Lavani: caste, gender and cultural politics

LATA SINGH

THE arts and other creative forms are considered critical sites for expressing and reinforcing the ‘spirit’ of a nation, drawing legitimacy from what is imagined as the ‘pure’ and ‘sacred’ traditions of the past. This leads to a quest for the authentic Indian culture and civilization-specific aesthetic, looking to texts like the Natyashastra, which underscore performance as a gift from divinity.1

In the nation’s mythification of cultural forms, what gets erased is the linkage between the form and the social context of its emergence. The art’s historical origin is obscured by the myth that all culture has arisen from ‘sacred’ and ‘pure’ backgrounds. Centrality is given to the upper caste and middle class as custodians of ‘national’ culture and its hegemonic claim to cultural respectability. Thus, the entire thrust of cultural discourse at the national level is steeped in elitism. Subaltern voices are not represented in any significant cultural study commissioned by the department of culture since independence.2

In fact, most of the popular forms of performance are caste-based cultural practices with their roots in the social and material conditions of the Dalit communities. Suppressing the contexts from which such arts emerge, the forms are presented as if they arose in a social vacuum.3 This virtually obliterates the actual social history of these genres and the contribution and role of the traditional performing communities, mostly Dalit communities, to the nation’s cultural heritage. Some of these communities are Nat, Bedia, Kanjar, Banchada, Kolhati, whose caste-based occupation was performance. This paper critically engages with one such form, Lavani, the most popular folk dance of Maharashtra, and its troubled relationship with caste, gender, and cultural politics.

Lavani is popularly understood to be a kind of traditional rural erotic song and dance in the folk genre of Maharashtra, performed mostly by female performers wearing nine-yard-long sarees. Performed to the beats of dholki, a percussion instrument, it is noted for its powerful rhythm, with songs sung in quick tempo. Two distinct performance styles developed, namely Phadachi Lavani and Baithakichi Lavani, also known as Sangeet Bari. The Lavani sung and enacted in a public performance as a small part of a heterogeneous act before a large audience in a theatrical atmosphere is called Phadachi Lavani. When the Lavani is sung in a closed chamber for a private and select audience in a more intimate setting it came to be known as Baithakichi Lavani. Men manage the Phadachi Lavani while the Baithakichi Lavani are planned, financed, and organized mainly by women.4

Lavani articulates female desire in explicit sexual terms as constructed through the male gaze: composed almost entirely by males, performed by women, for an almost entirely male audience. Interestingly, most Lavanis were and are written and composed by male lok shahirs, who predominantly belong to the upper caste, upper class sections of Maharashtra. Most of the Lavanis are based on erotic themes around women’s sexual needs and desires, their bodily aesthetics, and the unattainable beauty of the Lavani performers.5

Most of the Lavani performers come from Dalit communities – Bhatu, Kalwat, Kolhati, Mahar, Matangi, Dombari. However, in Baithakichi Lavani they primarily come from Kolhati communities, whose caste-based profession was dancing and entertainment. In the caste practices of the Brahmanical order, the daughters in these communities could not marry, but have to be the main bread-earners of their families, earning through entertainment and sexual liaisons. In fact, the Brahmanical caste ideology not only ordered a division of labour but ordered a division of sexual labour.

The Brahmanical order’s construction of the bodies of lower caste women such as Kolhati as constantly either arousing or satiating male desire provided ideological justification for appropriation of their sexual and productive labour. In effect, by appropriating the sexual and erotic labour of the Kolhati caste, and constructing their women as possessors of wild sexuality, the women of these communities were located in the space of the erotic (albeit in the male gaze) and denied material and familial spaces. Such construction was crucial to the pre-colonial Peshwa state in the appropriation of the labour of lower caste women.6 

