Chapter 5 

Tamasha
(Folk Theater Of India By Balwant Gargi)

Courtesy & Copyright : Sri Balwant Gargi

THE AUSTERE Moghul emperor Aurangazeb spent the last eighteen years of his life (1689 - 1707) quelling the rebel chiefs of South India and the Western Ghats. The sturdiest resistance was from Shivaji, who led the expert guerilla warriors, the Marahtas. The imperial army, camped in the valleys and hills away from home, hungered for entertainment. Singing girls and dancers were imported from North India to amuse the bored soldiers. 

The Dombari and Kolhati, acrobats and tumblers of the local communities, learned the northern dance style readily and joined the entertainers. The local poets composed songs in Marathi. The traditional Gondhalis, who sang and danced in praise of the goddess Parvati, influenced the newly developing form of entertainment, the Tamasha. Tamasha is a Persian word which traveled to Maharastra and Deccan through the Moghul armies. It means "fun, play, entertainment."

The Gondhal singers used the tuntuna (a one-stringed instrument) and manjeera (a pair of small metal cymbals). When the tamasha form was evolving, these two instruments were incorporated in it. The tuntuna and manjeera players sing the refrain. When the main singer stops, they take up the last line. Their voices jump to an astoundingly high pitch. The old ballad form of Powada, which the bards sang describing the heroic deeds of a king or a chivalric knight, contributed to the vigor of the Tamasha. In the Powada narrative singing today, the traditional tuntuna and manjeera players are the refrain singers.

When Aurangazeb died in 1707, the power in Maharastra passed directly to Shahu, Shivaji's grandson, who established his throne in Satara, the citadel of Maratha power. He had eight ministers. The prime minister was called the Peshwa. 

Because the ruler was weak, the Peshwas became poweful enough to shape the history of the Maratha kingdom. Bajirao I (ruled 170 - 40), builder of the Maratha empire, was a great warrior and hunter, and fond of dancing. Chhatrasal, the rajah of Bundelkhand, was pleased with Bajirao's heroic deeds and presented him with a beautiful dancing girl, Mastani, who, riding on horseback, went to wars by the side of Bajirao and became his consort. Singers, poets and Tamasha dancers thrived during his rule. In his personal diary, Shahu mentions gifts of land and jewelry to Tamasha players. 

For one hundred years the Tamasha flourished in the Maharashtrian land. Bajirao II (ruled 1796 - 1818) had classical singers, musicians, and dancers in his court. He was musically wise and politically foolish. His indulgence in the arts resulted in his losing his kingdom to the British. When he was dethroned and sent to a small town in North India, he was allowed to take with him his singers, musicians and dancers.

Because of its erotic elements, Tamasha was in general spurned by the upper class. The first people to join in this form of entertainment were Mahars and Mangs, two outcast communities. The Mahars, scavengers by hereditary profession, had joined the army as fighting men. Shivaji had a Mahar platoon. Even the British continued the tradition.

The dark-skinned Mahars form the backbone of Tamasha. Their women have a swarthy sleekness. In Poona one sees them sweeping the roads and at once recognizes them by their sturdy grace. They consider themselves socially higher than the Mangs and other untouchables and take pride in the fact that the late Dr Ambedkar (cabinet minister and framer of the Indian constitution) belonged to their community.

Tamasha was at its height during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In spite of its low social status and lewd associations, it attracted many high-caste Brahmins. The greatest Tamasha composers of the latter half of the eighteenth century were Anant Fandi, Ram Joshi, and Prabhakar, three noble Brahmins who were disowned by their community.

The most famous of these three was Ram Joshi (1762-1812) of Sholapur. His elder brother turned him out of the house because of his association with Tamasha dancers. Ram Joshi went to Pandharpur where in the temple of Vithoba, Krishna's manifestation, he learned Sanskrit and philosophy from the priests and returned home. In spite of his religious education, he was still rejected by his family. He again turned to Tamasha people, forming his own troupe and playing in the villages. A superb poet, he composed unforgettable lavanis sensous poems unsurpassed even today. A courtesan, Bayabai, liked his songs and sang them in her baithak (drawing room) to entertain her patrons. She fell in love with Ram Joshi and started living with him. She pur his poems to music and sang them in the house, though never openly in the arena. 

