It was in the early 2000s that Sudharak Olwe was assigned by a newspaper to photograph Lavani performers. However, having grown up in a typical Maharashtrian household, he had been warned at an early age to never watch Lavani. “Because the men who go for them never return; the women, who perform these dances, eat them up and take the money,” recalls the Mumbai-based documentary photographer about these warnings, which now seem absurd.
The newspaper assignment led him to discover a world which, on the surface, was beautiful and sensuous, but was struggling to survive— the folk art had been neglected by the government as well as the patrons. Olwe was intrigued and he kept going back to capture the helplessness and misery behind the sensuous gestures. This has now resulted in an exhibition of photographs, titled ‘Lavani’, at Nine Fish Art Gallery in Mumbai.
A combination of traditional song and dance, Lavani is believed to have originated in the 18th-19th centuries and has come to be known for its powerful rhythm. Scathing dialogues, complete with socio-political satire, are the hallmarks of a good Lavani performance. Once a sought-after form of entertainment and patronised by the Peshwas, Lavani has ceased to be what it was, with the traditional art form giving way to erotically-charged performances. Social taboos and stigmas associated with the caste of women performers, and lack of performance venues have led to a further decline of Lavani, with the dancers living their lives in abject poverty.
Popular discourse, however, has been kinder to the art form. Marathi films such as Pinjara and Natarang have tried to depict Lavani in a positive light. A documentary film, titled Natale Tumchyasathi by Savitri Medhatul and Bhushan Korgaonkar, on the lives of the performers was followed by a book titled Sangeet Bari in 2014. There have also been stage productions including Tichya Aaichi Gosht arthat Majhya Athvanincha Phad. There have, however, not been full-fledged photography exhibitions depicting the lives of the Lavani performers, thus making Olwe’s images even more significant.
The photographer’s lens captures the glory of the art form but also gives a glimpse into the neglect it has fallen into in contemporary times. You see images of women getting ready to perform at the shows, while their male companions and small children wait on. The images show 8-10 people crowded in small rooms, performing for the mostly male audience that comes to watch. The play of light and shadows unveils and documents their lives and the cultural ethos.
In a note from the gallery, founder Anurag Kanoria writes, “What we are meant to see are not the Lavani dancers, but their stories as told through Sudharak Olwe’s lens—a polyphony of living voices and moving bodies all subsumed into a singular monologue, into a language of stillness, of blacks and whites. Perhaps, it is only through this filtered condensation that so much more drips, spews and breaks out.”
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Olwe, who has earlier worked on documenting atrocities on Dalits, a series of exhibitions and a book on Mumbai’s conservancy workers and intimate stories from Mumbai’s red-light district of Kamathipura, has an empathetic approach towards his subjects. “I want to understand their issues and not exploit their situation, and they see that. My job is to take their misery, their pain, their joys and their stories to the public,” says the photographer, adding that he is unsure whether the tradition should continue or not. “I do think the lives of these women have to be improved and the respect they deserve as artists should be given to them. As an artist myself, I feel the need to document these stories and bring them into the public domain for these conversations to begin,” he concludes.
Lavani continues at Nine Fish Art Gallery, Mumbai till 18 February, 2023, from 10.30 am-7.30 pm