Hence the notion of women performing in public is not at all extraordinary for these communities. The women in these communities had been singing and dancing in melas and mehfils. The fathers put their daughters to the task of generating income through entertainment as soon as they grow up.7 For many, like Kolhati, it was a caste-based profession but many from other Dalit communities also came to Lavani for economic reasons. The families in these communities due to poverty had no choice but to allow their young girls to take it up as a profession. Dancing and singing were the only option to get two square meals a day and take care of their families. Lavani became a site of work and livelihood for them. Most of the women performers perceived their work as any other job providing them, in their own words, their daily ‘bread and butter’.8 

Foregrounding performance as a site of work and livelihood for women requires us to revisit gender and labour historiography, extending the notion of labour to bring cultural labour, invisible in mainstream labour history, within its ambit. Drawing attention to art as a site of work and labour means addressing the question and concerns of artists as workers too. One needs to address the arduous conditions of their work, their struggles, contestations, economic concerns and the trouble and turmoil of their lives.

The main years of profession for women Lavani artists are between 15 and 35. During these years, the women artists work very hard and without any respite. They often dance till the last stage of their pregnancy. Immediately after delivery of their child, they resume dancing, leaving the child at a time when it requires their mothers most. They perform through the night with heavy anklets, weighing close to 10 kg or more, and even when they are sick. The shows go on for the whole night, only then can they have their meals.

The performers sleep in the vehicle, usually a truck, on the way to the next destination after their performances. By the time they wake up, wash their face, and have tea followed by a bath in a public place, either in a well or pond, it is evening. Lunch is whatever food has been provided. Since they take advance payment, they cannot be away from the stage for a single day even if they are sick.9 The kind of food, drinking water, poor access to health care, all night performances, the morning journey to another venue for performance – all speak of the appalling conditions of their lifestyle and take a toll on these women artists.

They live their whole lives under the public gaze. Onlookers and men enter the tents where they rest and dress up without any qualms and stare at them from head to toe. Cheap make-up and fake jewellery worn by the dancers disguise the trials and tribulations of the everyday backstage life of these artists. During the daytime, once the glamour of performers, who paraded around on stage under bright lights with painted faces, was taken off, they look like ordinary poor women.10

However, another aspect that needs to be highlighted is that though most women joined the profession as caste-based labour, or due to poverty, over the years they come to enjoy dancing. For many the profession also holds an additional charm, the charm and lure of the stage, which did not involve the drudgery of other kinds of labour and at the same time giving them some kind of recognition and satisfaction. These women performers felt that through performance they earned professional respect. In the make-belief world of the stage, for some moments, the performers live outside their degraded social status. One woman performer expressed the excitement that performing in front of people brought to her. This job gave her happiness and fulfillment as well as ‘a home, clothing, food and a family’.11

In the words of another woman performer, the stage was her life. The call of the stage, theatre singing and dancing was so strong for her that it was impossible for her to stay away from performance. She could not see herself as a home bird. According to her this profession gave her both livelihood and happiness.12 Hence the identity of the performer as a worker and artist is deeply enmeshed and cannot be separated. The livelihood question should not be counterposed to their identity as performers and their artistic aspirations. But in mainstream society, art is often evoked as a sacred site, like the temple, which should not be sullied with professionalism and monetary gain. The evocation of performance as a temple of art creates the paradigm of art and work as a binary. Such a binary masks art as a site of work, which forecloses the struggle and contestations of artists and their economic concerns as working professionals.

Not only is their cultural labour sometimes made invisible, but even when it is seen, it is devalued in mainstream society due to caste, class, gender, sexuality, and cultural politics. This is also linked up with the question of patronage. The morality and respectability question tied up with colonial, bourgeois and nationalist discourse had eroded the patronage sources for such performances, marking its marginalization and stigmatization in mainstream society.

