Of the many worlds women inhabit, the one that occupies a dark corner of our consciousness but about which we know least, is the world of dancing women. By this I mean the world of women who dance for the exclusive pleasure of men in the sangeet baris of Maharashtra.
In this world, the rules that make other women “respectable” are reversed. The sangeet bari dancers are barred by their caste from marrying. Once they’ve wound ghungroos round their ankles, they are bound hand and foot to the compulsions of their profession. Ironically, while their profession brings them social stigma, the lavani, which they nurture through their profession, is held up as a jewel in the cultural crown of Maharashtra.
It is this world that Bhushan Korgaonkar’s well-researched book, Sangeet Bari, introduces us to. Guided by a passionate love for the lavani and sincere admiration for its bright, feisty, never-say-die practitioners, the author opens our eyes wide to the tough lives that lie behind the gorgeous silks and glittering gold that we see in lavani festivals in the city. Mohanabai Mahalangrekar, owner of a troupe of some eight or ten girls, is Korgaonkar’s anchor and beacon. She and her girls live in a 10X10 room in Pune’s Aryabhushan theatre, following a strict routine of eating, sleeping, getting dressed and performing. Korgaonkar has watched innumerable performances at Aryabhushan, and, whenever Mohanabai and her girls have had time to spare, he has grabbed the opportunity to talk to them about their lives and loves, joys and sorrows.
The sangeet bari women do what all of us do in our different ways—they supply a demand. But they don’t live by our euphemisms. They acknowledge that their lives are a commercial transaction. So the men who come to watch them are customers, plain and simple. The theatre owner is the middle man. He engages troupes on year-long contracts. During this period, troupe members may not step out of the premises without his permission. Their safety is his responsibility. The troupe owners too are cautious. The girls do not personally accept the impromptu appreciation money called daulatjada that customers bestow on them. Runner boys are employed to carry customers’ requests for songs and their appreciation money to the women. This money belongs to the girl whose dance has pleased the customer. However, the money that well-heeled customers pay for special chamber shows, is divided between the theatre owner, troupe owner and troupe members according to fixed percentages. In both stage and chamber shows, the rule is for the women to dance to whichever number the customer requests, be it a lavani, ghazal, bhajan or film song.
The sangeet bari woman’s profession demands that she flatter every male into believing she’s singing and dancing exclusively for him. Seduction with eyes and gestures is her ultimate skill. Of the many anecdotes Korgaonkar relates, one is about how Mohanabai once made him the victim of her art and turned his knees to water. That was, arguably, a two-way pleasure. But in the unminced words of Geeta Lakhe, one of Mohanabai’s liveliest girls, dancing to flatter the regular drunken customer, “whose mug is worse than a pig’s off a garbage dump” is sheer punishment.
The sangeet bari women have no genteel inhibitions. At the NCPA once, Mohanabai’s sister Mitwabai called out to the somnolent audience of snoots, “Hey, somebody just died around here or what? Come on. Laugh, clap, whistle, if you like what you see.” Their language, generally, is not for the squeamish but makes the point. Like the time when a senior dancer advised a nervous newbie, “Don’t worry about going off-key here and there. Just mind the beat and remember, the important thing is to go out there and rip open every living man’s a—e.” The newbie was Mohanabai.
The sangeet bari women are hard-working and honest in their professional dealings, unlike the men who come slinking to them, after deceiving their wives with fabricated excuses like overtime, or work in Satara, or visit to the head office in Pune. Yet the men are respectable and the women are not. This is the irony at the centre of the lavani dancer’s life. Korgaonkar believes she is empowered because she feeds her family, educates her children, prides herself on her art and takes every blow on the chin. But, as Geeta Lakhe puts it, “Does any girl come here out of choice? She comes because she has no choice.” There it is. The brutal truth.
Published On : 03-09-2014