“Lavani is breaking the norm in every possible way – we have men in the audience being entertained by men in drag, and women in the audience whistling at women artistes!”
An uproarious conversation with director, theatre artiste and filmmaker Savitri Medhatul about how the Maharashtrian art form lavani noisily shatters conventional gender roles, the fluidity of power play between the seducer and the seduced, female lavani dancers who turn the male gaze on its head, our entrenched tendencies to objectify regardless of gender, and how cross-dressing doesn’t change the fact that we perform as ourselves, always.
On lavani as liberation, across the sexes:
“It’s not a very academic observation, but may it be very early cinema or theatre – think of Bal Gandharva, think of Phalke’s films – you had men playing women’s parts, since society didn’t permit “decent” women to be actresses. Eventually, women began acting on stage and we had more women artistes. It became a liberating act for the women, and also rendered men in women’s roles unnecessary. And now we have men in the lavani circuit dressing in drag, wanting to perform as women! It’s so interesting to see how liberation is continuously changing in texture and meaning – we are now fighting for the right of men to dress and perform as women!”
On seduction as the intention of the art form:
“Of course, lavani is absolutely meant for seduction. Think of the Bollywood film approach – no matter how pious our heroine is, she is meant to seduce the audience to a certain degree! When there’s a woman on stage or screen, there’s always that angle that… never quite goes away. What we doing is definitely not disconnecting lavani from the seduction angle. We are celebrating that angle! Lavani without all the nautanki is what I call varan bhaat – yeh biryaani ki cheez hai aur tum unko dal chawal khilaaoge toh kya mazaa?
When we take workshops and teach young girls lavani, they are very shy in the beginning – “No no no, I couldn’t do that! I couldn’t make eye contact like that!” I think the form itself can be so liberating, making women more free, confident, and comfortable with their own bodies. That’s the angle we’re trying to pitch with lavani – to be able to come on stage and perform, you need to be very strong inside. “Don’t laugh so loud! Don’t sit like that!” – there’s so much direct and indirect taming done to girls from so early on, and this form questions all of that.
The second angle is – so what if the aim is seduction? I’m a performer, right? I come on stage, I’m presenting my work, and in that moment my relationship with the audience is based on seduction. Once the performance ends… it’s not like I am forever… that any man I come across I’m going to keep seducing! That’s not who I am! There’s the performer, and then there’s the person – and you need to differentiate.”
On the divide between the performer and the person:
“If you hang out after our performance in the green room, and see Shakkubai walk out without costume and makeup, you wouldn’t even recognise her. It’s a transformation any artist goes through. Unfortunately with the sangeet baari performers of lavani, the social system is such that they aren’t allowed this transformation. They live in the theatre, they cannot marry once they decide to dance and begin to wear ghungroos… Why? Because once you marry, how can you then seduce a man who is not your husband, even if it is only a performance? It becomes a problem for the husband as well as the man getting seduced, and yet another way of controlling the woman. Remember that she can still be in a monogamous relationship with a man and have his children, which means that she can be someone’s kept woman but not someone’s wife! Now what does that tell you? It has nothing to do with the rigour of the dance form or discipline, it’s a whole property claim!
And it’s not like the ‘maalak’ – that is literally what the man whose keep the lavani dancer becomes is called, the ‘owner’! – wants his woman to continue dancing for other men either. The negotiations on which men she can do baithaks for, based on his ego, is endless. However, most men can’t afford to keep these women not dancing – the dancers’ families depend on the income.
Sangeet baari performers are mainly from Other Backward Classes, from the Bhatu Kolhati, Kalvat, and Dombari castes. If you think of dancers like Anil Hankare, who perform in banner shows – they are not limited by caste and don’t follow the strict rules of the sangeet baari. The performers – men and women – are free to have marriages and families, and perform the form as any other stage performance. However, it often happens that the male dancers’ families at home don’t know about their cross-dressing performances. Anil was thinking of stopping performing lavani because his children are grown up and soon heading to college.
It also becomes an issue during arranged marriages – a girl’s family probably wouldn’t want her married to a man who spends his evenings dressing up and dancing as a woman. And of course, there’s always a question of, “Is he gay?” There are all these ambiguities about sexuality, and there’s a terrible amount of pressure from their families to keep up appearances. Then again, to perform as a woman – they have to be perfectly groomed! They have to thread their eyebrows, shave their beards, and wax their arms and chest – makeup can only cover so much! This becomes a life choice, since their performance demands a certain physical transformation. Anil Hankare has a paunch – a man’s paunch – but during performance he ties a chain across it, which creates a resemblance of… womanly tires and love handles! There are also more petite men who are just gorgeous. They make such pretty women, it makes you sigh!”
