Lavani Photography – My Experiences

July 2008

Lavani is a traditional folk dance of Maharashtra. It is touted as sensuous, erotic and of course vulgar. Not to be seen by respected men and certainly not by women. No women in audience, but yes – a woman photographer.

The dancers still stay by the old social rules and regulations. The caste system of India is so deep rooted with its stigma and poverty that new women keep joining this profession. As per custom, the dancers can’t marry, but men can have them as a “keep”. The second generation of existing dancers haven’t chosen this way of life chiefly because these dancers don’t want their daughters in this profession.

Here I have captured portraits, lives, joys, and most importantly.. dances of these women over last 3 years.

I had seen Lavani dances, Tamasha, Sawaal-Jawaab (Q&A competitions in limericks) in regional Marathi movies, in my childhood. These things were inaccessible to me as these events happen in rural areas of Maharashtra, and I have had complete big city upbringing. But it was my desire to witness the Tamasha sooner or later . To make this dream come true, I asked a friend of mine, who grew up in rural Maharashtra, if she had seen the tamasha. She said that as the Tamasha is considered lowly and vulgar, it is seen by men, not women. After hearing this, I thought I won’t get to see Tamasha at all.

However, destiny had some other plans. Few years down the line, I saw a Tamasha dance show called “Bin Bayakancha Tamasha” (Tamasha without Women), with my friend Bhushan, in a suburban Mumbai theatre (Dinanath Sabhagruh in Vile Parle). The audience mostly consisted of blue collar workers and contrary to my beliefs not only men but whole family – children, wives, mothers, aunts, grandmothers. As a rule, Lavani dancers are mostly women, but as the title was, this Lavani show had male dancers dressed as women. The male dancers dressed as women, danced so well, it was difficult to believe they were men dancers unless told so.

However, I wouldn’t call my first experience a pleasant one. The ambiance was full of loud music, flashy lighting and whistling, cat-calling men in audience. In this background, I thought that it is true that Lavani or Tamasha shows are not for women.

Still Photography for Documentary on Lavani Dancers “Natale Tumchyasathi” – Behind the Adorned Veil

Mujara (A dance form)

Mujara (A dance form)

Immediately after watching this show, Bhushan called up and told me that he is researching and making a documentary on Lavani, so whether I would do the still photography for it. I had just bought a DSLR and I jumped up to this opportunity, wanting to make the most of it.

Break time discussions in dressing room

Break time discussions in dressing room

The first Lavani show I photographed was “Gulzaar Gulchhadi” (Flower in Garden) in Damodar Hall, Parel, Mumbai. In this theatre, we went backstage to the dressing room and met all dancers-actors. The dressing room was full of mirrors. Those mirrors had bulbs on them, so it was adequately lighted. At that stage it was a challenge to not let my reflections be seen in the photos I am clicking. Then, my camera was just an entry-level DSLR and I had my 18-55 kit lens; which is not very fast, and I had my 70-300G f4-5.6 lens, so I found it very hard to click fast shutter speed photos on-stage and in dressing room to click good photos without cranking up the ISO. At first I used my kit lens to click wide shots, but I couldn’t capture the facial expressions, gestures very clearly. So I learnt to change lenses in dark. Though I increased ISO to capture fast movements on stage, as the stage lighting was constantly changing I had to struggle a lot to get right kind of photos. In my camera, the highest ISO setting was 1600 and if I set that the photos clicked would be very noisy. So I clicked group photos with my wide angle lens, and changed to telephoto for more close-ups. As I was sitting in crowded audience, I couldn’t use tripod. So in the beginning, most of my photos were shaken, but as these shows go on for 3 hours duration, I got good practice and I could click photos with a steady hand. In this show, I clicked photos from audience, wing and in dressing room.

Getting ready for performance

Getting ready for performance

Talking to audience is one of the major part of Lavani show.

Talking to audience is one of the major part of Lavani show.

I experienced many funny incidents backstage. Most people asked me, “For which newspaper I was clicking these photos?” A producer thought I was the documentary director and he requested me to include their dance party (group) in the film as well. As I am very shy by nature I find it difficult to talk to strangers easily, still I enjoyed the experience. While clicking photos I ate Wada Pao (snacks) and drank Cutting Chai (tea) with the dancers-actors. Somehow I tried to overcome my shyness and chatted with them. These first attempts were unsuccessful and most photos were bad. But some photos were good and showed a completely unknown world that my friends and family admired them. This project taught me many things about meeting people, photographing live shows, photographing under available light and stage light where I would be capturing dancers in my camera. I had never sat in audience and clicked photos of dancers on stage. Now I am even more passionate about photography and especially candid, people photography.

Second Lavani show I photographed was after two days at same location, titled “Puneri Thaska Mumbaicha Hiska” (Pune Mumbai Grooving). By now I had grown used  to this kind of atmosphere. The documentary was being filmed at this show. I had to click photos without butting in them. This show had big names of Lavani such as Akanksha Kadam and Anil Hankare. I noted one thing that all these dancers-actors-anchors apply make-up, dress and get ready by themselves. They don’t have any assistant except other dancers. The transformation from jeans-t-shirt and salwaar khameez clad girls to nine yard sari, exotic hairdo, make-up and Ghungroos (Musical Anklets) is just amazing. is just amazing. They are unrecognizable from their former day-to-day living self. I was surprised to see these delicate girls, who wear Ghungroos (Musical Anklets) weighing 5-6 kilos, dancing with so much enthusiasm and energy.

Akanksha Kadam

Akanksha Kadam

After my experiences at both the Lavani shows, my prejudice of them being vulgar melted away. These Lavani songs and dances are sensuous, with double meaning, no doubt. But I started thinking, who decides what is vulgar or not? It’s us! So, when I listened to more songs, I accepted that Lavani is a folk art, which may not be liked by so called sophisticated audience. But I wanted to know, understand, and absorb the feeling.

Anil Hankare - Male Lavani Dancer

Anil Hankare – Male Lavani Dancer

I had read bad things about Lavani and Tamasha, I had seen in films how the owners of a dance group would exploit the dancers, especially women dancers, more exploitation of women by rural big shots, money-lenders, land owners, and masters of these women (the men who keep these women as mistresses, the common word used is – Master not husband). Exploited by their family members, not respected by society, the women can’t marry. I had many questions to ask. When Bhushan chatted with women dancers from Mumbai, we realized that – Mumbai’s dancers work in these groups, as hobby, or for second income. They were office goers, students, business persons in these dancers. As these dancers are from big city, they have respect and somewhat fame in society. Their family members are proud of them and they have no problems getting married.


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