By Sejal Yadav
The moment any folk or classical music sneaked its way through our classroom in Loreto Convent, Mumbai, my school teachers would invariably direct their attention towards me and threaten “Sejal! Pay attention to the blackboard. Don’t get carried away so easily.” Sadly for them, my mind had already started choreographing dream sequences and there was no way to abort these romantic missions.
If I had told my mother or grandmother I was choreographing a sequence they’d have said “She’s inherited all the funny traits from her maternal and paternal sides.” My mother comes from a long line of classical dancers and folk musicians, and I grew up listening to grand narratives about my maternal grandmother Sindhu Tipnis Shekhdar. In the late ’60s, she fell in love with my grandfather Baburao Shekdar, a folk musician, labour union leader and theatre practitioner. He was 29 years old and sang and composed Lavanis passionately. She was 25 and already a Kathak performer, proscenium theatre actress and a socialist feminist. Thus began the symposium of art, culture, theatre, romance and politics, which is my home.
“Aapla vayatik jitka rajkiya asta tyahun adhik rajkipa aapli kaamgiri ani nirtya asta (the personal is the political and the performative is highly political) was a saying my grandmother taught my mother and me when we were children, even before we could possibly spell ‘Geo-graph-y’ (or, since it was our house, memorise a tatkar of Kathak impeccably).
My journey as a performer began at the age of three. From Dha dhin dha, Na teen teen ta to Mungda mungada main gud ke dalli, I was all over the place learning, studying and experimenting with kathak, Bollywood and folk dance forms. As a ’90s kid growing up in the suburbs of Mumbai, I dreamt of performing in popular reality shows and won several too – Boogie Woogie, Kya Masti Kya Dhoom, Kuch Kar Dikhana Hai and Mini Superstars. I then moved on to ‘acting’ and performed in several daily soaps and movies. The most challenging roles I had to perform as an actor were those of a kleptomaniac (age 8) and an AIDS inflicted daughter of an AIDS inflicted father (age 9).
This passionate affair between literature and its performative adaptations drove me to study the theories and texts that surround performance practice. The cobweb of critical studies and research analysis further triggered an interest in intersectional discourses on performativity, performers and the politics of it.
It made complete sense, to me at least, that at 23 I wrote my M.Phil dissertation on ‘The Politics of Performance: A case study of changing forms of Lavani in contemporary Maharashtra.’ Since I had grown up in a hyphenated subject position, as far as the politics of performance was concerned.
But while it was an obvious direction for me, I realised that studying a contested dance form like Lavani within the rigid disciplinary realms of Political Science was going to be a political action too. In my M.Phil interview, the first question I was asked was “Why didn’t you apply to the School Arts and Aesthetics if you wanted to work on dance?” I kept it cool but was seething inside – because for me, dance was always much more than an art form.
Lavani has been predominantly performed by female Lavani performers belonging to the Dalit castes of Maharashtra. It has always been part of stormy debates due to its bold engagement with the erotic. In existing political literature, Lavani has been historicised rather problematically. The politics produced by the dance form, its performances, and the political conditions which shaped, altered and transformed Lavani in several aesthetic ways, need to be theorised, revisited and documented.
While its origin can be traced back to the 13th Century, it was during Peshwa rule in the 19th Century that Lavani blossomed into its various forms due to the patronage it received from the upper caste Brahmin peshwas and the Maratha leaders and rulers of western Maharashtra. Since then Lavani has been creatively experimented with across television, cinema, theatre, popular culture and other digitised mediums of expression. It was subjected to massive sanitisation post the 1948 ban on Lavanis and Tamasha in Maharashtra by Balasaheb Kher, the former chief minister of Maharashtra. When the ban was lifted after two years, ‘Andharatil Lavani’, (which translates to ‘Lavanis for the dark’) the genre of Lavani that dealt exclusively with sexual positions and foreplay, was banned.
The lives of Lavani performers, both on and off-stage, is my major area of interest. It was through the critical lenses of their lived experiences that I conducted my research on Lavani in the Centre for Political Studies department of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and my final thesis examined all the major developments in the genre. Exploring the popularly known folk form of Lavani through the vantage point of politics, performance analysis, caste, sex, gender, sexuality, censorship and feminism was certainly a major roller-coaster ride, and helped me to unlearn and re-learn my understanding of what constitutes a dance performance.
Take one incident that pulled the rug from under me. Over the course of my research, I interviewed current Lavani performers, who told me that women performers would be expressing their sexuality through their unique choreography with men masturbating to these performances openly. This had me raging, but when I asked the women performers they admitted that it was initially disturbing but that ultimately it was just performance, that the show must go on. Several women said to me that they had normalised it and trained themselves to continue performing irrespective of what happens, which helped me reassess how agency in performance is still a complicated concept.
Like a song that helps us to travel back and forth in time, watching the Lavani dancers perform led me to imagine the various reasons that made my maternal grandfather fall in love with this genre of music. The bawdy lyrics and multiple dialects of Marathi accompanied to the tunes of his favourite harmonium and tabla served as my personal medium, through which I sketched my grandfather’s portrait. I had never met him. But Marathi movies, black-and-white photos, and the stories I heard from my mother and grandmother intrigued me enough to make me want to explore pleasure, dance, masculinities and the importance of a women performing femininities to stimulate a myriad range of feelings and instincts. Lavani then becomes a metaphor which weaves together these narratives of desire, spirituality and valour through heart-rending and visually appealing performances.
Nowadays, since people no longer have simple relationships with our family tradition, I am often bombarded with animated questions from my cousins, skeptical aunts and self-righteous uncles, who exclaim, “Why would you want to study Lavani when you have the aptitude to study Political Economy?” Some enquire (with or without malice), “So will you teach Lavani post your M.Phil submission or would you still be considered as a scholar of Political Science? Won’t this topic further depreciate your employment opportunities in today’s business-driven economy? Why don’t you continue with dance as a hobby and stick to political topics for your research?” I am yet to come up with a thoughtful response to these questions but they have helped me rethink the privileges with which I have grown up. And like my grandmother, who constantly rang the bells of dance and feminism in my mind, the journey of studying, critically analyzing and performing Lavani has helped me to read between the hegemonic discourses of performance which define the cultural landscape and its scholarship in India.
Yesterday I curated a day-long Lavani festival at Godrej India Culture Lab, where I work. It was an attempt to explore the divergent forms, styles and genres of Lavani academically, visually, musically, and performatively. Through this festival I engaged with fundamental questions like ‘What makes Lavani subversive?’, ‘How has Lavani been experimented with across the popular mediums of expressions in the contemporary times?’ and ‘Which genres of Lavani do the performers continue to perform on and why?’ This festival, through its multiple channels of engagement, has given me some answers to the difficult questions that my dear aunts, uncles and beloved cousins are busy pondering.
And perhaps the other little girls who were in the audience are likely to choreograph dream sequences in their mind too.
Lavani LIVE! was held at Godrej India Culture Lab, Vikhroli, on 3 December from 11 am to 7 pm. Look up the festival here.