ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reframing of Erotic Lavani in Contemporary Maharashtra


While the repertoire of erotic performance of lavani has developed largely for male consumption, the recent emergence of women-only spectators of lavani is unusual and puzzling. How has lavani missed the moral outrage over the articulations of female sexual desire that pervades the public domain? This paper discusses how the possibilities for transgression of heteronormative desire in this phenomenon are complicated by caste and class divisions, the work–leisure binary, and the politics of the folk. It seeks to uncover the contested process of stigmatisation of lavani as vulgar and its simultaneous celebration as the folk which is embedded in the formation of lavani audiences.

Women dancers were dancing on the fast beats of lavani. The loud music was matched by the whistles and shouts of audiences dancing wildly. The auditorium was full of hundreds of women, young, middle-aged and even old, in pinned up saris and salwar kurtas, with hair tied, carrying purses and scarfs. They were dancing zealously on sensuous lavanis in aisles and front space of the auditorium, even in the narrow space between their seats, with plastic whistles in hands, and purses on their shoulders, occasionally spreading the pallu of their sari or dupatta up on their head like a typical lavani step. A middle-aged woman in sari was dancing non-stop. There was a young woman with a small child on her hand and a baby diaper bag on her shoulder, jumping on her seat. The male comparer had to calm the women with a warning that the show will continue only when the women quieten down.

—Constructed from the field notes of the researcher of a women-only lavani show, Pune, August 2016.

The excitement of women participants while watching a video resource on the issue of consent involving lavani dancers1 was fascinating. They were laughing coyly and the discussion following the video delved around the seduction and erotic desire in lavani and its sexual power. This response was intriguing. This was a faculty development course on gender studies conducted in a metropolitan university and attended mostly by women teachers, mainly urban, married, and from middle- and upper-middle class who were enthusiastic to see themselves as potential feminists. Throughout the course during those three weeks of discussion on gender issues, there seemed a consensus among them on recognition of marital rape, and women’s right to consent to sex within marriage. However, they were explicitly and visibly reluctant to accept the feminist argument drawing parallel between marriage and prostitution/sex work. These distinct responses to the sexuality question in terms of the affirmation of women’s sexual desire and consent, but refusal to acknowledge sexual labour in marriage were disturbing, and problematised the possibilities of women’s sexual agency.

—Constructed from the reflective notes of the researcher,
October 2017.

The excitement and pleasure of women spectators of erotic lavani that expresses female sexual yearning points out the new sexual subjectivity of middle-class women in neo-liberal times. The sexual freedom and choices of women have been debated as a common idiom of feminist politics in contemporary India. From the tropes of sexual desire and agency of women in popular culture and in everyday life to campaigns of young women for free access to public space, the transgressive potential of female sexual desire has come to be celebrated in the public sphere. This paper discusses a recent phenomenon that foregrounds women’s sexual consumption of public performances of erotic lavani. While, historically, the repertoire of lavani has been developed for male consumption; its new urban revival for middle-class mixed audiences, and especially for women-only audiences, is unusual within the cultural landscape of lavani. While moral anxiety over the articulations of female sexual desire has pervaded the public domain through various instantiations, such as bar dancing, pornography, pub-going or Valentine’s Day celebrations; how erotic lavani as the space of sexual consumption by women has slipped from this surge of moral panic is curious and puzzling. It does not seem to have either caught the attention of the moralising forces or found to be queer by women performers dancing before women audiences. In this paper, we will analyse how this phenomenon of consumption of erotic performances of women by women with a potential of transgression of the heteronormative desire has become ordinarily acceptable in contemporary Maharashtra. This discussion is based on the interviews with lavani artists and ethnography of performances in the last five years. We will uncover the formation of lavani audiences mediated through gender, class, and caste, and the politics of folk music. After reviewing how feminists have debated the emergence of women as sexual subjects in post-liberalisation India, we will examine briefly the historical constitution of lavani as an erotic dance, and the centrality of the audience in this artistic practice. Then, an analysis of its reception will bring out the simultaneous processes of stigmatisation of lavani through its lower-class male audiences, and its de-stigmatisation through its “respectable” audiences, including women.

Women as Sexual Subjects

The decade of the 1990s in India witnessed an eruption in the representation of the erotic in the public domain in the process of liberalisation and its attendant transformations (John 1998). Rather “sex talk” has become a conspicuous feature of the emerging new middle class. Uberoi (2011) underlines how the new middle-class self has come to be constructed around the individual sexual experience as well as the global consumerist lifestyle. This enunciation of sexuality is distinct from its earlier gridlocking with marriage, with sexuality foregrounded as unashamedly and pleasurably recreational, as a marker of social distinction. The hedonistic sexual indulgence of the middle class is intrinsically linked with the consumption of commodities. The conjunction between erotic and consumerist desire undergirds the constitution of new middle-class women as well—as the actively desiring subjects in the liberalising economy. Mankekar (2004) investigates the engagement of these women with transnational texts of satellite television and commodity culture to point out their active pursuit of erotic pleasure and intimacy tied to their aspiration for upward mobility.