Ram Joshi earned a lot of money by his performances and lived like a chief. His bullock cart had a velvet hood and embroidered silk curtains, and the bullocks wore golden coats. He left behind passion-charged lavanis which are still sung and are the soul of the Tamasha repertoire. He used euphemism, metaphor, and erotic symbols in his poems, which have a high place in Marathi literature. In one poem he uses the word payodhar as a pun (paya means both "water" and "milk" ). The line reads, "Dark clouds full of water," but in the context of the song it means "Dark breasts full of milk."

One composer of the early nineteenth century was Honaji, a milkman, who wrote excellent songs that were sung by his colleague, Bala, a tailor. The team was famous as Honaji Bala Gummat. A second great composer of the period was Sagan Bhau, a Muslim weapon sharpener. Honaji and Bala were rivals of Sagan Bhau in the court of Bajarao II, and all were well treated.

During the Peshwa rule, boys acted women's roles. They were called nachya poryas (dancing lads). The Tamasha was so erotic that prostitutes and courtesans learned the melodies and dance movements from the boys to entertain their customers. 

After the British occupation, the Maratha court patronage was over. In the nineteenth century landlords and their dissolute sons, with no awareness of art or music, became the patrons of Tamasha. In their courtyards Tamasha became vulgar.

One famous singer-poet was Patthe Bapu Rao (1868 - 1941), a high-caste Brahmin. He was a superb composer, whose fame spread throughout Maharashtra. Although married, he fell in love with Pawala, a beautiful, olive-skinned young girl from the Mahar community. Patthe taught her singing, dancing and acting. Together they formed a troupe that delighted the Maharastrian public for twenty years. Patthe was ostracized by his community and deserted by his wife and children.

From 1900 to 1920 Patthe Bapu and Pawala were the biggest stars. During those days, Tamasha was performed in Bombay, five days a week in three theaters, the Elphinstone., the Bombay and the Ripon. Pawala was a big draw. Because of her glamour, rich patrons incited her against her teacher-lover Patthe by offering her tempting terms. In 1920, one patron won her away from Patthe Bapu Rao. Broken-hearted, he left the profession and died in penury.

Patthe Bapu Rao was the last of the famous composers. He ushered the Tamasha into the twentieth century. Pawala, the first important woman actress in the Tamasha, established the tradition of women in female roles.

Today there are eight hundred full-fledged Tamasha troupes. Forty thousand people (actors, dancers, instrumentalists, and their families) make their living in this way. Three thousand women actresses on tour perform in the village squares. Most of them come from Pawala's community.

THE PLAY BEGINS

The stage is a low platform, surrounded on three sides by spectators. In cities a regular proscenium stage is used. The Arya Bhushan Theater on Lasmi Road in Poona offers a Tamasha performance every night. 

In the village square the play opens with tow drummers, the Dholkiwala and the Halgiwala, who are present throughout the performance. The Dholkiwala has a long, horizontal drum slung around his neck. The center of the right face of the drum is crusted with a hard black substance that gives a dry metallic sound. It is tuned to the singer's voice. The left face is covered with a taut skin of plain leather. The player, leaning forward, balances the drum on one outstretched knee, the other foot slanting behind. The characteristic stance makes the player look as if he were constantly ready to spring.

The halgi is a small drum made of a wooden hoop with the skin of a goat's belly tightly stretched over one side and the other open. The elastic tissues of the guts wave through the steel rings bordering the hoop. The player heats the instrument over a fire and tightens the skin further. He keeps it at chin level, girpping it in his left hand. The right hand thrums and slaps while the left hand, holding a short curved cane stick in two fingers, pounds with a piercing clatter. The halgi is used to quicken the tempo and give a spurt of ferocity. Its clattering din a harsh karh-karh-karh, can be heard on a still night at a distance of three miles. It announces that the Tamasha has started.

The two players slap their instruments with a competitive gusto, each trying to surpass the other. 

The drum has a big repertoire of rhythms and beats. It clatters and rumbles and howls. The Halgiwala and the Dholkiwala distribute a sound sentence and play it between themselves, carrying on a rhythm conversation. One chips out a phrase, the other adds to it a craftily constructed rhythm pattern and throws it back as a challenge. The purpose of this rivalry is not to outwit each other but to build atmosphere and tension.