In pre-colonial times, popular cultural pursuits were not a separate domain exclusively limited to common people. The entire range of popular festivities and customs depended to a considerable extent on the patronage of local elites. The transition from a predominantly agrarian to an industrialized society witnessed a shaking up of the cultural map. By the turn of the 20th century, popular performances had begun to dissociate from the pre-industrial feudal systems/feudal patronage and develop as a commercial form. The processes that wrought this transition simultaneously altered the space and place that the culture of ordinary people occupied within the larger community. The emerging bourgeoisie in the 19th century, impacted by the colonial discourse, which was contemptuous of indigenous cultural forms, tried to distance itself from popular culture of the lower classes, claiming its own culture as distinct and superior vis-à-vis the popular culture.13

Colonialists did not simply look upon indigenous cultural forms as performance or entertainment but also as a more or less ‘licentious’ and ‘uncivilized’ activity.14 The labels of obscenity and vulgarity in such discourses pushed the indigenous and folk forms to the margins of respectability. In 1948 post-independent India, the chief minister of Maharashtra imposed a ban on Lavani performances in the city of Bombay since it was considered to be obscene and inappropriate for public entertainment. The ban on Lavani was only lifted on condition that obscene lyrics and dance movements were cleaned up, and legal and quasi-legal bodies were formed in Maharashtra to regulate these performances for their obscenity. Such regulatory measures and strict censorship sanitized multiple genresof Lavani; the modern form of Lavani one sees in the media is this sanitized version.15 

The whole issue of respectability as the lens to view the art form is further complicated by the question of caste. Ambedkar had called upon his followers to shed all their old practices, among them traditional caste work like Lavani which was looked upon as vulgar, resulting in low status for women performers and countering the image of progress.16 The Dalit discourse located this caste-based performance in
the history of Brahmanical sexual exploitation, linking it to the denial of respectable labour to the Dalits. Dalit feminists argue that such labour makes for easy access to Dalit women’s bodies through the work that they do not choose but are condemned to perform.17 

In post-independent India, the revival and revitalization of the folk arts became a central preoccupation, with the state emerging as patrons in search of ‘authentic’ Indian culture. State cultural organizations and akademies intervened in the larger context of disappearing modes of art patronage through ‘durbars, courts, and religious bodies’.  The ‘limits and dangers of the market in regard to cultural creativity’ also received some attention. What was showcased as authentic Indian culture within the concept of nation were primarily folk traditions. However, the incorporation of the folk, envisioned in the new nation’s aesthetic paradigm, was based on recouping, reconstructing, reimagining elements thought to embody the traditional and the authentically Indian.18 

Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), formed in 1952, functions as the apex body of the performing arts in the country, mandated to preserve and promote the vast cultural heritage of India expressed in music, dance and drama. SNA, responding to the threat of imminent disappearance of culture, put in place a policy of recording all ‘authentic’ folk performance for its film and music library, and collecting artifacts for its folk-museum. It organizes annual festivals of music, dance, and theatre in Delhi to preserve and promote cultural performances.

Jawaharlal Nehru as the first prime minister of India had instituted
the Folk Dance Festival as part of the yearly Republic Day celebrations. Thousands of folk dancers from different parts of India would come to Delhi in the inaugural festival.19 A high-powered committee headed by P.N. Haksar was also set up to review the workings of National Cultural Akademies. The Haksar Committee Report was a painstaking document about the general state of Indian culture. It focused not just on major cultural institutions of India but on the larger ramifications of development, politics, and education in which these institutions needed to function.20

One finds in post-independent India an orchestration of national festivals and melas incorporating the choreography of folk elements. But
the whole process has led to a de-contextualization of the popular forms and their links to the social and material culture of the lower castes, emptying them of the actual contexts in which traditional performing communities created and interpreted art.

Scripting the cultural heritage in the development of the nation has not only invisibilized but also silenced the narrative of displacement of the subaltern community from their arts. Existing popular forms, cut off from their source, were being appropriated by the elite. This is a common narrative of marginalization, stigmatization, and appropriation of art forms. Removed from the Dalit roots (social and material context), elite classes established ownership over these forms displacing the traditional performing communities. The appropriation by the elites led to transformation of popular arts forms, which lost its roots and earthly vibrancy. The artists who created and gave shape to such arts get no recognition.

