'Tamasgir' Mangala Bansode and the 'Tamasha' of Her Life

The informal economy of tamasha stigmatises artistes and at the same time, provides possibilities and power, however limited, to some women.

Mangalatai leading the group of dancers in Pune in 2004. Credit: Shailaja Paik

Mangalatai leading the group of dancers in Pune in 2004. Credit: Shailaja Paik

Beyond the stereotypical “vulgar song and dance,” “fun and play,” “bawdy lavani (folk song) performance,” and the “rural disorderly spectacle,” tamasha (travelling folk theatre), the significant lokakala of Maharashtra, is best understood through the analytical matrix of mobility and migration, access to means of everyday survival, pedagogy of survival and negotiations for work. The Dalit tamasha legend, Vithabai Narayangavkar sang a famous Lavani in the 1960s:

laaj dhara pavana janachi manachi
potasathi nachatey mee parva kunachi
dava dola jhakun khunavu naka ho asa tumhi hinavu naka
aathavan dete mee tarnya panachi
potasathi nachatey mee parva kunachi

(O guest, maintain your shame for others as well as for your self. I am dancing for my everyday sustenance; I do not care for anybody else. Do not make sexual gestures by winking your left eye at me. You are actually mocking me. I provide you a remembrance of your youth. I am dancing for my everyday living. I do not care for anybody else.).

Vithabai’s daughter, Mangalatai Bansode, sang the famous lavani for me, when I interviewed her in the village of Kada in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra on September 9 and 10, 2004. Through such pointed and piercing songs, tamasha Samaradni (Empresses) – Vithabai and Mangalatai – interpreted their stigmatised lives in tamasha as a ritual of “rough music” and cruelty, and sharply ridiculed the mixed upper-and-lower-caste male audience. Moreover, both women productively used their practice of popular song and dance to express their social and economic anxieties, precarity of tamasha labour, life and livelihood, as well as to record their resistance and resilience against private and public patriarchy.

Mangalatai, a rare and powerful Dalit professional Tamasgir (tamasha kalavant, artiste, also troupe leader) repeatedly deployed the “obscene” and the “erotic” as a survival strategy, continuously contested, and purposefully negotiated with her family, community and public politics to work for income generation. Her life, as well as that of numerous artistes, has attracted little attention from scholars and activists alike. Although Mangalatai gradually asserted her power, paradoxically, she was, at the same time, powerless – vulnerable and continually caught in viciously exploiting and empowering circles.

Traditionally, travelling tamasha artistes largely belonged to nomadic (Kolhati, Asvalvale, Bahurupi, Vasudev), lower-caste-and-Dalit bara balutedars (various artisanal castes) and were mostly washermen, potters, mahar, mang, carpenters, oil pressers and so on, and belonged to both Hindu and Muslim religious communities. Some Brahman like Ram Joshi and Patthe Bapurav also performed and excelled in the art of Lavani. Yet, both lower and upper castes crystallised certain practices of caste-communities in a feudal context and constructed tamasha as a lower-caste, folk art.

Poverty and hunger

Mangalatai recounted her actual days of poverty and hunger that pushed her on to the tamasha stage: “When I was with my mother, khaaychi tarambal hoti (it was a big problem to procure food). We had name and fame, but no money to even buy food. My father and uncles – both maternal and paternal – looted my mother.”

Women were the heads of their own households and it was poverty as well as their generational ties to tamasha that enabled them to draw upon it as an economic resource and drove them to perform. Mangalatai underscored that. Although her mother was very famous, Mangalatai, as a child, did not get food. She continued:

“My mother used to dance a lot and she even delivered a baby on the stage. Our contractor said that the tamasha had to close down as Vithu [Vithabai] could not dance. So we were put again in a dharmashala (temporary rest home). We had thought that the contractor would at least give us something to survive on for some time, but he never returned to enquire about us. When we visited our mother at the hospital (where she had delivered my baby brother), she had no food or clothes for the new born. There was no money. So, someone suggested that we could keep the harmonium as collateral and get some money on that. But I refused because the harmonium and ankle bells (chaal) are our wealth (lakshmi). How can we take a loan on that? I went out and requested the contractor to give us some money and told him that we needed help. But he said that nothing could be done unless the tamasha started again. There was another sangeet party in Jalgaon and I asked them for some money saying that I was Vithabai’s daughter and that she was in the hospital. That lady agreed to give me Rs 1000, but I had to dance every evening. I was very happy. I bought food for everybody and mutton biryani [a delicacy] for my mother and clothes [angada topada] for the new-born.”