On the transformation:
“We – writer/producer Bhushan Korgaonkar and I – used to hang around a lot with these male lavani dancers when researching for our film, ‘Natale Tumchyasaathi’ (Behind the adorned veil). They were accustomed to us barging into green rooms and drinking chai, chatting about their lavani songs or their jewellery for the evening. We were like… groupies!
This one time, Anil began to get dressed for performance around us – he finished his makeup and removed his t-shirt, all the while talking casually to Bhushan. Then, he wore his stitched saree, all this happening hamaare saamne. He proceeded to put the padding into his blouse, and suddenly looked at Bhushan, blushing and covering his chest. “Look the other way, no!” he demanded. The moment the blouse and padding were in place, he became the epitome of a demure woman! Such nautanki! Bhushan was so thrown, it took him a moment to register what had happened! I told him, “You are still a man, Bhushan, but Anil has just become a woman. The line has been drawn!” These moments made you realise – he was thinking. He had started thinking like a woman! His gestures changed, his talking changed – I wish I had had a camera then, it was such an incredible transformation!
On the difference between lavani’s “customers” and “audiences”:
The difference is of the format. When you talk of the sangeet baari format, you have customers. When you’re talking of banner shows or phadacha tamaasha (folk plays in villages with lavani dances interspersed), you have audiences. Sangeet baari theatres run by a whole other system; they refer to physical theatres that are permanent establishments with arrangements for stages, seating, long-term residential quarters for the artistes, and rooms for private baithaks.
The men who come to the baaris don’t just want to pay Rs. 200 and watch an hour’s performance, unlike ticketed banner shows in large auditoriums. In baaris, multiple groups participate in short preview performances, which act as teasers of a kind. When the customers – predominantly men – like a particular group, they request a private baithak with them which is far, far more expensive. Each baithak has not more than four or five customers who can make farmaaishes and request their favourite songs. Sangeet baari has always had women performers, and it goes closer to your courtesan and thumri traditions.”
On female lavani dancers performing male characters:
“Female dancers don’t dress as men – they still wear the saree and jewellery, and for some particular songs the body language changes. This happens in your classical dances too, where the dancer portrays different male characters to tell the story. That is a different kind of transition – with the men, it’s a far deeper transformation – and the audience absolutely loves it too! Even enjoying women pretending to be men, we’ve found, is titillating in its own way. The male gaze is turned upside down – it’s normally about how men look at and perceive and portray women’s bodies, but here you have a woman onstage who is portraying you, the male audience member in his seat! She scratches herself, ogles at women – and it’s interesting to watch the men in the audience respond to that!”
On power play and the audience:
“It often happens in lavani that the dancers take a very masculine stance, even when they’re performing as women. I think there’s a certain power play in seduction too, where the performer is sometimes the dominant one, sometimes the submissive one… It also depends on the individual style of the performer – Mohanabai had the demeanour of a coy, shy woman doing baithakichi lavani and flirting with the men. Eventually, our play ‘Sangeet Bari’ began getting women in the audience too.
Earlier, the women artistes found it very difficult to acknowledge the women in the audience, and wanted to flirt only with the men. We used to have women coming backstage after the show playfully teasing the performers, “We were whistling – why didn’t we get a response? All we kept thinking was – C’mon, wink at us!” I reproached them saying, “The women in the audience have paid just as much – they want to be flirted with! They will respond exactly the same way that men do!” It’s very liberating for the women in the audience to whistle and break out of their conventional roles too!”
With regard to the men who fill up shows like ‘Bin Baikancha Tamasha’ to watch performers in drag – if you saw these working class Maharashtrian men on the streets, you wouldn’t even think that they’d buy tickets to be flirted with by men dressed as women! With all our liberalism, we probably couldn’t even imagine that they’d find that entertaining! And yet, all these banner shows audiences are 99% male.
So anyway, Mohanabai would be more shy and docile, whereas Shakkubai would be more aggressive and make demands from the audience. We didn’t tell them to fall into these roles, they just naturally gravitated towards them and people just… went mad! Lavani is breaking the norm in every possible way – we have men in the audience being entertained by men in drag, and women in the audience whistling at women artistes!”
On objectification: has there been any real growth if we as audiences have gone from objectifying women to objectifying men in drag?
It’s a very tricky space, isn’t it? I don’t know how to reconcile these ideas – these men are still doing all the heaving and thrusting that the women do. Lavani continues to be about suggestive lyrics – of course there are lavanis on farmer suicides too, but they are not the norm – and your audiences are still all-male audiences. You still have the same songs, the same moves, the same suggestive smiles, the latkas and jhatkas!
