Tamasha Folk Theatre: The dying folk art form of Maharashtra
Posted on 18 January, 2017 by Team Wishberry
One of Maharashtra’s pioneering folk forms, Tamasha, is also one of the most entertaining one in the country. Tamasha theatre has a lot of singing and dancing accompanied with it.
What is Tamasha?
Tamasha, as a theatre form, is a style that can be called a mix of a regular play, a musical and dance. It has two main branches – Dholki Bhaari and Sangeet Bhaari. While the Dholki Bhaari style has a lot more drama, the Sangeet Bhaari style is a lot more music and dance oriented. Tamasha is known for its suggestive lyrics and borderline erotic movements and topics.
Tamasha is highly influenced by other Indian dance forms like Dashavatara , Kaveli, Kathak, Ghazals, Lalit and Kirtan. Some other folk art forms like the Powada and Gavalan, have their origin in Tamasha and are also utilised in this form.
Tamasha is performed across Maharashtra even today by local or travelling troupes.
The beauty of Tamasha is that it does not need any special stage or setting to be performed. Its origins and performers, make the form such that it can be performed in any open area – a village square, an open ground, a street.
A Tamasha play opens with the entry of two percussionists – a dholkiwala and a halgiwala. They begin playing their instruments and announce the beginning of the show. Two more musicians, a manjri player and a tuntuna player, join them on stage. Finally, the lead singer, known as the Shahir, takes stage and everyone together then sings the Gana, an ode to lord Ganpati. After that begins the performance.
The performance is filled with dance, singing and vag, which is the dramatic and humorous skit. A vag is either in prose or long narrative poems performed by the shahir. The lavani makes for the major and the most exciting part of a tamasha performance.
The socially aware humour and sexual frankness of a tamasha performance is what makes it a truly unique folk form in the country.
Traditional Tamasha format consisted of dancing-boys known as Nachya, who also played women's roles, the Shahir, who played the traditional role of Sutradhar or a jester known as Songadya, who compered the show.
Tamasha acquired its form during the later part of the Peshwa regime of the Maratha empire. It has elements of Dashavatar, Gondhal, Kirtan and Waghya-murali, part of Khandoba Bhakti Geet, amongst worshippers of the local god Khandoba.
It was in 1843 that Marathi theatre truly began its journey. And with it, Tamasha also evolved itself and started fusing elements of drama into itself, especially with the introduction of vag. Pathhe Bapurao and Dattoba Sali were the most popular vag composers of the time. Their vag, Gadhvache Lagna (The Donkey’s Marriage), became extremely popular and is still performed on stage.
The 19th century rise of the textile industry in the urban areas had a lot of rural population migrate to cities. With them, their theatre migrated. Initially, Tamasha troupes were invited to perform in the city, but later, under the patronage of the mill workers, numerous local Tamasha troupes formed and flourished.
Most Tamasha performers were from castes like Kolhati, Mahar, Mang and Bhatu from rural regions of Maharashtra, labelled low castes within the Indian caste system. Social reformers from that time made use of Tamasha and the performers in their pursuit of the abolishment of the caste system. Jyotiba Phule, the renowned social reformer, formed the Satyashodhak Samaj and started organising the Satyashodhaki Jalsa, which was their political and reformist theatre. This gave rise to a new performance form which was an amalgamation of Tamasha and street theatre.
Vithabai Bhau Mang Narayangaonkar is considered to be the greatest Tamasha artiste and lavni dancer of all time. Her legacy is such that her native, Narayangaon, near Pune, is considered to be the Tamasha capital of the country. Narayangaon boasts of the biggest Tamasha festival of the country every year.
Some of the most popular and legendary Tamasha artistes of recent times are Madhu Kambikar, Surekha Punekar, Rajashree Nagarkar, Lata Punekar, and many others, who have won several awards at the state and national level. Madhu Kambikar and Rajashree Nagarkar have also won awards for their acting in Marathi films.
The unfortunate apathy on the part of our society has been harming Tamasha and its artistes for a long time. The major audience of Tamasha is the rural population. The annual Tamasha festival in Narayangaon reported 30-40% lesser audience and revenue this year owing to the drought scenario in most parts of Maharashtra. Tamasha troupes also get lower fees for their performances as the villages have reduced budgets for their shows.
Only 8 major Tamasha troupes perform all year round – approximately 210 days out of the 365. But, it is getting increasingly difficult for them to make profits, and they barely sustain their families.
But, economics and finances are not the only problems. Despite being skilled dancers, Tamasha artistes are not looked at respectfully. The sexual frankness of Tamasha, a rare quality in an Indian folk form, has apparently given society the right to deem them a much lower status than they deserve. The audience has become much more receptive to dances on Bollywood item numbers, and has begun showing a lack of interest in the traditional Tamasha format.
Tamasha artistes have, for long, demanded funding to save the dying art, and respect from society. Both demands have gone unheeded.
All is not lost, though. Prominent lavani dancer Rajashree Nagarkar opened the Kalika Kala Kendra to train dancers in this form, and to uplift the girls in her community by giving them a livelihood. Prominent Tamasha artistes themselves have now taken it in their hands to keep the art alive and kicking, and making it a respectable art form again.
It’s safe to say that had it not been for the dedication of the Tamasha artistes, it would not have survived till today. One of the most exciting art forms in India is in a pathetic state, but that does not stop these artistes from giving their all when on stage, and ensuring their audience goes home entertained.
Tamasha artistes truly embody the phrase ‘the show must go on’. They keep it on.