Poor tamasha women were dependent for their survival on their performing art. They lacked economic and social resources. Hence, they were at the mercy of the men in the audience and contractors/managers, who policed them in the interest of producing tamasha.

Yet, over the years, the larger poverty narrative is not universal among tamasha women. It proved to be complicated and sat uneasily with some non-hereditary, young artistes, who pursued different aims. Mangalatai mentioned: “These days, girls, college students from even higher-castes (Brahman), at times, due to poverty but also to earn easy pocket money, participate in my troupe. They want to work with me.”

For hereditary artistes, poverty was further compounded by ignorance and illiteracy.

Pedagogy of the stage: Policing women, producing tamasha

Tamasha artistes’ first lessons of education were the dance and song training they received from their parents or family. In the process, the tamasha stage itself transformed into a school on which parents like school teachers lashed phatke (beatings) to discipline children and instil the pedagogy and body politics of the song and dance ritual. Many artistes were not sent to school because their migratory lifestyle could not allow this luxury of formal education.

Mangalatai said that her mother initiated her into tamasha:

“When my mother performed in her tamasha, there were fewer women performers. She needed more women in her troupe and hence, she discontinued my schooling when I was in class two and pushed me on to the tamasha stage when I was merely nine years old. Today, I am fifty-five and I am still dancing. My mother is my guru. I am famous because of her. My mother also danced from when she was seven years old. Initially, I was scared of the people, but gradually I became bold and could tackle them as I turned fifteen or sixteen. My son, Nitin, was also introduced to the tamasha stage when he was only seven years old. We tried our best, but he did not study at all.”

Education for Mangalatai was the actual pedagogical training and practice of tamasha on and off stage. At times, artistes hired dance and music experts to train themselves.

Like classical artistes, tamasha artistes also spent long hours in learning and rehearsals. Mangalatai also learned to dance, sing, perform a variety of skits and engage in a confident and bold manner with the mixed-caste of male audience. Tamasgirs’ pedagogical goals of everyday survival thus contrasted with those of middle class Dalits who sought education for self-esteem, self-dependence, dignity and self-assertion and community power. Tamasgir parents, kin and associates educated and trained women to be alert, smart, attract and engage the audience and cater to men’s sensual demands.

Obscene and erotic body politics  

Tamasgirs’ everyday sustenance depended on their negotiation with patriarchy through an excessive performance of the obscene, erotic and exotic. Although agents of the colonial and post-colonial Maharashtra state and upper and lower caste women and men sought to sanitise Maharashtrian society, Mangalatai underscored the necessity of “obscene,” erotic excess:

Some old, traditional Lavanis have ashlil shabda [obscene, vulgar words]. We have to dance and make gestures in tune with these words because people in the audience like it. So, we have to also perform ashlil adaa [obscene gestures]. For example, the words ‘choli majhi taatali, kaya majhi bhijali [my blouse is tight because of full breasts and my body is wet].’ How do you show this? How do you show that you have full breasts and hence the choli is tight and the body is covered with water [thus clearly revealing the private body parts]? There’s another Lavani: ‘kiti mee halavu, kiti mee halavu…thand garavaa’ [how much do I shake, how much do I shake in this cool breeze?]. One has to show everything, enact, and bring to life these vulgar words.

Mangalatai indicated that in order to earn their living, women deployed the weapon of obscene words and a body politics of erotic excess to entice and fulfill men’s desires. Women on the stage and men in the audience, together participated in the sexual body politics of gestures, including winking the left eye, biting lips, shaking hips and breasts and accentuating particular body parts and so on.

Although Mangalatai felt the pains and predicaments of a dancer, at the same time, she underscored that artistes were dependent on the audience: “Public demands ashlil lavanis. We have to satisfy them and everybody does it. So we cannot really help it, or we will lose.” As much as in scholarly econometrics, everybody in the tamasha occupation and business understood the operations of the law of demand and supply.

Mangalatai wearing make-up in her tent. She continues her promise to perform in tamasha. Credit: Shailaja Paik

Mangalatai wearing make-up in her tent. She continues her promise to perform in tamasha. Credit: Shailaja Paik

The main breadwinners easily incorporated family members into the practice of tamasha. Women and men fought with each other and also supported each other. Yet, men also exploited Dalit women’s social and sexual labour in various ways.