According to Madhukar Nerale, the owner of Hanuman theatre in Mumbai and also producer and promoter of Tamashas and Lavani, ‘cultural centres record traditional Lavani performed by traditional artists and use them for their performances, without showing any gratitude to them. Traditional artists get no recognition or a chance to perform in the modern media. The producers in the media are mostly upper caste, who have been contemptuous towards the traditional performing community’.21 According to Nerale, often what is performed in the media in the name of Lavani is not Lavani.

Cinema is one of the mediums where simultaneously the appropriation and othering of popular performances have been taking place. Cinema drew its raw materials from oppressed caste artists of popular forms and converted it into saleable goods and took it back to the audience in towns at double the price. The actresses performing Lavani in cinema most often came from outside the oppressed castes. One hardly finds anyone from a Kolhati family in the Marathi film industry. The film industry’s attitude towards such popular artists is contemptuous. Many films construct the Lavani dancer as the repository of native, wild, and rustic sexuality to be tamed and reformed by the hero (always upper caste).

The overt sexualization of these dancers in the films had serious consequences for the Lavani women performers. Ironically, the raw material, in going from Lavani artists to the films, came back to them in a form that they could hardly recognize as their own. In Maharashtra, the contractors of Lavani performance demanded that the naachee/dancer dance to the film Lavani and add erotic and provocative dance steps, as in the films.22

Generally, all women performers have been looked upon as suspect and perceived as unsettling, since their bodies are available for heterogeneous male gaze. The performance space unsettles many gendered boundaries – social/physical/ normative. In the mainstream discourse, during colonial India, there was a porous boundary between women performers and prostitutes. Othering and stigmatization of popular performances further leads to marginalization of the women performers especially so as they came primarily from Dalit communities and were looked upon as ‘vulgar’ and ‘loose’, words strongly associated with sexual availability.23 

Caste, gender, and cultural politics continue to marginalize local and regional arts in post-independent India. Thousands of artistes keen to perform in good popular performances are unable to sustain their livelihood. Forms are becoming vulnerable to market forces and artists are losing autonomy over these forms. Performers have to keep up with latest trends, otherwise they lose the audience.  They are forced to move towards orchestra forms, which increases a troupe’s expenditure. Earlier the artist had managed shows in just one saree and ghungroos. But under the impact of cinema and orchestra the artists have to wear a variety of costumes because that is what the public wants to see. The dancers and singers have to wear all types of costumes from sarees to lehngas, skirts, short dresses, and pants, which they find painful and distasteful. The whole form is patterned after Hindi film songs. The troupes are recast as musical orchestras. The term Lavani today is associated with female dancers performing item numbers for the masses.

Artists talk of the change in audiences response to shows over the years, which hurt and pain them. Most women performers say that earlier the audience enjoyed and appreciated their arts as they came to watch Lavani in its original form, while the contemporary public does not want to see real Lavani but instead wants disco, cabarets, and filmy dances. They find the audience in present times crass and insensitive, not coming to Lavani performance to enjoy the art form but to ogle at the women, their dresses, and bodies.24

During a performance, men behave badly, shout, abuse, use foul language, whistle, wink, make cat calls and throw stones at them. Sometimes the artists get injured and cannot perform for days. The artists tolerate such uncouth and humiliating behaviour for their bread and butter. In the words of one performer, ‘For us everybody in the audience is “God”. Because they enjoy our performance, we get to keep the fire burning in the kitchen. We always treat them as our “Anna Data”.’ It is hand to mouth existence for these women artists. If they do not perform, they have no food to eat.25 

All this change has been difficult for the older generation of performers. In their old age, the women performers have little to live on or look forward to. Their economic situation remains adverse, many living in great poverty and resorting to begging for survival.26 Government policies and priorities have remained fundamentally insensitive to the plight of popular performances and its practitioners. It remains unconcerned about these women’s daily toils and tribulations, despite the fact that such arts are an important component of our construction of the cultural heritage of the nation.