This new sexual subjectivity of women has garnered feminist attention due to its multiple sites. The presence of sexuality in women’s leisure practices has been highlighted in the case of sex tourism and travel, sexual services, play, toys, etc. Women’s sexual and intimate practices of leisure are mediated through consumption, labour and commodification, and intersected with class, race, and global geographies. The erotic dancing for women spectators–customers in male stripping or lesbian leisure is another uncommon but growing practice in the post-liberalisation economy (Pilcher 2016). Even pornography has come to be perceived beyond its harm in terms of its therapeutic, recreational and oppositional uses by women. Chowkhani (2016) points out how young women navigate the pleasures of sexual consumption in urban India, even with its risks to their sexual virtuosity and respectability, and with reservations about its implications for their well-being. By placing the erotic outside of marriage and monogamous and private relationships, women pursue sexual freedom, permissiveness, deviance and fantasy.

Yet, moral anxiety over this new sexual subjectivity of women pervades the society. Sexuality has rather become “a force field of power,” of pleasure as well as danger, as new sexual pleasures are seen in tension with the norms of familial obligation and duty heralded as national values (Mankekar 2004). Along with the pursuit of immediate and unrestricted gratification of sexual and consumer desire, the moral fear and outrage is also mobilised. The moral surveillance as well as attack on this new sexual culture labels this new sexual desire of women as public displays of immorality and obscenity, and a threat to Indian culture and tradition. While countering this cultural policing and sexual disciplining of women, feminists have nonetheless questioned the subversive possibilities of this new sexual agency of women that aligns with the practices of neo-liberal capitalism. The illusion of free sexual choice of women is a cornerstone of neo-liberal consumerist capitalism, and it individualises women’s struggle in the face of structural inequalities. John (2019) argues that the pursuit of sexual autonomy by young women often makes invisible their material dependence on families indicated by the all-time low work participation rates of women in contemporary India. It is against this background of the feminist critique of women’s sexual agency that we will examine the space of lavani performances for women-only audiences.

A Short History of Lavani

Though lavani did not originate as an erotic dance,2 its history of last three centuries at least reveals performances of sexualised lavani by Dalit and lower-caste women for male audiences, elite as well as mofussil lower-class men. The hereditary women artists placed outside the confines of marriage have performed lavani for livelihood. Historically, across different cultural spaces in the topography of lavani, from natakshala or the dancing house of the Peshwa state, to tamasha or the rural lower-rank theatre from the colonial period, to sangeetbari or the urban stage shows of all women troupes; lavani has continued as the sexualised entertainment for male audiences. It is considered to have emerged around the 13th century as the “rhythmic bold poetry” engaging with a broad spectrum of human experiences, not just erotic, but also everyday mundane, political or even religious and spiritual life (Dhond 1956: 11). However, its dominant form as the secular dance that takes erotic yearning in the female voice as its central motif is seen to have developed on the long campaigns of the Mughal armies in the Deccan in the 17th century. It flourished with the royal patronage of the Brahmin Peshwa rulers; and from being a leisure and cultural space of largely non-Brahmin masses, it became a site of exploitation of performance labour of ex-untouchable or Dalit women. The sexualised lavani rather marked the bodies of lower-caste women as insatiable and promiscuous so that their sexual and productive labour could be appropriated through the institution of slavery in the times of famines and peasant indebtedness (Rege 1995). This became the grounds of B R Ambedkar’s critique of lavani as an appropriation of Dalit women’s labour reproducing caste stigma as well as sexual exploitation of Dalit women through differential rules of mating and lineage across castes (Rege 2013).3

The journey of lavani in colonial times is imbued with the continuous and contentious processes of its desexualisation and sanitisation on the one hand, and its resexualisation and stigmatisation on the other (Rege 1995).4 With the decline of peshwa rule in the early 19th century, lavani moved to villages and towns as part of tamasha, local travelling theatres that intermixed song, dance, and theatrical sketches. In this tamasha that proliferated through village fairs, festivals, and celebrations, women spectators were hardly ever present or were only sneakily so. The anti-nautch purity campaigns of colonial India targeted lavani and tamasha along with other local performance practices condemning those as vulgar and sexually degenerate. Those were turned into an object of reform and sanitisation in the project of nation-building. The reformed tamasha that downplayed lavani came to be valorised as the Marathi folk art, as the movements for creating linguistic provinces gained momentum. Even the rising Marathi cinema of the early 20th century valorised the vernacular tamasha genre delving around rural life in order to forge the regional identity.

