc., then why should our sons marry anyone outside this community. They should marry Tamasha girls only. I tried to convince her a lot, finally she agreed to this marriage. But, her other son did marry a daughter of a Tamasha woman. The other son now stays in Australia, when they had come to India, the daughter in law insisted that she wanted to watch Tamasha. So, my friend took them to the theatre and showed her one of theatre performances. On watching that performance, the daughter in law’s reaction was “oh, what’s the big deal about this”. The son knew that his mother had tricked his wife, my friend told him that she’s happy that she watched what is Tamasha, that is all that matters.
It’s not that all the money they earn they spend on themselves. They support their families, support the children of their siblings. Most of the times the family members pick up fights with these artists, and when these artists remind them of all the things they have done for the family, most of the times the answer is, “did I ask you to help me? You did it at your own will. I could have managed without your help.”
The theatres are generally far from main city/ residential areas and because the artists cannot stay away from the theatre; these artists stay at the theatre itself.
Mumbai had Tamasha theatres. Hanuman Theatre was quite famous for Tamasha. Now it has become a marriage hall. Damodar Hall still has shows. We can see Dholaki Phad Tamasha but not Sangeet Bari.
When I was staying with these artists for my research work, I used to ask these dancers if they had another birth and had a choice, would they have liked to come back as dancers; and almost everybody answered “yes”, because they enjoy what they do. It is art after all.
What about your (Sushama Deshpande’s) work like “Vhay, Mee Savitribai” which has performed more than 2500 shows and “Tichya Aaichee Gosht”?
I was always fascinated by Tamasha. I don’t know why, but as a youngster I used to watch a lot of Dholaki Phad. During that time I saw Kantabai Satarkar, she was alive then. I used to watch how she organised food and everything. I observed and then I wrote something and then I used to go regularly, watch Tamasha. I wrote a theatre piece on Tamasha during that time but it was quite mediocre. One day while performing Savitri I realized that it is these artists that I want to write about. If I am able to bring out the ‘tere baap ka kya jata hai’ approach of those women then it’s quite something. So I started going there again. I used to go to Aryabhushan in Pune. I used to go there, buy a ticket. I would tell the theatre owner to organise a performance. I used to watch performance in the night and meet them in the morning. Initially their attitude was “aarey isko bhagao yaha se, bahut baate karti hai”. But I kept going there, I used to talk to them every day. It was going on. I used to talk about Lavani and not their personal life, how they got interested etc. But their personality in the night and in the morning used to be so different that at times I used to find it very difficult to believe if it was the same person.
Slowly, they started sharing their stories, I spent a lot of time with them. As I mentioned earlier they have relationships, so their men used to come there, initially they used to be uncomfortable about me being there but then the ladies would tell them to relax and then it reached a point when they started sharing the issues they had with these women and they used to ask me to mediate in the issue. It was a very interesting time of my life. Besides Pune and Baramati, I also went to Solapur, Kolhapur, Modnimb and other places, I spoke to these artists. Life in those days was very interesting. I lived with them, I used to observe them. I did my research for about 3-3 ½ years, then I wrote the script. Then I went to Aryabhushan theatre and called all these artists and said “now I will read for you, come on, call them in a Baithak room!” The theatre owner was good to me, well, he had to be.. after all I was “likhi padhi” aurat and what if I write something inappropriate about him? So, he allowed me to do this. I sat in a Baithak and read the script for them. Once the script reading was complete, their reaction was, “aiyyo, aap ko humari life achchi samajh aayi hai!”.
Later on I took them to various seminars etc. with me. Nowadays there is a lot of exposure for such artists etc, but in those days it wasn’t so much.
So, on one occasion there was a coverage in Times of India, a half page article. I went to the theatre in the morning, but somehow I forgot to carry the newspaper, so I mentioned to one of the artists there and I promised to get the newspaper next day. She said, “nothing doing, you have to show us today only, especially if our photo has come in the newspaper, then we have to see it today only. You don’t worry about how to get it, I will arrange for it. You just tell me the name in which newspaper the article has come - Herald, Express, Times?”. I looked at her with surprise and asked her how she knew about all these newspapers. Her answer was “we deal with men yaar, so we have to know about it!”
Once we started performing, one of the ladies came and told me, “we also feel depressed at times, but the woman who is on the stage is very strong, so next time if I feel depressed I will take people around me for your performance and show the woman on the stage to them and will tell them that this depressed woman is not me, I am that strong woman on the stage’.