Tamasha is a highly stigmatised occupation due to the potential for sexual abuse by men clients. The danger continued for Mangalatai:

“In the beginning I was scared to face the public. However, gradually I learned to handle the publicHey lok cheshta kartyat, maskari kartyat, pan kunibi haat nhai lavala ajoon […]. mee kadak bai haye [These people makes fun of me, ridicules me, but nobody has so far touched me physically, because, I am a very strict woman]. Mee ek lakh deto, don lakh deto, jhopaya ye […] ashe mhas prasang hote [I will give one or two lakhs to sleep with you for one night, there were many such incidents]; but, I never gave in and just continued with my tamasha. My family has been attacked; I have faced caste discrimination in my village…but this is life!”

This was the travelling life of a tamasha dancer, insecure and unstable, oppressed by the intersecting matrix of caste and gender; however, the caravan was always on the move. Due to her engagement with the public and lowly tamasha, Mangalatai was always already discriminated against and seen as a “promiscuous” Dalit woman by men of all castes.

Mangalatai recounted some significant hazards in the life of tamasha:

“I remember I was made to dance in what is called a jhadakhalcha tamasha, that is, tamasha under a tree. There was no stage and we were dancing with all the people around us. I had to walk to the men to take the money from them and at that instance, they used to pull the sari or pull us. We were helpless. Sometimes we tried to smile and get away and at times, some men from the troupe intervened. What to do…publicach mai baap [public is like mother and father, that is protector]. I will continue to dance for at least ten years, as long as the public wants me.”

Thus, Mangalatai reiterated that men looked upon her as a public woman who could be trifled with. She gradually learned to negotiate with the public and with patriarchy. Over the years, she also improved her economic status.

Tamasha of the Maharashtra state

Along with private patriarchy, Mangalatai was oppressed by public patriarchy. The state and the national government at times sought to protect and extend patronage to some artistes, and at the same time, neglected them and further exacerbated their vulnerability. Although the elite Dalits and non-Dalits looked upon tamasha as a degraded practice, they, along with the state, also underscored it as essentially Marathi identity and re-appropriated the social and sexual labour of tamasha artistes in the service of the state.

As a result, some artistes sought to work from inside the state machinery and entered the overt political realm. Political parties hired them to perform and disseminate their political agenda. Mangalatai however, was not keen on entering politics:

“Some people say they are entering politics to serve the needy. However, that is not the case. My mother was also invited to do so. But nothing concrete takes places. The picture is very rosy though. Mothe lok jagu denaar nhai [big people will not allow us to survive there]. If we enter the field they will harass us, chhedtaat amhala [tease us] as they do here in tamasha. It is the same when a girl tries to enter the field of modelling or cinema, she has to [sexually] satisfy everybody on her way to success. So it has been my mother’s experience and our experience too, so I just do not want it.”

Mangalatai was felicitated by politicians; however, that did not stop her from openly criticising them or taking them to task for troubling artistes:

“The political parties dominant in the village, sarpanch, patil [headman], the landlord who gives us this place to put up our stage and the police – all torture us. Anybody can come and bully us, kick us. We are so helpless […] hittha log hagatyat titha amhi khato, nachato [people defecate here and we eat our food in this very place and dance here]. Despite all this, I have to continue with this [complicated life], for I have 150 people to feed. We have to keep everybody happy in this line [of tamasha], and I have been tolerating these people since I was nine. I just smile at them and get away. Sometimes the public gets mad and political party people are a great nuisance. They start shouting from the gates, amcha paksha, amhala soda…vis manasa soda [ours is the ruling party now, give us free entry. Let our twenty men enter for free]. How do we live in such circumstances?”

Thus, Mangalatai argued that Dalit women dancers were at the mercy of everybody: lay upper and lower caste men as well as big and small politicians. She did pay lip service to the government and its agents, but she wanted the state to help artistes. Mangalatai wanted the state to take actions to help its traditional artistes. As a result, she negotiated and selectively aligned with some political parties in particular moments. Mangalatai complained that the state’s stricter rules were ruining the art of tamasha; however, she was a thorough businesswoman who controlled her tamasha empire astutely and wisely. Though the performative art form of tamasha was exploitative, ironically, it was also financially empowering for the Bansode family – including its male members and other employees.