The performative genre of lavani and tamasha have also been used for political purposes in the Satyashodhak and Ambedkarite jalsas (Rege 1995) and later in the millworkers’ movements for spreading revolutionary consciousness, albeit by evacuating it of the eros of lavani.5 However, these folk arts were subordinated by the Marathi reformist elites to the modern Marathi theatre of sangeet natak celebrated as the “classical” art (Naregal 2008). The eroticised lavani with its peripheral place in the purified tamasha then moved to urban theatre houses in the millworkers’ neighbourhoods in Mumbai and other industrial cities where ticketed shows were performed for migrant men (Nerale nd). This genre of stage shows of lavani known as sangeetbari performed by all women’s troupes involved sensuous performances of lavani dance on disparate genres of music and poetry, from film songs or bhavgeet (soft emotional songs) to gazal (urdu love poetry of pain) or qawwali (Sufi devotional music) (Tambe forthcoming). These transformations in lavani were thus embedded in the colonial politics of gender, class, and caste.

The formation of Maharashtra in 1960 boosted the valorisation of lavani and tamasha as Marathi folk art. The regional state both provided patronage and also neglected these folk arts (Paik 2017). The arena of culture and arts was a critical site of reinforcing the idea of the new nation. The nationalist rhetoric of unity in diversity brought folk arts into the nationalist fold as the representation of regions and emerging linguistic states, while promoting the classical and modern arts as the representative of the national identity. Lavani and tamasha then came to be mobilised by the regional state and elites as the Marathi folk art to be showcased in cultural festivals and sponsored programmes. On the other hand, lavani continued to thrive both in tamasha and sangeetbari, albeit being labelled as inauthentic and vulgar. With closing down of mills and relocation of workers, new cultural spaces came up such as ticketed banner shows in urban theatre houses combining lavani with orchestra, that is, live musical bands mixing film and other music for lower- and lower-middle-class men. Then there were lokanatya sanskrutik kala kendras (Cultural Centres for Folk Art) on the outskirts of small cities and towns along the highways, which thrive on baithaks or private lavani concerts by wealthy but mofussil men, petty traders, businessmen, etc. This lavani grew organically but in a chequered way with the advent of technology, through travel between live and mass-mediated contexts of performance, and between different local artistic genres. This shaped the landscape of lavani as diverged into folk/vulgar.

Thus, the historical journey of lavani is constituted through the dichotomies of folk/vulgar, respectable/disreputable, authentic/inauthentic, national/regional, and urban/rural. How do the divergent trajectories of its folkisation and vulgarisation unfold in contemporary times? How does the audience configure lavani and its dichotomous worlds? And how does the unusual presence of women audiences shape a distinct enunciation of erotic lavani? In what way does it or does it not unsettle the normative construction of gender and sexuality? These are some of the questions addressed here.6

Narrative of the Declining Taste of Lavani Audience

The denunciation of lavani as vulgar is located on the one hand in the hereditary caste-based nature of the performance labour of lower-caste women who are customarily denied marriage and hence seen as disreputable non-wives. The invisibility of its aesthetic theory and pedagogy in the context of its informal and fragmentary learning within family and community, and through its practice as background artists, further accentuates the trivialisation of lavani.7 On the other hand, it is its male audience who are blamed for vulgarising lavani, both middle- and lower-middle-class men watching banner shows, and those with access to cash to spend on private baithak in kala kendras.

The obsessive concern of elites about the corruption of lavani targeted both the lowly cultural taste of male audiences, and the objectification of women artists by them. A typical narrative traces the golden era when connoisseur audiences appreciated the artistic skill of dancers, to the contemporary times when audiences sexualise and objectify them. Paramparik lavani naivedyasarkhi, ata fakta Akluj purti urlye (“The traditional lavani has become like naivedya, that is, ritual offering, perform­ed only for the lavani competition at Akluj” [a trading town in Maharashtra] [a preservationist space critical in shaping the contours of contemporary lavani]) argues Yogesh Deshmukh, a well-known choreographer and organiser of lavani shows of non-hereditary artists pointing to the limited presence of the “traditional” lavani only on the preservationist stage, as against the ordinary everyday lavani prevalent in more mediatised and fusion forms (Interview conducted by the author, 2018). Kala mhanun bagha, bai mhanun nahi (“Watch [lavani] as an art, not for its women”) is a typical expression by artists echoed by Deshmukh. It is interesting to see how the narrative of sexual harassment by the audience is conflated to the narrative of cultural vulgarisation of lavani as “just sex, no art.” Interestingly, women artists themselves become complicit in this narrative, albeit defensively. Lavani artists reiterate their desire to change the audience’s perception of lavani, lamenting the audiences’ disregard for the art. The audience’s demand for film songs or songs of fast beats is held responsible for the corruption of lavani. “It is their (audience’s) leisure, their mood and liking when they pay for a baithak” tells Reshma Paritekar, an acclaimed lavani artist and a researcher (Interview conducted by the author, 2021).