What we try to do is encourage men who would have normally enjoyed such a performance alone to bring their wives too! Let’s turn this into something that a husband and wife can enjoy together, something that might help them express and enjoy themselves better! Moreover, this immediately breaks the concept of a husband “going to another woman for entertainment”.
On rejecting conventional ideas of what it means to be feminine:
We did a lavani workshop for both girls and boys at an architecture college once, and I remember the boys automatically beginning to flounce about in very exaggeratedly “effeminate” ways. I went up to them and asked, “Have you ever seen any woman – your mum, your aunt, your friends, me – walk like that, arms flailing about? You are free to portray your idea of what a woman is like, but first show me a single woman who behaves like that!” These are stereotypes too, right – that a man behaving like a woman has to also behave in a certain way, which has nothing to do with what a woman is?
I showed the students ‘Natale Tumchyasaathi”, showed them Anil’s interview, and said, “If you’re going to perform lavani, be the artist. Understand the steps, the intention, the nakhra. Don’t go into your own trip of trying to fathom “how men are supposed to portray women”. Lavani has nothing to do with “becoming a woman” and everything to do with understanding the art form. Doesn’t Birju Maharaj do a beautiful Radha when he’s performing kathak? It’s the same thing – understand the bhav, the steps. There is no reason for you to not be who you are.”
At the end of the workshop, these students put up a really interesting performance. The boys wore sarees and gajras – like boys would, with the sarees barely coming up to their calves! – but the saree had become a costume, a device for them to explore the characters they had taken up.
“We live in a patriarchal society in which men and power have a conventional relationship. My questions are these – what happens when the man playing a cross-dressing lavani dancer returns from the auditorium to his wife? Is he just another husband who sits back, spreads his legs, and demands food? Does the experience of inhabiting a woman’s persona change his relationship with his wife? Does he feel the need to beat his wife or order her around in order to feel powerful offstage?
Conversely, if the women artistes play strong aggressive women on stage, do they feel the need to overcompensate in their personal life? Do they become over-docile in their relationships. Do their customers enjoy the fact that “she’s so aggressive, but look – when she’s with me, how docile she is”? Is that in itself a designed power play by the dancer to keep her customer interested and presuming that he has control over their equation? In that case, does he have the power or does she? It changes so fast, and there’s so much fluidity. I’m not an academician, so I don’t theorise everything, instead looking at them as stories.”
On the role of the audience in the future of the form:
“When audiences come to our shows, find it exciting, and ask where they can see more we say, “Go to the sangeet baari theatres. Walk into a baithak. Claim the space. That’s the only way to break stigmas. Send your children for lavani classes, like you do for bharatnatyam and kathak. Of course, it’s complicated, this desire to spread the art form and keep traditions alive, and yet not wanting your own daughters and sons to carry the torch forward. Even modern lavani performers don’t wish this life on their children.”
On lavani as liberation – conditionally:
“In sangeet baaris, it’s not always clear whether the dancers are forced into this profession or not. Most of the girls come to the baari because of our bad agricultural policies, because of which everybody in the villages is poor. A daughter or two comes into the profession so that the rest of the children can be married off. The families look at it as tradition, because these communities have been doing this for generations. Of course, Mohanabai and Shakkubai are now getting their daughters formally educated, but they had no such alternative in their time.
Learning lavani is liberating for me because I already have other liberties. For Shakkubai, it isn’t the same. Besides the body language, the art form and the text of lavani, everything that surrounds the dancer is extremely claustrophobic. All the other rituals that come with this profession are the complete opposite of the ideas of freedom that are expressed in their performances! You aren’t allowed to marry, you have to live in the theatre and cannot step out of the premises without permission, your finances are often handled by your families, you have no status in the life of the man you’re in a relationship with, your children are always perceived as illegitimate.
The dichotomy and the irony of this beautiful art is that it could be completely liberating, but because the systems around it are build in a particular way, the women at the centre are always under someone else’s control. The art form in itself is very empowering, though.
All we need to do is break the shackles.”
Conceived and interviewed by Tanvi Shah.
Anil Hankare’s footage courtesy Kali Billi productions.
Shakuntala Nagarkar’s photographs courtesy Kunal Vijayakar.
Watch Anil Hankare’s interview from ‘Natale Tumchyasaathi’, shared specially for Junoon, here.
Join us as we revel in the brilliance of lavani in Savitri Medhatul’s Mumbai Local session titled “For the Love of Lavani”. The session will be held on September 10, 2016 at 5 pm at Bhau Daji Lad museum (Byculla). We will also be treated to some live performances by the unstoppable force that is Shakuntalabai Nagarkar!
This session is part of Junoon’s Mumbai Local series.
To read collaborative pieces by other Mumbai Local speakers, click here.