Two more instrumentalists join the drummers: the Manjeerawala, who plays on tiny metallic cymbals; and the Tuntunawala, who twangs a one-stringed wooden instrument. Gripping it in his right hand, he plucks the string with the long nail of his index finger. The sound, tui tui tui, acts as a drone and a beat. These tow instrumentalists are the accompanying singers, the refrain keepers. When the principal singer stops for a breath or has sung out a portion of the song, these instrumentalists jump forward and sing loudly in high-pitched raucous voices, the refrain fading out with the sound of ji ji ji ji. They renounce the line, in a high soprano that few female singers could reach. The tuntuna player, his right knee forward, his left hand to his ear, twangs his instrument. The manjeera player strikes sharp metallic notes, swaying and rocking as he throws his voice from the pit of his stomach. Blood rushes to the faces of these singers. The higher the pitch the more skillful they are considered. Their voices become sharp as needles and fade into piercing whispers. Their twisted faces and eyes look as if they were weeping.

This insrumentalists stand behind the main singer, who performs between the actions of the play to link them up, commenting or carrying forward the story. Sometimes he sings for the character. He is the main singer, the Sutradhara, the leader of the troupe.

The drummers wear a white knee-length tunic an embroidered waistcoast, a red shela (girdle), a pheta (turban), and bellows-shaped dhoti tucked up at the back. The dhoti is swathed up around their knees to allow their legs to more freely as they play and spin about. The Halgiwala and Tuntuanawala wear almost the same dress with slight variation. If they are prosperous, they wear a silken turban of orange, yellow, or pink with a gold border. In Kolhapur, the heart of Maharastrian orthodoxy, the Tamasha musicians wear a twenty-five-yard-long turban tilted up from the right and slanting low on the left. Favorite colors are saffron, pale blue, and parrot green, and magenta. The style is also popular with wrestlers of the area, and the musicians take pride in the heroic turbans.

The drumming is followed by an invocation, the worship of god Ganesha.

The musician stand with their backs toward the audience and move upstage and down singing the invocation. This ceremony, called avahan (invoking the gods), is popularly known as gana an abbreviation of Ganesha. Sometimes Shiva and Parvati are also praised because they are parents of Ganesha.

No woman is present on the stage when the gana is being sung. The Buffoon (called Songadya) is allowed to join the invocatory song. At this moment he is serious and dignified.

The next preliminary is the appearance of Gaulan, the milkmaid in Krishna's legend, played by a Tamasha woman. In a classical Sanskrit play the leading actress, Nati, appears in the beginning and converses with the Sutradhara. The Gaulan serves the same purpose. She enters with rhythmic steps and deos an erotic dance, hiding her face with the end length of her sari though her head is uncovered. She tantalizes the peincipal singer and the instrumentalists, who move in quick steps round and round the stage. They talk with the Songadya, the Buffoon, who impersonates Krishna. Krishna is accompanied by his friend Paindia, a deformed, club-footed, quarrelsome cretin.

The incident, taken from Krishna's life, has sexual symbolism and strikes the nonreligious note of the Tamasha. The familiar pattern of dialogue is as follows:

Drummer: Oh, friend, where are we going now?
Krishna (walking fast in a circle): To Mathura.
Drummer: What work have you there?
Krishna: Not in Mathura, I have some business on the way.
Drummer: I see! You are going to sell milk and meet the maids.
Krishna: What a wise fool you are! My hands are empty. How could I sell milk?
Drummer: Why are you hurrying, friend? You are walking fast. What's the job?
Krishna: My job is… don't you know? My job… to tease the milkmaids and drink their milk.
Manjeera Player: From the pots they carry on their heads or from …?
Krishna: I pull at the saris and waylay them. Only then will they yield…milk.
Tuntuna Player: Arrr! There she is!
All: Where?
Tuntuna Player (walks like a woman): Here she comes jingling her bells and swaying her hips. Listen to the music of her footsteps!
(The Tamasha woman enters casting glances from behind her sari.)
Paindia (holding the Gaulan): Pay the toll to Krishna. Your milk!
(She takes down the imaginary pitcher from her head, tilts it, pours milk into Krishna's cupped hands, and sings.)