However, women artists also challenge the exceptionalising of lavani and erotic dancing as the site of sexual objectification and harassment of women as compared to other arenas of art and entertainment industry and workplaces more generally. They talk of harassment by audiences, especially during stage shows hosted in distant towns and villages where they find their troupe alone. Kuthe kuthe chimte kadhayayche, khade marayache lahan lekra (“They would pinch us anywhere, kids would throw pebbles at us”), says an artist wryly. Such sexual harassment is experienced by artists as common but largely manageable. They rather see the power dynamics in kala kendras as inverted as kala kendras double as the residential place for lavani troupes and the place of performance visited by male audiences individually or in small groups.

The artists, however, point out how audiences harass them during the performance itself. The audience would demand several repetitions of exhausting, shameful and difficult steps or playing on double meanings of lyrics during daulatjada, that is, performing on reward of money. Shakubai Nagarkar, an acclaimed hereditary artist who has successfully navigated the world of folk lavani shares such experiences. She talks about how she had to repeat several times a squat to perform like a pailwan or a wrestler in a lavani, or roll on the ground to indicate lying down for rest, or break a bangle to represent a rough romance. Yet, the artists share various incidents where they have tactfully controlled the unruly audiences using their artistic skill, certain lyrics, or gestures. Kalechi takad asate, kalakarawar awlambun asata kasa manage kayacha te (“It is the strength of art, it depends on the artist how to manage this”), says Paritekar.8 Lahan lekranna walan lavto tasa prekshakanna lawato amhi (“We mould the audiences as one moulds a child”), says Nagarkar.

The artists find their relationship with spectators rather intricate and talk of male audience as dardi or connoisseur desiring good art and nothing else. Paritekar remembers many spectators who came only for her performance, and would not approach unless musical accompanists are present and she is ready for performance. The space of performance and interaction between audience and the artists is thus extremely dynamic. The artists therefore speak vehemently against the common accusations about their “relationship” with the male audience. They highlight the hypocrisy of the so-called respectable classes in accepting live-in and other non-marital sexual relations and desires prevalent among their own class, while stigmatising the flexible relationships that the lavani artists have with their audiences during performance or sometimes even outside of it.

Centrality of the Audience in the Performance

The pivotal role of spectators or audiences in the construction of a cultural practice is underlined for a range of practices, from the classical arts and its Indian aesthetic theory of rasas, to popular culture of film and television and its theories of spectatorship. The art is communicative, and the emotional and sensual pleasure of performance is produced in the very interaction between the performer and the audience (Ram 2011). The aesthetic knowledge of classical arts is thus seen as intimate and embodied, and mediated by the cultural memory evoked through material bodily practices, along with the ancient sanskritic texts. This cultural memory is reiterated and shared through riaz or kinaesthetic learning by artists and alankar or ornamentation and improvised performance for the audiences (Ram 2011). This rasik or connoisseur audience of the classical arts is seen as capable of appreciating the finer taste and essence of art due to this ornamental iterability, ability of the art to sustain through improvisatory repetition and innovative interpretation. However, class privilege is implicit in the participatory pleasures and affective experiences of rasiks, so that the cultural memory of hereditary performance practices like lavani is not reconciled with textual knowledge. The aesthetic of embodied interactions in lavani among performers and audiences has remained illegible to make lavani audience invisible as rasik.9

However, the live interaction during performance, through poetry, music and dance is a defining feature of lavani, as of any folk art, requiring spontaneity and improvisation from artists to adapt to the tastes of the audience. Lokanchi nas kashi pakdaychi, tyanna kay pahije he kalala pahije (“Lavani artists should know what audiences want”), says Sarlabai Nandurikar, a senior lavani artist explaining how folk artists performing their art as cultural labour had a better sense of audiences as their livelihood is dependent on pleasing the audiences. Maintaining eye contact so that everyone in the audience feels addressed, and “flirting” or an artistic give-and-take with male audiences is integral to the aesthetic vocabulary of erotic lavani. As are the embodied, emotionally aroused responses of audiences such as shouting, swirling, dancing, etc. The spontaneous rewarding of artists with money or showering of money on artists is a customary practice of appreciation found across the folk arts. However, the dominant ideas of aesthetics degrade these audience responses as denial of dignity to performers, whereas artists accept it as a mark of admiration, appreciation, and also remuneration for their art. The artists remember even daulatjada not just in terms of money rewarded by the audience, but their artistic skill of repeating their dance innovatively. Bhushan Korgavkar, a researcher of lavani, shares that what artists missed during the lockdown is not just their source of livelihood, but also the attention and appreciatory gaze of the audiences (Interview conducted by the author, 2021).

