The mention of lavani often conjures up images of svelte women, singing and dancing with abandon. But this notion, which centres on sexually explicit performances by women for men, is just one among the many interpretations of the dynamic folk dance. In several parts of Maharashtra, lavani thrives as an art form that is performed by cross-dressing men.

“During the three hours of the show, we forget ourselves,” said Anand Satam, one of 100-odd male dancers who perform lavani for working class audiences in mostly urban venues. “We forget our world, where we are from, the conditions of our existence. We mould ourselves into the character. When that happens, the woman who lives in the lavani emerges and supports us.”

Another lavani dancer in Mumbai, Ashimik Kamthe, says his body language “automatically transforms” when he dresses as a woman. Kamthe and Satam will be performing a lavani duet in Savitri Medhatul’s musical play Sangeet Bari at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on January 25. Written by Bhushan Korgaonkar and produced by Kali Billi Productions, Sangeet Bari weaves together stories of traditional lavani artists with their dance.

Akshay Malvankar and Anand Satam.

For Kamthe and Satam, being part of such performances validates their unflinching passion for lavani, despite discouragement and criticism from family and friends. “The same people who once told me that I shouldn’t dance on stage are now the ones who are proud of my dancing skills and fame,” said Kamthe.

Changing grammar

Although urban audiences recognise lavani as a song-and-dance routine about sexuality and lust, the dance form also addresses subjects ranging from spirituality and philosophy to illiteracy and farmer suicides. It is traditionally performed in two discrete social settings: dholki-phad tamasha and sangeet bari.

In dholki-phad tamasha, lavani is performed as a small part of a heterogeneous act that goes on for four to eight hours. Tamashas are staged by travelling troupes in jatras or village fairs, weekly markets or bail bazaars (buffalo markets) in front of large audiences.

On the other hand, sangeet bari troupes are stationary, and performed before smaller audiences in more intimate settings. These troupes typically have annual contracts with a theatre owner, and their routines are about sexuality. Sangeet baris traditionally feature only female performers, mainly from the Bhatu Kolhati or Kalwaat communities. The women in these communities are often not allowed to marry, which prompts their entry into the profession.

Kamthe and Satam’s performances fall in a third category dubbed “banner shows”, said Sejal Yadav, a PhD scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has conducted extensive research among lavani performers. In 2016, Yadav curated a special show titled Lavani Live as a research associate at the Godrej India Culture Lab.

Vikram Kamble and Akshay Malvankar.

“There are several forms of contemporary ideas on lavani, and every troupe has its own idea of how it can be performed,” said Yadav. “They keep shifting the grammar of lavani, and the term banner shows became a handy way of grouping all these contemporary urban troupes together.”

It was in 2000 that the show Bin Baykancha Tamasha, co-founded by lavani dancers Anil Vasudevan and Anil Hankare, heralded the trend of cross-dressing men performing lavani in urban spaces. “We used to perform with women first, but some of them began complaining that we [men] got more audience appreciation because [we] indulged in skin show and inappropriate flirtation,” said Hankare. “So we decided to perform without women.”

Hankare and his troupe prepared for three months, walking and talking like women, before they decided to stage the show. The preparation paid off. “People were convinced that we were women,” Hankare said. “Women in the audience would first come [and] hug us and kiss us on the cheek.”

Bin Baykancha Tamasha ended its run after production costs increased and bookings became scarce. Nevertheless, it “sowed the seeds” of a new dance movement. “These days, there are a lot of men performing in banner shows,” said Hankare. “But we had to struggle a lot. I never even told my family or friends that I was dancing lavani. They would have never accepted it.”

Ashimik Kamthe.

Varying interpretations

While the idea of men performing lavani may seem radical and gender-bending in cities, it is common in several rural areas in Maharashtra.

Photojournalist and author Sandesh Bhandare, who has researched and documented the lives of tamasha performers, says that approximately four men in a traditional 10-member tamasha troupe in the eastern region of Vidarbha are “stree-party” or men playing women’s roles. “They [male tamasha performers] say that it is work that is meant to be done only by men, because women will not be able to manage the physical labour involved in the travelling and performances,” said Bhandare.

According to Yadav, tamasha audiences in rural western Maharashtra are “also conditioned” to seeing cross-dressing men perform lavani. There are limits to the freedoms, though. “The male performers I have encountered said they are careful to not perform in their own village,” she noted. “They don’t want their kin to see that they are cross-dressing performers.”

Since lavani is rooted in various forms of caste and gender domination, it offers limited possibilities as a sexually emancipatory art form. But, as Bhandare says, it affords a space of dignity and freedom to several performers. Its contested political and social status has left the dance form open to appropriations by different groups of people.

Anil Hankare.

Yadav has observed that lavani is “creatively fused” with agendas of saffronisation, and often appears alongside political events which champion aggressive patriotism. At the same time, it is performed on Ambedkar Jayanti, although Dr BR Ambedkar was against lavani performances because he believed they “were a way of appropriating Dalit female sexuality by Brahmin men”.

“Several LGBTQ organisations have also appropriated lavani as their own form of dance, and the aesthetic of bodily movements and music that has come out of it is very different from the conventional understanding of lavani,” said Yadav.

Cross-dressing and sexuality

Kamthe and Satam’s performance in Medhatul’s show is part of the Queer Azadi Mumbai Pride month celebrations. “As I see it, Pride month is about celebrating inclusion, in terms of gender identity, sexuality and personal choices,” said Medhatul. “When these men are performing lavani, their dance becomes a tool to say: here I am.”

During her research, Yadav observed that homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual choices are rampant among cross-dressing lavani performers. “As radicalised as this form claims to be at several levels, there are men who want to hold on tight to their identity as straight male performers, insisting that they are just cross-dressers,” she said. “I have seen situations where several LGBTQ members have been sure that a performer belonged to their community, but they didn’t receive any confirmation from the performer. Fear of being judged in a heteronormative world has caused them to constantly juggle their identities, which are, in a way, non-conforming.”

Kamthe and Satam’s performance in Sangeet Bari is also an effort to address the gap that exists between different classes of urban audiences. “My show has a particular kind of clientele, and the banner shows where they [Kamthe and Satam] perform have a different kind of audience,” Medhatul said. “People are always afraid of what they don’t know and elite audiences do not enter the spaces where these different forms of theatre are occurring. So this is our way of saying: we are coming to your backyard, spaces that you are comfortable in, and showing you this world. If you like it, then you can get out of your comfort zones and explore.”

All photos by Kunal Vijayakar.