The government boasts that it is the champion of locally rooted folk forms and popular artists. It chooses some individual artists for awards and honours. But such individual recognition is lip service or token gesture, serving to divert the attention from the much larger issue of providing substantial long-term support to help these popular forms to survive.27 Artists who spend their whole life taking this art from village to village, city to city, and state to state and even outside the country, thereby keeping the art alive, are left destitute in their old age.28

In fact, the struggle of the women performers is linked with the popular performance’s struggle against declining status, marginalization, stigmatization, and survivals. Popular artists are not only losing autonomy over these cultural forms but are also getting alienated from them. Once the form declines in status then the status of women performers, primarily coming from Dalit communities, declines too. Social attitudes towards popular cultural performers are intolerant and stereotyped. In fact, till date, class, caste, and patriarchal prejudice mark the women performers of popular folk forms as vulgar and veiled ‘prostitute’ or ‘loose’ women.

Footnotes:

1. Pallabi Chakravorty, Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India. Seagull, Kolkata, 2008.

2. ‘High Powered Committee’ headed by P.N. Haksar following a resolution dated 24 March 1988 of the Government of India (Department of Culture, Ministry of Human Resource Development); Rustom Bharucha, ‘Anatomy of Official Cultural Discourse: A Non-Government Perspective’, Economic and Political Weekly 17(31-32), 1-8 August 1992, pp. 1668-1669.

3. Deepti Priya Mehrotra, Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki. Penguin Books India, 2006, p. 128.

4. Bhushan Korgaonkar, Sangeet Bari. Rajhans Prakashan, Pune, 2014.

5. Sharmila Rege, ‘The Hegemonic Appropriation of Sexuality: The Case of the Lavani Performers of Maharashtra’, Contribution to Indian Sociology 29(1-2), January 1995; Sejal Yadav, ‘Performance Politics: Not Just a Dance Form, Lavani is a Commentary on Gender, Caste, Sex’, Firstpost, 26 November 2016.

6. Sharmila Rege, ‘Conceptualising Popular Culture: Lavani and Powada in Maharashtra’, Economic and Political Weekly 37(11), 16 March 2002.

7. Kishore Shantabai Kale, Chhora Kolhati Ka. Radhakrishna Publication, New Delhi, 1999.

8. Interview with a Lavani woman performer.

9. Interview of Lavani women performers, Narayangaon, Maharashtra.

10. Sandesh Bhandare, ‘Struggle for Survival Redefined as Violence: Tamasha’, in Guru Rao Bapat and Lata Singh (eds.), Performing Arts in India: Performances of/and Violence. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 2016.

11. Interview with a Lavani woman performer, Narayangaon, Maharashtra.

12. Interview with a Lavani woman performer.

13. Sumit Sarkar, ‘Popular Culture, Community, Power: Three Studies of Modern Indian Social History’, Studies in History 8(2), 1 August 1992, pp. 309-323; Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Street: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta. Seagull, Calcutta, 1989.

14. Nandi Bhatia, Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 6.

15. Sejal Yadav, ‘Performing Politics: Not Just a Dance, Lavani is a Commentary on Gender, Caste, Sex’, Firstpost, 26 November 2016.

16. Eleanor Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movementi. Manohar, Delhi, 1996, p. 328.

17. Uma Chakravarti (ed.), Thinking Gender, Doing Gender: Feminist Scholarship and Practice Today. Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2016.

18. Rustom Bharucha, ‘Anatomy of Official Culture Discourse: A Non-Government Perspective’, Economic and Political Weekly 27(31-32), 1 August 1992, pp. 1667-1676.

19. Sangeet Natak Akademi Report 1953-1958, p. 52 (82-85); Sangeet Natak Akademi, Brochure, 1997, p. 36.

20. Haksar Committee Report, 1990.

21. Interview with Madhukar Nerale.

22. S. Rege, ‘Conceptualising Popular Culture’, op. cit., p. 1044.

23. Lata Singh, Raising the Curtain: Recasting Women Performers in India. Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad/Delhi, 2017.

24. Interview with Lavani women performers.

25. Ibid.

26. Interview with Madhukar Nerale.

27. Deepti P. Mehrotra, Gulab Bai, 2006, op cit., pp. 220-232.

28. Interview with Madhukar Nerale.