After this follows the philosophical interlude of the Sawal-Jawab kee Lavani ("Song of Question-Answer"), a sudden change from the nonserious to the serious to give weight to the program. This item, also called Jhagra (quarrel), is a war of wits between Lord Shiva and his spouse Parvati, or between some other divine pair.

Before the Vag (the main play) starts, a hilarious farce (Rang Bazi) humors the audience. It has lavani songs with much improvised dialogue. Most companies perform the following farce. Three friends conspire to visit a woman's house at a time when her husband is away. The woman senses the trick. One of the men knocks at the door. The woman, pouting and simpering , stands three feet away from the anxious caller and gives saucy replies:

Man: Is anybody in?
Woman: No.
Man: Then you are alone in the house?
Woman: No.
Man: Is your husband in?
Woman: No.
Man: Has he gone out?
Woman: No.
Man: May I come in?
Woman: No.
Man: Your husband is not in the house?
Woman: No.
Man: (slyly): Do you mind if I make love to you?
Woman: No.

He bursts open the door, and the audience howls with joy.

The negative answer of a woman, according to popular interpretation, mean affirmation. The villager believes that when a woman says "no" she means "yes", and this is manifested in social cermonies and etiquette. When a husband tries to lift his wife's veil on their wedding night she is expected to deny him constantly. If she is offered food in her new home (and she is terribly hungry), it is good manners fro her to refuse it. The dogged insistance of the suitor ultimately breaks down the door of the negative.

The above preliminaries are followed by the Vag. The themes vary. They deal with chiefs and kings, a merchant and his mistress, a warrior meeting a young maiden in a foreign land, two brothers quarrelling over a piece of land, a henpecked husband with two wives. Fariy tales have allegories and flowery symbols. Mythological and historical romances abound. Like all folk plays, the Vag concludes with the moral that truth will shine and falsehood will perish. The hilarious jokes, erotic lavanis, provocative dances, and powerful singing and drumming fill the main body of the paly.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the lavanis were specially composed and well rehearsed. The dialogue was left to the inventive faulty of the actors. They were given the main points of the story and constructed the dialogue on the spot. They constantly improved and added to the text, injecting freshness at every performance. There was surprise, ready wit, shock. The singer wound up the dialogue by singing the lavani and carried forward the story. The lavanis lit up the high points, and gaps were filled by the actors with dialogue always leading to the next situation. The actors were clever improvisers, with keen dramtic sense. Nowadays the Vag is written like a play, with dialogue and songs, and the actos no longer need to create their own lines.

THE LAVANI

The lavani is a narrative poetical composition expressing vigor and love. It is the spine of the play. The principal singer offers the first line with lusty joy. He starts generally from a high note and goes up the scale. The lines that follow are spoken quickly in a singsong fashion, giving details that make the story move. The singer etches out the meaning of the words with vivid gestures. At a clever dramatic line the drummer thumps the drum and the Tuntunawala and Manjeerawala repeat the line in shrill chorus, sumin up the purport of the preceding lines. Their voices are high as they shout in duet. Their wide-open mouths reveal their tongues reddened by beterl juice. They have fantastic stamina and breath. The line fade off into a delirious groan of hai-hai-hai- hay-hay-hay…ji-ji-ji-ji-…, and suddenly they stop.

For example, if the lavani is describing the story of a traitorous general, the song announces the place, the time, and the noble king who has horses, elephants and a large army. The last line may contain the surprise when the singer adds: "But he has a corrupt general!" These words becoem the refrain. All of them sing the line, "But he has…." Over and over to reinforce the thematic point.

The singer sings a quick, short aria, a spiral voice flourish, and proceeds to the next line.

The first lavani introduces the characters, unfolds the plot, and prepares the audience for the complications. It is followed by bits of prose dialogues again broken by a lavani. The song comes at a time when is expected, at an appropriate moment. Sometimes, a dance is introduced to heighten the emotion. The Tamasha woman punctuates her singing by a burst of dancing. The drummers and accompanists constaly move back and forth in rhythm to impart impulse to the visual scene.

On an average there are thirty lavanis in a play, and these take up more than half of the six-hour performance. The lavani is of many kinds. The Vag Lavani tells a tale. The Bale-Ghati is a sad song of separation. The Chhakkad Lavani is amorous and colorful; the Dhauti has a fast tempo. The Junnar runs almost on one note, describing the adventures of a country maiden. 