Interestingly, the organisers of the theatrical presentation of lavani called sangeetbari, Savitri Medhatul and Bhushan Korgavkar who have extended the lavani of hereditary artists to middle-class audiences, narrate how they had to encourage and guide their novice middle-class audience to interact with the performers. The middle-class audience is otherwise used to watch performances in darkened auditoriums without disturbing the performance, appreciating it with non-intrusive claps and laughs and other such gestures. This audience felt uncomfortable and awkward to respond to erotic lavani in a respectable space and with a mixed group of women and men. Medhatul and Korgavkar share how they would warm up to the audiences into appreciating and responding to lavani by rehearsing shouts and whistles from the audience (Interview conducted by the author, 2021). Such a recognition and affirmation of embodied, passionate interactions between performers and audiences as aesthetically intrinsic to lavani, without reducing it to “just sex” is rare for the “respectable” sanitised world of lavani.

This stigmatisation of lavani audiences as vulgar contrasts with the modern audiences of classical arts or even theatre and cinema, coming from respectable urban middle classes, who are appreciated for their inner world of feelings and knowledge. The emerging pedagogy of performing arts developed in the early 20th century through new public spaces of concert halls, music, and dance schools and academies, and private tuition classes produced not just performers, but also audiences as the informed community with an intellectual discipline (Niranjana 1999, 2020). Thus, the modern musical subjects and publics who shared the sonic intimacy, the language of music, lingua musica were constructed through the public performance spaces in the urban marketplaces of Mumbai, the access to which was affected by class, gender, ethnicity, and caste. Whereas the audiences for lavani and other folk arts coming largely from lower-class non-Brahmin migrants and mofussil groups are seen as not aesthetically driven, but as plunged into banal, rather sexualised pleasure. The language of lavani shared by these subaltern male audiences through different public and semi-public spaces needs further analysis in terms of the formation of modern subjecthood.

These male audiences of lavani are sought to be disciplined when lavani is performed in the form produced as “folk.” Thus, an educative show, Sakhi Mazi Lavani (Lavani, My Beloved/Friend)10 disallowed the commonly found audience demand for “once more,” refusing the art to be dictated by potentially wild audiences. Akluj Lavani Spardha warned in its entry tickets that “whistling, or loud and disturbing reactions by audiences will lead to their expulsion from the show.” And a standard notice board even at the government licensed kala kendra clearly announces to audiences that humiliating and disgraceful behaviour outraging the modesty of women artists will lead to punitive action. Thus, naitik shista (moral discipline) comes to be evoked insistently for male audiences to erase the stigma of lavani (Tambe forthcoming). On this background of inferiorisation and stigmatisation of male audiences, one can read the process of de-stigmatisation, and opening up of lavani for women audiences who are hitherto kept away from this degraded practice of leisure and entertainment. Do we see women-only shows as a space to recover the missing female audiences due to the “audience of paupers” (Kumar 2016: 162) of lavani? Are “women” (implying middle-class women) with respectability inscribed on their body sanitising the vulgarised urban leisure spaces inhabited by subaltern men?

Urban Revival of Folk Lavani as Aapalya Matitali Kala (Art of Our Soil)

The making of folk art or music is a dual process of particularising an artistic practice as communitarian and rural from the lens of modern cosmopolitan cultural sensibilities, and simultaneously universalising it as the representation of the regional cultural identity (Fiol 2017). This means, first, codifying the traditional and authentic lavani by isolating what is considered the pure vernacular folk culture from all urban global popular influences. At the same time, it also entails its dissociation from its “vulgar” male audiences from the non-elite classes and then its relocation in the respectable audience of urban middle classes. The hereditary performers are either excluded or sought to be reformed to perform according to the aesthetic norms of “high art.” The conscious effort of reconstituting the audience by opening up lavani for the “mixed” audiences of “respectable” middle classes more generally, and women particularly (distinct from customary all-male audiences) is part of this process of de-stigmatisation and sanitisation.

Thus, women audiences who were earlier excluded from lavani were encouraged to watch it, as shared by Deshmukh. Matabhaginincha gairsamaj door kela (“I tried to erase misconceptions of ‘mothers and sisters’”). This process unfolded through different routes. On the one hand, there were traditional patrons of lavani among the rural Maratha elite who lamented the corruption of lavani with the influence of popular culture and media, and created a platform of festival and competition to create and promote lavani in its traditional form. Akluj lavani spardha (competition) commenced by Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, an elite Maratha political family from Akluj in 1993 played an immensely influential role in the revival of “traditional” lavani. On the other hand, there was an urban cosmopolitan middle class that evoked lavani as a marker of the regional and the rural culture through varied cultural and educative shows.

