“When the lockdown was announced, it felt like a welcome break, almost like a holiday”, says Megha Ghadge, a leading lavani artiste from Mumbai. “I was doing shows every single day. I was so happy with the initial lockdown! Most of us were. We thought that this will give us the much-needed rest. But the lockdown just went on and on. And now it has turned into a never-ending nightmare.”
Lavani is a seductive and engaging art form native to Maharashtra that is practiced in various formats and spaces, namely sangeet bari theatres, dholki fadacha tamasha, and banner shows.
The lockdown, however, has been cruel to the community of lavani performers, leading them to run out of patience and savings, making them restless to get back on stage. This has urged them into forming multiple collectives, through which they can appeal to the government to reopen the theatres soon, or provide them some temporary monetary relief.
Approximately 15,000 artists are exclusively dependent on lavani, which includes dancers, singers, music accompanists and technical staff. Their livelihoods are dependent solely on performances, rendering their earnings akin to daily wages.
“I have 130 artistes in my troupe,” says Raghuveer Khedkar, owner of one of the biggest tamasha troupes in Maharashtra's Sangamner city. “Every artiste supports their family of four or five on an average. This means that 500-600 people have no idea what the future holds for them. It's the same with all other troupes and artistes.”
In order to stay afloat, some performers have borrowed money from private moneylenders at abnormally high interest rates ranging anywhere between 2 to 3.5 percent per month, keeping gold or their homes as collateral security.
“Banks do not entertain us. We have been requesting the government to give us interest-free loans, or pay each of us a salary of Rs 5,000 per month during lockdown. A family of five might be able to survive on this and meet their monthly food-related needs. Another thing is insurance. None of us can afford to pay premiums. What will happen to the family if the lavani artist, who is the sole bread winner, dies? So many requests are going to the government every day, but so far we haven’t received a single penny," Khedkar says.
Barring the owners, men play a secondary role in the world of lavani – as music accompanists and as cross-dressing artists. Chandrakant Lakhe, a harmonium player from Jejuri, says that many of his colleagues have taken up odd jobs to get by during the lockdown. While some are working as delivery personnel, others have sought employment on farms as daily wage labourers. “I have joined the local corporation as a temporary safaai karmachari (sanitation worker),” says Vinayak Javale, a dholki player from Wai.
However, Anil Hankare, a leading cross-dressing lavani artiste, says some of them "do not have this liberty". “People don’t offer us any jobs because of the stigma attached to effeminate men," he informs.
“Disturbed mental health is also a significant aspect that should be addressed,” says Pramila Lodagekar, owner of a troupe that works at the Natrang Kala Kendra in Solapur's Modnimb town. “We are not used to sitting idle. Getting constant validation from an audience is our need that is not getting fulfilled, and that is driving us mad.”
Some women artistes have started selling homemade meals and snacks in order to support their families. “But not everyone has the competence or the money to invest initially in such ventures,” says Akanksha Kadam, another leading name in the Mumbai lavani scene. According to her, they can earn even today because there is demand for their shows. “People are bored sitting at home and tired of watching online things,” she says. “They are ready to host us for a private show. But, it is not allowed as per current rules. We just want the government to give us permission to do such shows. We promise that we will take all prescribed precautions of sanitising and social distancing.”
A private show is hosted by a family or an institution that invites these artistes to come to their society or a community hall to perform.
“Sometimes, people invite us for weddings; sometimes it is for a birthday party, or a celebration of any major life achievement. We are also invited by corporates, co-operative housing societies and various mandals or groups to add a cultural flavour to their celebrations,” says Kadam.
Lavani's inherent blend of tradition with mischief allows it a certain amount of sociocultural flexibility, in terms of the audiences and spaces it can be performed to. The performances can incorporate hosts’ names and achievements in their songs by tweaking the lyrics; the artistes can also address the chief guests during their performance, or even pull their leg by making flirtatious comments, thereby upping the fun quotient of the event. No wonder they have a higher demand compared to other forms of entertainment. Besides such private shows, festivals also bring ripe opportunities for performers, especially in the months of April and May when villagers celebrate their annual religious fairs.
“Republic Day, Holi, Ambedkar Jayanti, Dahi-handi, Independence Day, Ganeshotsav, Navratri, are some of the occasions when we are so busy that we perform at multiple venues on a single day. But 2020 has ruined everything,” says Seema Pote, a veteran lavani artiste from Narayangaon.
“Classical dance, Bollywood, jazz, hip hop, are some of the forms whose artistes earn from classes, that have now shifted online. For lavani, we earn through shows; there is no concept of classes. I tried taking online lavani workshops but there was not enough demand,” Ghadge says. “People already have so much on their platter in terms of studies and work that they don’t have enough bandwidth to try something new. Yoga, web series, YouTube videos continue to consume their leftover time. Lavani clearly is the last thing on their lists.”
It seems that lavani finishes last on the government’s list of priorities as well. Despite several requests by artists’ associations, they have not taken any steps to offer relief. Sumanasa Foundation from Chennai, ADAA from Delhi and Artists4artists from Mumbai, are among the few organisations that have come forward to assist performing artistes from across the country in these trying times. Approximately 75 lavani artistes have received their help by way of monetary aids or ration supplies.
When Anil Hankare was hospitalised on contracting the coronavirus, an appeal was made to raise funds for his treatment on social media. Fortunately, his fans and well-wishers were able to gather the desired sum of Rs 50,000 in just three days. “I will always be grateful to all of them. It also gives me great satisfaction to know that I haven’t wasted my life dancing for all these years, and that there is some hope for each one of us,” says the 52-year-old Hankare. In the governments' absence, fans, fellow artists and organisations are stepping up to help lavani artistes and their art survive in the pandemic.
“Why always depend on the government?” asks Zarina Niturkar, a lavani artiste from Latur. “While Tatas and few others have done a lot for the society, other big industrialists should also do their bit. Why don’t they offer a helping hand to artists in these testing times? Bollywood stars can also offer some relief. It is their moral responsibility. They have got inspiration from our music and dance for free. Now is the time and need to repay," she signs off.
Bhushan Korgaonkar is co-founder of Kali Billi Productions, a theatre company in Mumbai. He writes fiction in Marathi and started engaging with lavani artistes in 2004. His Marathi book Sangeet Bari was published by Rajhans Prakashan. Bhushan can be reached at email@example.com.
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