Lavani's lost glory: As art form's 'vulgarity' was condemned, its complexity, social messaging were ignored

Beautiful and mesmerising, with a reputation for being notorious, the charms of the lavani were lost in the latter half of the 20th century; the artistes and the dance were deemed unworthy of refined audiences and condemned for portraying the sensuous alone. Yet, lavani — in its most earnest form — not only explored love, beauty and pleasure, but also delivered social messages.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe November 20, 2019 10:52:56 IST
Lavani's lost glory: As art form's 'vulgarity' was condemned, its complexity, social messaging were ignored
  • Beautiful and mesmerising, with a reputation for being notorious, the charms of the lavani were lost in the latter half of the 20th century.

  • The artistes and the dance were deemed unworthy of refined audiences and condemned for portraying the sensuous alone.

  • Yet, lavani, in its most earnest form, not only explored love, beauty and pleasure, but also delivered social messages.

Editor's note: This article is the third in a five-part series documenting the folk dances of Maharashtra. Read more from the series here.

***

‘Junya khandani vastula navin jamanyacha ozha pelta na alyasarkha kahitari janavla (It felt as though an old, ancestral house could not possibly bear the burden of modernity),’ writes Bhushan Korgaonkar in Sangeet Bari. His description of the deterioration of the Aryabhushan Tamasha Theatre in Pune, perhaps also aptly reflects the deterioration of the lavani in the public eye — a folk art that, at its zenith, was the most sought-after entertainment across Maharashtra.

Beautiful and mesmerising, with a reputation for being notorious, the charms of the lavani were lost in the latter half of the 20th century; the artistes and the dance were deemed unworthy of refined audiences and condemned for portraying the sensuous alone. Yet, lavani — in its most earnest form — not only explored love, beauty and pleasure, but also delivered social messages.

Korgaonkar’s nuanced and researched descriptions of the folk dance have found their way into his 2014 book, which in turn has been translated into an on-stage musical production. The author, who also helms the performances of Sangeet Bari’s theatrical iteration, explains that lavani is of two kinds: sangeet bari and dholki phadacha tamasha.

A woman clad in a nine-yard sari, tapping her feet to the beat of the tabla, smiling coyly as she beckons her lover with her outspread arms, singing a warm, inviting song in front of an intimate audience: these are the hallmarks of the sangeet bari — the oldest form of the lavani as it is recognised today.

Lavanis lost glory As art forms vulgarity was condemned its complexity social messaging were ignored

Illustration by Rini Joseph/ Firstpost

Similar to the Kolhati or Bombari women who would practice dance and music as a means to secure a livelihood, groups of these sangeet bari dancers would also be trained in the art of the lavani in matrilineal settings.

In spite of little evidence to suggest that these dancers were commissioned to perform during the rule of the Nizam of Aurangabad or that of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Korgaonkar maintains, “they would definitely have had clientele in some or the other form which is how they must’ve survived through the centuries”.

And in the days of the Peshwai, this intimate lavani was fostered and popularised; small audiences with deep pockets would lavish praise on the artists.

The verses in the lavani would at times be subtle: ‘Dole tumche jadugari, mazhyakade pahu naka (Your eyes are magical, don’t stare at me so),’ a woman of the sangeet bari baithak would sing. Her eyes communicated desire while her graceful gestures would emphasise the sensuous nature of the dance.

At other times, a song would be overt: ‘Kambar dete me tumhala, mane khali haat ghala (I give you my waist, put your hand on my neck)’. The shringaar (love) that blossomed, would charge the baithak with an exciting electricity.

When the words were straightforward, the adakari would be subtle, Korgaonkar explains, because if you express the explicit, there is no fun in the performance. The beauty of the lavani lies in alluding to sensual delights, and in finding the balance in a performance to explore this sensuality.

Korgaonkar also points out that the emphasis in a lavani is on increasing the tempo of a song. During a sangeet bari, a farmaish (request) by the audience could be a slow, rhythmic composition in which case, its speed is elevated to match the energetic vibe of the performance.

In the performance of a sthayi lavani, the artiste sits on the dais and articulates the words of her song without getting to her feet. Other dancers positioned at the back provide rhythm.

Undoubtedly, the sangeet bari witnesses a large male audience while the dholki phadacha tamasha is entertainment for all the village folk, with tickets available for a nominal fee or even sponsored by the village head.

Lavani performed in the tamasha is one act of many, such as the musical-dramas or batavani, and until early last century was mostly performed by men dressed as women. The Dhangar community of Solapur, and Mahar and Mang tribes from the State were among the artistes who travelled with the tamasha companies, popularising the dance.

As a segment of the tamasha, the samajik lavani — popularised to a great degree especially in the pre-Independence period — explored social issues such as unemployment, water conservation, inflation and addiction.

Without a hint of sombreness, the artiste would dance to, ‘Ananda zhala mazhya manila … mazhya navryana sodliya daru, bai dev pavlay (I am very happy, thank God, my husband has stopped drinking!),’ and would merrily explain the ill effects of alcohol abuse.

Lavani continues to be performed today in the whole of western Maharashtra, Ahmednagar, Solapur and the entire Marathwada region. Some region-specific lavanis such as Jejuri-chi lavani or Baleghati lavani are popular to this day while others, such as the adhyatmik (spiritual) lavani, have been stowed away in the recesses of time.

For years, women artistes were not permitted on stage. Artists extraordinaire of the sangeet bari tradition, such as Yamunabai Waikar, Indirabai Punekar were celebrated for their beauty and grace. However, seldom was their repertoire showcased in front of a large audience.

Today, men and women both perform the lavani, draped in nine-yard saris, and jewellery that includes the kambarpatta, with the hair tied in a bun or an updo. Most important are the ghungroos, ball bearings enclosed in a brass casing, woven on a metal chain. It is the tinkling of metal on metal, the tap of the table, the rhythm of the dholki and the harmony of the peti (akin to a harmonium) that provide the music in sangeet bari.

This folk art, like most community performances, is dynamic. Korgaonkar explains, “A lot of shringarik lavanis were written during the Peshwai. During the freedom struggle, many talked about patriotism, social issues, etc. Today there is a fad of item numbers so lavanis that look like item numbers are popular. That is not to say that the lavani will remain in the same form.”

The lavani’s beauty or lavanya lies in the ‘gholavna’ — drawing out emotions, relishing in details. Korgaonkar explains gholavna with one of his favourites, ‘Dole tumche jadugari’: “The woman says in one stanza, ‘patra tumhala pathavite saare divas rahu naka (I am writing to you, don’t stay away for a single day)’.”

She lies down, dips her quill in ink and starts writing. Dissatisfied with what she has put down, she tears up a couple of pieces of parchment and begins afresh. When she finishes, she signs her name and scents the paper with perfume from the backs of her ears. She licks the envelope that conceals the letter and goes to drop it in the post box. The artiste articulates all this through gestures alone.

The lavani is a complex, layered art form, but it’s also one that incorporates a tremendous amount of fun, Korgaonkar points out. He cites how, in ‘Dole tumche jadugari’, the nayika affirms her loyalty to her husband in a stanza — only to beckon her lover in the very next.

Pati mazhe gele gava mazhya ghari yeu naka

Haath joduni sangte tumha vait goshta bolu naka

(My husband has gone away, do not come home

I implore you with folded hands, do not utter such things)

Pati mazhe deshavari, tyanchi chinta kon kari

Patra tumhala pathavite sare divas rahu naka

(My husband has gone away, why should anyone worry

I am sending a letter to you, don’t stay away for a single day)

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