Akluj lavani spardha aimed to preserve and give dignity to traditional lavani. It sought to define firmly the aesthetic of “traditional” and authentic lavani by identifying and disseminating traditional compositions, and training and choregraphing lavani troupes that participated in the competition. More­over, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil opened up lavani for women audiences, gharachya mahila (literally “family women,” implying respectable women positioned in the family), and inaugurated the first lavani competition at the hands of his mother. Lavani spardha would invariably involve a show for only women audiences. Jaisingh Mohite-Patil or Baldada as he is affectionately called, tells humorously Itarani tyanchya vadil-ajobachya mandila mandi lavun lavani baghitali, mi mazya baykochya mandila mandi lavun lavani baghitali! (“Others may have watched lavani with their father or grandfather, but I have enjoyed it with my wife!”). He sought to de-stigmatise lavani further by inviting lavani artists to dine with his family and honouring them with sadi–choli (a saree and a blouse), a symbolic ritual gift customarily given to married women. These acts challenging the humiliation of lavani artists as disreputable, and simultaneously eroding prohibition on women audiences, thus seek to remove lavani from the arena of immorality. Further, lavani and lavani artists were promoted and publicised amongst artists and the entertainment industry more generally, and the troupes acclaimed in this spardha were celebrated across Maharashtra. The significance of this space is underlined by lavani artists too who see preparation for this competition and the experience of performing on that stage as enabling them to be confident, energetic and creative about their art. They interestingly argue that they learnt and got attached to “traditional” lavani due to this preservationist stage, implying the intermixed nature of their lavani performed for livelihood on an everyday basis.

Lavani also came to be revived by the urban cultural elites through various spaces. There has been a space of fusion in film and television, from item songs to television dance reality shows, or fusion even with classical arts. Another emerging space is the instructional cultural space of educative cultural programmes or university centres for performing and folk arts. Lavani performed in these spaces speaks to the dominant cultural aesthetics of market, media, and high art, and hence comes to be consumed occasionally even by the “omnivorous” urban elites reproducing social distinction. Sakhi Mazi Lavani launched by Madhu Kambikar, one of the rare hereditary lavani artists successful in the elite Marathi theatre, film and television industry, showcased lavani that is claimed to be khandani, that is, of aristocratic or respectable origin. Another programme called Sundara Manamadhye Bharali (“This Beautiful Woman has Captivated my Mind”) was performed by upper-caste women of Marathi diaspora in America on the lavani of Brahmin shahirs or composers like Ram Joshi, which were re-rendered in Marathi films.

The appropriation of lavani in this programme to forge the regional Marathi identity by the diaspora searching for belongingness and forming their self was absolute, as both hereditary artists as well as customarily denounced audiences were displaced, as were the performance contexts. While sangeetbari is distinct from all such shows that seek to sanitise lavani and fit it in the middle-class cultural sensibilities, it is designed around hereditary artists combining the dramatic narratives of their life stories with their live performance. It thus seeks to interrogate the politics of lavani in gender, class, and caste terms, and encourage elite audiences to appreciate sangeetbari lavani.

Lavani for Women-only Audiences

Recognising the symbolic and limited appeal of such preservationist efforts, Surekha Punekar, a well-known lavani artist traversing the different worlds of lavani, launched a distinct format of ticketed stage shows for only women audiences around two decades ago. For women who feel restrained and awkward to respond to sensuous lavani in the mixed audiences, it became a kind of respectable space to consume seductive lavani publicly without the presence of men. This women-only space became popularised within the new economy of leisure and consumption. The public platforms for women such as those formed by the regional media groups around their women’s supplements, for example, lokmat sakhi manch or madhurima, or rotary club and other cultural organisations started organising these shows for women audiences. The women-only lavani shows hosted by women’s platforms, cultural groups and state institutions have become a common practice in the public domain that combines the impulse for the preservation of regional folk arts with the idea of promoting a space for women. While talking about her experience of a series of women-only programmes, Paritekar recognises the significance of this space for women. Striyanna bandhana asaychi na, mokla vhaycha asta tyanna, kiti bhavna marlya astil tyanchya (“Women were under restrictions, they desire to be free, how their feeling must have been suppressed”). Emphasising that these restrictions put on women in the name of culture need to change with time, she further adds, Tithe udhaltat tya, kay karu ni kay nako hota tyanna ... Ata bayka khandyala khanda lavun nahi, khanda mage dhakalatat (“Here, women become uncontrollable, they respond excitedly to lavani ... Now women not only seek to match men, but want to push them behind [in appreciating and responding to lavani]”).

Nagarkar also reiterates how women-only shows create a space for a catharsis of repressed desires for women, for setting them and their desires and emotions free, for enabling them to give away their bodily inhibitions (Interview conducted by the author, 2021). Medhatul underlines that such spaces make “seduction” accessible to women (Interview conducted by the author, 2021). The frames of women’s responses and excitement to lavani’s seduction are largely similar to those of non-elite men. They shout and scream, whistle and wave, throw their hands up in air, sway and swing, and dance. A lavani show organiser laments with disdain, how women too demand vulgar and corrupt lavani,

Kalat kahi nahi, pan craze prachand, … Tyana pan “bai vadyavar ya” hava asta. (The women audiences do not know anything about lavani, but are crazy about it … even they desire [vulgar lavanis] like “bai vadyavar ya.”)

