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Lavani: The return of cross-dressed male dancers

A male dancer getting into costume.

A male dancer getting into costume.   | Photo Credit: Kunal Vijayakar

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Despite the sensual folk dance being so much about women, the last decade or so has seen the return of more than 100 cross-dressing male performers

Apsara ali, Indrapuritun khali, pasarali laali, ratnaprabhatun lyali goes the song, describing a fairy descending from Indra’s abode, spreading radiance like reflections from jewels.

Reshmachya reghani, laal kaalya dhagyani, Karnataki kashida me kadhila, haat naka lavu malaa… goes another. (From silken strands of red and black thread, I have embroidered my sari with Karnataki kashida, don’t touch me).

Bugadi maazhi sandali ga jata Sataryala, chugali naga saangu ga majhya mahatrelya majhya shejari tarun rahoto. (I lost my earring when I was going to Satara. Don’t tell my old man a young man lives next door.)

These three very popular lavani songs from old and new Marathi films describe beautiful and flirtatious women. Other songs talk of contemporary politics and changes in society, but all from the perspective of a woman. In every lavani song, the woman is the focal point.

Come hither men

Yet, despite lavani being so much about women, the last decade or so has seen the return of more than 100 cross-dressing male performers to the dance form. Last year, at Goa’s Serendipity Arts Festival, two male dancers, Anand Satam and Ashimik Kamthe, joined women co-dancers to present Sangeet Bari, a play based on the lives of lavani dancers. It was staged to commemorate the abolishing of Section 377. Nobody in the audience was able to identify them as men.

Of course, till the early 20th century, only cross-dressed men could perform female roles, with women, even from ‘nautch’ families, not allowed on stage. As Mumbai-based Savitri Medhatul, theatre person and documentary filmmaker, says, “This is basically a coquettish dance, and the only one where women are portrayed as powerful, sensual, happy, abundantly enjoying their dance. It has very strong lyrics that criticise society in front of mostly all-male audiences. In earlier centuries, it couldn’t be performed by women.” But from the 1930s onwards, as women increasingly came into the public sphere, the trend of using cross-dressed male performers declined. If they did dance at all, it was more for comic relief. The return of cross-dressed men is, therefore, an interesting trend.

Anand Satam.

Anand Satam.   | Photo Credit: Kunal Vijayakar

The sensual cousin

A centuries-old folk dance of Maharashtra, north Karnataka, and some parts of southern Madhya Pradesh, lavani comes from the Marathi folk theatre tradition of tamasha, which started off as a strong expression of the socio-religious-political views of the masses. In 18th and 19th century Maharashtra, it was used also to entertain tired and injured soldiers during the incessant wars. Initially, lavani had two branches — Nirguni lavani, about philosophy and religious thoughts, and Shringari lavani, a sensual, naughty version. Slowly, Nirguni lavani died out and now it’s almost extinct, found only in some parts of Malwa. But Shringari lavani, its erotic, sensual, uninhibited cousin, thrived, with a new lease of life in cinema, its loud dholki and suggestive lyrics intact.

Lavani, however, has not really escaped the caste system. Men and women from upper castes still don’t perform it. In fact, as Marathi writer Makarand Sathe reminds us, there was a time when “upper-caste men were not even part of the audience.” Sathe adds, however, that lavani was used regularly by social activists, including Ambedkar, to talk to people about their rights. “Social activists had their own lyrics. Lavani had stature at that time.”

If the decade has seen cross-dressed male dancers returning in large numbers, economics might be part of the reason. Anil Hankare, 50, a trained Kathak-turned-lavani dancer, explains, “As a male classical, folk or Bollywood dancer, I would get paid only ₹150-200 per show in 1990. As a cross-dressed lavani dancer, I would get ₹300 to ₹500 a show.” Today, the rates are even higher. Says dancer Anand Satam, “Depending on seniority and expertise, we are paid anything from ₹2,500 to ₹7,000 per show.

Cross-dressing, however, is not being used for titillation. Says Mumbai-based dancer-singer Akanksha Kadam, “Cross-dressed dancers make more efforts to look effeminate... This might make them appear more raunchy or suggestive. But I think they adhere to the lavani rules just as we do.”

In 2008, Savitri Medhatul made a documentary, Natale tumchyasathi — Behind the Adorned Veil, on the lives of lavani performers. During the making of the film, co-producer Bhushan Korgaonkar was so impressed that he wrote a book on the dancers called Sangeet Bari. “Like many, I too had thought lavani was vulgar and titillating till I realised that though the performers dance with abandon, they are graceful and they narrate deep stories.” It was Medhatul and Korgoankar who adapted the book into the play performed in Goa last year.

“There is no vulgarity in a true performance,” says Korgoankar, “even in those done by cross-dressed dancers.” The moment the men step on stage in their lavani costume, nine yards of colourful, magnificent Paithani silk worn in the Maharashtrian kashta style, they personify grace, with their come-hither looks and mischievous smiles. The transformation into a ‘woman’ is complete.

Ashimik Kamthe

Ashimik Kamthe   | Photo Credit: Kunal Vijayakar

Off stage, on stage

“We forget we are men,” says Hankare, laughing. “The moment we put on our makeup we automatically start thinking like women. The adayen, the nakhra and the grace automatically come out.”

Hankare now trains other boys and girls in different dances including lavani. Satam, 38, who has been performing lavani for nearly two decades, says, “When I am dancing, I am just a performer. The audience enjoys a good lavani dance; they aren’t bothered about my gender.”

The return of cross-dressing possibly began in 2000 with the Marathi play Bin Baykancha Tamasha (Tamasha without Women), an all-male piece created by Hankare and Anil Vasudevan. Vasudevan trained the men for nearly three months, and cross-dressing dance was reborn.

While the male dancers agree that the play gave them a new lease of life, they still face taboos. “We are often mistaken as gay men or transgender. We get absolute love from audiences while on stage, but the moment we step off it’s a different story,” says Hankare. “Many of us still cannot tell our families that we are lavani dancers. But we need the money to survive. Also, there is the joy and satisfaction we get as dancers. As an ordinary man I am nobody but as a lavani dancer, I get love, affection and honour. It’s a heady feeling.”

Initially, the women dancers felt threatened by the development. “Then we realised that the more dancers, the better it is for the survival of the dance form. In fact, now at many events we perform together and even have items like mock competitions, much appreciated by the audience,” says Kadam.

Finally, only skill counts in dance. “Initially,” says Kadam, “it’s curiosity that brings audiences to watch a cross-dressed male perform. But if he isn’t up to the mark and tries to woo them with only suggestive gestures, he won’t survive.”

The Mumbai-based journalist writes on arts, music, fashion and women’s issues.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 6:29:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/lavani-the-return-of-cross-dressed-male-dancers/article30048825.ece

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