The lavani is sung with passion. In the "Legend of the Stranger", an old lavani, the words have sensual imagery:

We came to enjoy your body,
Your breasts,
And we decided to win the two round fortress.
Don't tantalize us;
We shall enjoy your body forthwith.

The choice of words is always clever and sensuous. North Indian vocabulary and the Marathi language mix well in it because of their earlier association. The classical modes commonly used are: kalingra, bhairav, peelu, yaman, and bhairavi because these are pleasant and hauntingly evocative.

THE TAMASHA WOMAN

When Pawala of the Mahar caste was accepted by Patthe Bapu Rao of Brahmin background as his spouse, she became a star heroine. Her image inspired Mahar women, and hundreds of them joined the Tamasha troupes. Kolhati women, acrobats and tumblers, followed suit. During the last fifty years the woman dancer has become an essential element in the Tamasha. Today over three thousand professional women are in gummats (Tamasha troupe). They inherit a vocabulary of lwed gestures from the teen-aged boys of the nineteenth century.

The Tamasha woman wears a bright colored nine-yard paithani * (silk sari) (*The word paithani is borrowed from the town of Paithan , near the Ellora Caves, which is famous for its weavers.) with golden flowers and border, draped in such a way that the two legs are separated in bellows fashion. The pleated length in front is folded, swept between the loins, and tucked up at the back, leaving the legs free for dance movement. The tucked-up end, a glittering fall, is visible at the back. It makes an effective design and emphasizes the hips. The dancer's green or magenta blouse has smaller floral dots than those of the sari, and the short sleeves have a gold border. Her fingers are ornamented with gold rings and her arms with maroon or green bangles decked with glass bits to lend a cheap sexy effect. She wears a vazartik (necklace), jhubas (earrings), a shining nose ring, a gold-fringed girdle and the ankle bells.

Her lamp-blacked eyes sparkle and clearly mirror her expression. A tiny red moon embellishes her forehead. The parting of her hair is filled with vermillion powder; the palms of her hand and the soles of her feet are dyed pink. Her hair is rolled into a bun because her long braid would distrub the dance movement. She fixes garlands of shevanti and aboli blossoms around her bun.

She stands in a posture of abandon and relaxation, her body muscles held in tone. Her left hand is placed on her hip with the fingers curled outside, her right hand rhythmically swings back and forth as she walks. In her exuberance she looks like a wild mare. At time \s she holds the end of her sari and walks in a drunken rhythm, now hiding her face, now revealing it.

The Tamasha dance does not owe its origin to any classical form and is not similar to any folk dancing. While the north Indian Kathak dancer explodes and jumps, the Tamasha woman never leaves the ground, her feet are always near the floor. The heel gives the principal beat. Her movements are supple, liquid, exciting. The dance form is a mixture of various elements.: the nautch style of North India, the virile grace of the Kolhati acrobatic women, the folk dancing of the area, and above all the impulse of the erotic.

The Tamasha woman is the life and soul of the performance. She bends and sways "like a rice shoot", as the common saying goes. Popularly she is called Nautchi, the nautch girl. Spectators always ask: "Who is the Nautchi?"

Most Tamasha women are unmarried, except for those who play straight dramatic roles. The dancer live freely with the drummer or the hero or the villain - anyone she chooses - and may bear many illegitimate children. Often quarrels, jealousies, and fights erupt. A dark slim woman, Bhima, in the Nagu Bhagu troupe, said: "We are the Hollywood actresses. We live with the man we like until we are tired of him."

One reason that vulgarity crept into Tamasha is that, until Pawala joined the Tamasha, boys acted as girls and portrayed intimate scenes of eroticism that could not be shown with a mixed cast. The absence of women spectators also gave license to the performers. Today, in spite of the new laws of prohibition and banning vulgarity, the audience reeks with liquor and sex. The very fact that the Tamasha woman is an outcast gives her freedom. She is not one of the audience. She is outside the pale of social morality, and the audience has pushed her to it. Everyone thinks her vulgar and low. She must his back and be the image they have made of her, show how really vulgar she can be. She shocks the most outspoken rascal in the audience by her remarks. She is the free spirit, a dressed-up nude who brings to light the gestures and words lurking in the heated subconscious of the repressed onlooker.