This highlights not only the excitement but also a lack of aesthetic knowledge of novice women audiences. Yet, women audiences do not flirt with women dancers or objectify them, they do not see them “as someone with whom they can go out (to have sex),” Medhatul informs. They rarely heckle or harass the dancers or make them feel inferior.

The organisers of sangeetbari interestingly share a peculiar response of middle-class women participants of their lavani workshops11 in the role play about daulatjada. The practice of daulatjada involves a kind of churashi, that is, competition bet­ween the performer and her customer or spectator, where the dancer displays her creativity and skill by gholawane, that is, repeating a line or phrase by performing it differently every time, while the male spectator rewards it every time with a note of small denomination displaying his wealth. It is a tussle between the power of money of a man and the artistic skill of a woman. The women participants who admire women artists and want to learn from them, feel otherwise sympathetic towards them for their confined and exploited life as a lavani performer, often change their tone when they are asked to play spectator-customer in a role play about daulatjada. They generally spend no time in enjoying and relishing the power of a customer to demand performance from the artist. The women participants are then asked to reflect over their assertion of power as a spectator in case of inferiorised performance practices involving lower-caste hereditary performers as compared to the “respectable” performance practices and artists.

The workshop thus discusses the power dynamics between the performer and her spectator and its intersection with caste and class, and the politics and hierarchisation of cultural practices. Nagarkar narrates a similar experience with women audiences whose visit to the lavani theatre was arranged by a feminist artist working with lavani performers in the 1990s. She points out satirically how the women audiences who felt mesmerised by the performance of these women artists still had questions about the sexual lives of artists, and remained reluctant to engage with the politics of gender and caste that divided them. Thus, neither the normative sexualised division between good women/bad women, nor the class and caste divisions in terms of upper-caste spectator–consumer/commoditised performance of lower-caste women seem to be subverted through these women-only lavani shows. How distinct then are these shows as a homosocial space of women mobilising the erotic?

Moving beyond a berating criticism of ordinary women for taking pleasure in the hegemonic popular cultural practices, feminist cultural studies have sought to highlight the agency of female spectators in terms of their subject positions and mechanisms of identification (Niranjana 1999, 2020). While discussing the confrontational counter-cinema of contemporary Indian women film-makers that negotiate female sexual desire and subjectivity, Bose (1997) points out their conscious transgression of the boundaries of the male gaze by addressing spectator gaze as female. She debates with Laura Mulavey’s seminal work on “male gaze” that examines women as “looked at” as the erotic object of male gaze, both of the narrative, and also of the camera in cinema that is in sync as well as in tension with the collective gaze of the audiences. She further argues that the representation or revelation of female desire is linked with the potent power of female voice and gaze, which is not unidirectional and dominant, but mutual. How do we understand the possibilities of women-only spaces of lavani performances to transgress lavani’s assumed masculine gaze?12 How or whether does it produce an erotic desire and pleasure for women in mutual terms? Can we see women spectators as embodying the objectifying gaze and/or subjective identification with women performers expressing the female sexual yearning?

The feminist discussion on “plastic sexuality” underlining malleability of individual erotic practices and sexual consumption in neo-liberal times (Uberoi 2011: 279) reframes our understanding of the transgressive potential of female spectatorship of female sexual desire in gender and class terms. One can see that the divergence in the world of lavani as folk/vulgar and its dichotomy of respectability/disreputability undergirds the presence of women audience of women lavani performers. Thus, women-only performances as a form of gendered leisure needs further analysis of the complex relationship between embodied performance practice and historical structures of lavani.


The cultural landscape of lavani is constituted through different dichotomies of folk/vulgar, respectable/disreputable, pure/corrupt and so on. The emergence of women-only audiences in the post-liberalisation context is part of the processes that constitute and divide this world. While women audiences share both unfamiliarity with lavani and “respectability” in status with the new middle-class male audience of lavani in the mixed setting, they, however, shed off the embarrassment of affective and embodied pleasure experienced by the “respectable” middle-class men in consuming erotic lavani of women. The women-only show becomes a safe space for them to give away their bodily inhibitions and sexual shame. This is made possible by the emergence of new sexual subjectivity of women intertwining recreational sexual desire and a global consumerist lifestyle. Yet, the latent transgressive potential of the interaction between women artists and women audiences during the erotic performance seems to be hidden by the local erotic genealogy of the folk art of lavani. These shows, therefore, do not become the targets of moral outrage faced by many other practices articulating female sexual desire in public. Thus, the divisions of caste, and class and work/leisure between the women performers and women audiences complicate the interaction between them through an interplay of power and desire. While the bare physical energy, intense affect, sensuality and sheer pleasure shared by women in this space work towards unsettling normative sexuality.


1 An advocacy video “Amorous Adventures of Shakku and Megha in the Valley of Consent” by Agents of Ishq, a multimedia project on sex and desire in India deploys erotic lavani and its performers to localise the discussion on the intricacies and ambiguities of women’s desire and consent.