Khandani, Dhanda, Lakshmi of tamasha

Tamasha provided many generations of women and men artistes a dhanda (business), an economic capital, as well as, khandani (literally family occupation and ancestral lineage), which was/is their social and cultural capital (in classical terms) they had acquired, accumulated and cultivated over the years. The colonial and post-colonial state of Maharashtra and its agents, as well as upper-caste women and men always already constructed Tamasgirs through an erotic gaze and denied them moral gains. Yet, Tamasgirs have repeatedly deployed the obscene and erotic and negotiated with patriarchy to work for economic gains. Hence, unfortunately, they have been too easily associated with sex work. Abolitionists and anti-abolitionists have contested the distinctions between free and forced entry into sex work. A critical issue at local, national and international levels with regard to the free and forced dichotomy has been the consent and choice of women.

Three generations of Mangalatai’s family performed in tamasha: her grandparents, parents, siblings, five sisters and three brothers. Mangalatai’s family members, women and men drew upon and built on the khandani tamasha for their daily livelihood:

“We (my mother and I) had no other option. There are other businesses too but tamasha is our lakshmi (goddess of wealth). This is not a business. It is our service to the public. We entertain people, forgetting our own sorrows. “

Not only Mangalatai and her family, but other families comprising 150-200 women and men depended on Mangalatai for their daily survival. Mangalatai also underscored that tamasha was not for minting money, but to serve the various (especially sensual) needs of the larger public. To serve the audience and to earn their living, the artistes often had to give up their own requirements.

Mangalatai maintained a thick hajeri ani pagar pustak (register) for daily accounting. Nonetheless, despite her thorough accounting skills and being watchful of her finances, Mangalatai reported that she had incurred a debt of Rs 5,00,000 and that unlike in the past, tamasha was not lucrative enough. Many tamasha artistes took loans for various reasons such as weddings, schooling, clothing, family support, and were in debt. Mangalatai also lamented that tamasha was losing in the entertainment race because of decreasing audience numbers: “now is the world of remix, and orchestra, obscene mixes and so there is less public for tamasha.” Other forms of performances and musical medleys pose an immense competition for tamasha.

Although Mangalatai entered the film industry, she seemed perpetually troubled by her stigmatised low-status life of a “dishonourable” nachee (inferior dancer):

“People come and go, but the batta [blot] of a nachanarin [dancing woman] stays forever.  Kunibi changyla najarana baghat nhai [Everybody looks at us with suspicion and as degraded women]. Men have their affairs. Their keeps do not move around with their children, but we are not like that. This business is fine. “

Mangalatai was doing very well financially; however, she could never win against the popular imagination of her stigmatised self of a public dancer. She was the tamasha Empress, married to a man, a “good” wife and mother who bore sons (and daughters) and worked for their success; still, she was successful because she was a nachee. Her tamasha life provided many possibilities, and at the same time, it was a potential threat.

Mangalatai continues to be felicitated by governmental and non-governmental agencies, is respected among her peers, and yet, is troubled by her stigmatised life of a tamasha dancer. Mangalatai complained that she could not educate her children due to various reasons – most significantly because she was the primary earning member of the family, and the family was forced to be on the move (dancing in villages) all the time. Life was never stable enough for her and her children so as to enable them to attend school. Other genres like orchestra, remix and private Lavani programs posed a competition to tamasha. Yet, some members of her family have moved away from traditional khandani. One of her granddaughters is a Doctor of Medicine.

Though at times lucrative, the khandani dhanda of tamasha was also a burden. Mangalatai and her sons were capitalising on the sexual labour of women and consolidating their ancestral economic and cultural capital and in the process, providing a way of life for future generations of her family to live upon.

Traditionally, tamasha was/is a despised and lowly occupation, and women have to struggle constantly to generate income for their family, preserve their honour within and without the Dalit community, and enhance their social status. Men from all castes like(d) to watch the women dance, pushed women to perform excessively erotic dances or even engage in sexual adventures with them; yet, they denigrated them as “public” women. Patriarchal elite Maharashtrians and the state have sought to sanitise and even “protect” the practice (and artistes) for middle-class consumption. This precarity informed tamasha women’s negotiations for economic survival. Ironically, the informal economy of tamasha continues to be a degraded form of performance that stigmatises artistes and has at the same time provided possibilities and power, however limited, to some women.

This essay is based on an article first published in Biography titled ‘Mangala Bansode and the Social Life of tamasha: Caste, Sexuality, and Discrimination in Modern Maharashtra‘ (see Caste and Life Narratives, a special issue of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, Winter 2017, pp. 170–98).   

Shailaja Paik is associate professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination (Routledge, 2014).