THE FUNCTIONING OF TAMASHA

The troupes are divided in two types: Dholaki Bari (Dominated by drumming) and Sangeet Bari (Dominated by music). The Sangeet Bari consists of six or seven people, including singing girls. A harmonium player, a clarinet player, and a drummer sit on one side of the stage. The troupe does not perform a play but entertains with dance-embellished songs. A number of Sangeet Baris may perform one after the other to make a complete program, or they may act as curtain raisers proceeding the play. The main Tamasha troupe is the Dholaki Bari, consisting of fifteen to twenty-five players who perform the Vag accompanied by wild drumming.

There are about two hundred theaters all over Maharastra, with four Tamasha companies attached to each. In the Jalagaon, Kolhapur, and Sholapur areas many professional theaters are run solely for the Tamasha troupes.

In Poona, the heart of Maratha tradition, the only professional house is the Arya Bhushan theatre on Laxmi Roadk which offers a Tamasha performance every night. The main entrance is a small door decorated with cheap colored lights and crudely painted posters of dancing girls. An open passage yields to the yard, which houses many players permanently attached to the theater accommodating about 700 people. The troupes (gummats) work in rotation; some of them are always on tour. If the visiting company is famous, the auditorium may be jammed with as many two thousand people.

Among the habitues of the theatre is a sixty-year-old pleasnt-looking man wearing smoked glasses who sits on a wooden chair in the booking office. His stick rests by his side as he talks enthusiastically. This is the blind S. G. Gore, a former tennis champion, the patron of Tamasha. He greets the visitor with a milky smile. He was my guide at many Tamasha performances. Once he travelled with me many miles in a car at night on bumpy country roads to Jejuri village to be on time for a performance. Sitting in the crowd of spectators, he interpreted the songs and the double meaning of the dialogue, telling me the position of the characters on stage, the names of actors and actresses, and their background. Though he could see nothing, he seemed to listen to them "visually".

Daily expense of the Arya Bhushan Theater are roughly 350 rupees ($74.00) covering rent, the minicipal license fee, electricity, and payment to the staff and the artists. The revenue on lean nights is hardly fifty rupees. The owener of the theater, Ahmeth Seth Fakir Mohammed Tambe, manages four troupes. The touring troupes make up for losses at Poona. Ahmed Seth is involved in the business because of the "spice of life" it gives him. He manages to pay his staff and artists regularly. If he delays their payment by one night, he says, "they fly at my throat." He has to maintain a standard, a tradition. He himself lives in a small kholi (lodging), paying eight rupees per month as rent.

During the six-hour performance every night the spectators drift in and out of the Arya Theater as their favorite player come and go. When a saucy Tamasha woman appears, a wave of enthusiasm sweeps the auditorium. The more chivalrous types offer gifts and urge her to sing their favorite lavanis. The government has banned the acceptance of gifts during a performance, but the regular wages in the theater are so low that nobody objects to infractions. Sometimes an admirer gives money more for a Tamasha woman's looks than for her art. She accepts the money, and it is deposited with the leader of the troupe or the drummer. In the Sangeet Bari, the coins are kept with the harmonium master. The wings are crowded with instrumentalists. Backstage the Tmasha women sit on wooden benches smoking and chewing betel leaves waiting their turn.

The wage of a dancer in a gummat ranges from five to ten rupees. O n tour she is given an allowance plus free food. The extra girl is paid two rupees per performance. But arouing Jalgaon the dancing girls, expert in singing lavanis, get fifty rupees or more per night.

The best-known troupe is the Bhau Bapu Khude Narayangaonkar Gummat founded by the late Bhau Mang, who came from the Mang community. He was the disciple and inheritor of the tradition set by Patthe Bapu Rao during the first quarter of the present century. Today his three daughters , Vitha, Kesar and Manorama are th female stars, and his nephew Bapuras Khude (so far the only Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner of Tamasha), is the leader of the troupe. Vitha, a slim indestructible dancer, is the mother of six children, and amazingly young and attractive. She jumps and does acrobatic feats, curving her body like a wheel, and dazzles the spectators with her modernized rhythms. Spoiled by success, she has taken to dancing of a hybrid nature. In sober moments she plays the traditional Tamasha woman, but these are rare. The artistic redemption of the trope lies in the aging Bapuras Khude and the two refrain singers, who inject color and passion into the performances.