2 The journey of lavani is disjointed in terms of its poetic, music and dance forms. The making of lavani as folk and representative of the regional culture of Maharashtra has involved tracing the roots of its poetry in the Marathi literary tradition of shahiri that defines it as more than erotic, and maps the presence of many Brahmin composers of lavani (Naregal 2008). Some attempts have been made by scholars like Ashok Ranade to discover the classical and non-classical musical routes of lavani through baithikichi lavani performed in private concerts of select audiences by seating with facial and slow-paced bodily gestures (Olsen-Rao 1985). While the dance and performance traditions of lavani are yet to mapped.

3 Paik (2020) discusses the sexual economy of caste and body politics of erotic excess in which Dalit women, specifically lavani artists, are located and foregrounds their “double living,” paradox of pain and predicament of degrading performance labour as well as livelihood and promotion of the self and family by lavani artists. This undergirds the ambivalence and tenuousness of the project of Dalit feminist thought according to Paik.

4 Lavani and tamasha have been mobilised variously in the Marathi public sphere in colonial and postcolonial times. Its historical constitution is embedded in the vernacular debates on regional cultural heritage and Marathi identity; caste stigma, hereditary labour and body politics; formation of the state, patronage and legitimacy, and folkisation; popular culture and politics of equality and dignity.

5 Along with this, recognising lavani as a cultural practice of the masses, the state of Maharashtra has deployed it for lokprabodhan or consciousness raising of the people in its project of development. And troupes received state patronage to perform new lavani advocating for a range of developmental issues from family planning and social amity to women’s empowerment.

6 The lives and cultural labour of lavani artists appears fragmentarily in some published auto-biographies/biographies scribed by others, and audiovisual documentation of their interviews. Most of these narratives frame their life as a struggle for survival, and an elusive quest of cultural labour, often in folk theatre, touring talkies and low-grade cassettes, but occasionally also in modern theatre, film and television recordings. It brings out their experiences of humiliation as artists suffering from poverty and pain, but also of their passionate pursuit of art despite difficulties of ill health and familial burdens and their journey towards appreciation and achievement. Travel is central to their life comprising continuous travel between different artistic worlds, often illicit; and between life of performance being single and life with a partner with or without marriage, and life without performance. A more nuanced reading of this material is beyond the scope of this paper, though it frames the discussion in the subsequent parts of the paper more generally. Some of these texts include Tamasha: Vithabaichya Aayushyacha by Yogiraj Bagul, Lavanisamradnyi Yamunabai Waikar by Prabhakar Ovhal, Madhurang by Madhu Kambikar.

7 The hereditary labour in “dirty” and “polluting” caste-based occupations such as manual scavenging has been challenged for its intergenerational immobility and economic ghettoisation, and also for the materiality and stickiness of its stigma. However, there are dissonant perspectives in anti-caste politics and discourse towards hereditary labour of performance, art, and craft. The gendered labour of sexualised entertainment like erotic dancing has raised a further dilemma in terms of its performance of caste and sexuality. Some of the troubling questions focus on cultural memory and affirmation of life and knowledge, resignification of art and the inversion of stigma, absence of an ethical element in the aesthetic conception, “caste capital” in the new labour markets, etc. The extensive debates on this question cannot be discussed in the space of this paper.

8 It took me sometime to realise what these women artists, including Shakubai Nagarkar and Reshma Paritekar meant while replying to the question about the response of male audiences by saying that “it depends on the artist.” I thought they were othering the “bad” artists objectified by male audiences as against “good” artists appreciated for their art. But they were foregrounding the dynamic and interactive space of performance that is both controlling and autonomous.

9 The lavani audience is customarily rarely referred as rasik. The “connoisseur” audience of lavani is often called dardi implying emotive appreciation. The distinction and overlap between these terms are beyond the scope of this paper.

10 This programme Sakhi Mazi Lavani sought to provide informative history of traditional and “authentic” lavani with live performance by hereditary artists. It was composed primarily by elite artists, and attracted sadashiv peth (implying respectable upper-caste) women audience (Kambikar 2012). It largely foregrounded poetry and music of lavani rather than its dance which is marked with stigma. Several women artists have shared in their interviews how they have performed and are trained through this programme by Madhutai.

11 These workshops are organised with an explicit aim not just to teach lavani and to extend it to new groups of performers, but also to interrogate the dominant middle class cultural sensibilities that do not appreciate lavani performed by hereditary artists. These workshops are attended by artists, performing arts students and also “wives/housewives” or ordinary women placed within the framework of family who have curiosity andattraction for lavani.

12 It is interesting to note how lavani otherwise carrying sexual desire in the voice of women for male consumption comes to be consumed by women audiences. The dynamic between women performing the erotic before women is visceral. The emotive and sensual pleasure produced through the interaction between women performers and women spectators, albeit divided by class and caste, is distinct.


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Updated On : 28th May, 2022
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