Out of many good drummers, Takkoo, a short, ebony-faced man of fifty-five in the Damaji Korgaonkar's company, is in a class by himself. His knee stretched and his head thrown back, he furiously slaps the drum, producing intricate rhythm patterns. He puckered dark hands have tremendous power. Drunk with the rhythm, he pounds the drum and becomes one with it. His eyes spin, and his half-opened mouth dribbles with surcharged enjoyment. One sees only Thakkoo and forgets the presence of singers and actors.

The newly formed troupes have attracted girls untrained in the Tamasha tradition. One such company is owned by two sisters, Lata and Lanka, both exquisitely seductive. Dressed in cheap imitations of classical Bharata Natyam dance styel, they sing film songs and hybrid sex tunes which they call "modern" form. Gallant admirers pet the stage with coins. Sometimes one comes up to the stage and places maoney in the palm of his favorite with a lascivious click. The sums offered during a performance sometimes exceed two hundred rupees, three times the fee of the troupe for a performance.

With the introduction of film music and qawalis (ecstatic singing), small Sangeet Baris are growing more popular. But it is the Dholaki Baris, wioth their powerful refrain singers and drummers and the attractive Tamasha women, which have kept alive the heroic tales, romances, myths, and legends of the Maharastrian people. Their lavanis have become a part of the common man's life.

Dozens of films on Tamasha have been made in Marathi, most of them successful. The Rajkamal Film compnay of Bombay produced a popular hit on the life of Ram Joshi, the eighteenth-century Tamasha composer. Recently Sangate Aaika ("Listen to what I say") ran for two years in one cinema house in Poona. It tells of a corrupt landlord who seduces a Tamasha woman and then throws her out. She is ultimately avenged by their daughter, who also becomes a Tamasha woman.

Contemporary playwrights have exploited the Tamasha form in their works. Venkatesh Madgulkar has used the gana (invocation song), the Gaulan (milkmaid) and the Bag (main play) and Hutashani ("The Fire of Holi"). Two headmen fight over the right to light the fire at the Holi festival. The daughter fo the one and the son of the other are secretly in love and help to resolve their families' quarrel. The actor -playwright P L Deshpande, who gives two hour solo performances of his own satirical comedies, used the Tamsha in Sarvodaya ("Good to All"), a political satire. G D Madgulkar, the lavani poet, is a favorite of amateur groups. Vasant Bapat has many successful modern Tamashas to his credit.

The Tamasha has been a strong propaganda weapon. Active in the Leftist Movement for over twenty-five years, Anna Bhau Sathe from the Mang community wrote political satires using the Tamsha. His colleague, Amir Sheikh, who has a thundering voice, has thrilled huge gatherings of workers with his lavani singing. The government cultural troupes have used the Tamasha for propagatin the Five-Year-Plan and new projects among the rural audiences.

The social playwrights are substituting "clean" humor for the lewd language of the Tamasha. The satirists are replacing sexy humor with political sting. Social reformers are striving to improve the Tamasha moral code by removing its vulgarity. Driven by bigotry they are taking the very guts of the Tamasha. 

What is vulgar for the middle class is not vulgar for the commoner. Sexual references tabooed in the upper class are part of the vocabulary of the village men and women as they fight and curse in the streets. Vegetable sellers, fruit vendors, farmers, cobblers, and fisherwomen use this language with imaginative flavor. The Tamasha caters to this class.

The government has passes a law banning vulgarity in the Tamasha. The emphasis of the Tamasha Board of Maharashtra is on purity of humor. The Vags and lavanis are screened, and a certificate stamped "no objection" is required for every performance. The law is limited because the Tamasha is performed in the villages where the policeman comes from the same rural area and understands the place of the lewd jokes. The players improvise, adding double meanings and erotic clowning. The dancer establishes a direct relation with the audience by her coquerty and acts the "public woman" while the spectators whistle and shout and ask her to sing their favorite pieces.

The Tamasha is a theater of release. Its ready wit, free flowing extroversion, and uninhibited sexual referenes make the people forget their caste and class.

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Last updated on : 13 Jan 2003 .
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