Lavani: A Marathi Folk Art or a Way To Objectify Women?

Lavani is a combination of song and dance, which is particularly performed on the fast beats of the Dholki. Literally, the word Lavani is derived from the term Lavanya,’ which means beauty in Marathi. Essentially, it is performed in Maharashtra and southern Madhya Pradesh by females wearing a nauvari saree (nine-yard long saree). What is interesting about this dance form is the theme and contemporary issues associated with it.

Lavani-dance

Genre and Types

The origin of Lavani can be traced back to the 1560s but it came into popularity in the Peshwa rule. Traditionally this genre of folk dance deals with subjects like society, religion and politics. Originally it was a sort of morale booster for tired soldiers as the songs which are sung along with dance are generally erotic and naughty in nature.


Lavani developed in two distinct performances, namely Phadachi Lavani and Baithakichi Lavani. The Phadachi Lavani is performed publically in front of a large audience while Baithakichi Lavani is performed in private in an enclosed chamber performed for a selective audience.


Essentially, themes of Lavani are divided into two- The Nirguni Lavani (philosophical) and the Shringari Lavani (sensual).

Lavani-dance

"The main subject matter of the Lavani dance is the various forms of love between a man and a woman. Married wife's menstruation, sexual union between husband and Wife, their love, soldier's amorous exploits, the wife's bidding farewell to the husband who is going to join the war, pangs of separation, adulterous love - the intensity of adulterous passion, childbirth: these are all the different themes of the Lavani. The Lavani poet out-steps the limits of social decency and control when it comes to the depiction of sexual passion."

- K. Ayyappapanicker, Sahitya Akademi


Although urban audiences recognize Lavani as a song and dance dealing with sexuality and lust, nowadays the dance form also addresses subjects ranging from spirituality to social issues like illiteracy and farmer suicide. It is traditionally performed in different social settings: Dholki-phad Tamasha and Sangeet Bari.

The Dholki-phad Tamasha is performed as a heterogeneous act that goes on for about four to eight hours. Tamashas are performed by travelling groups in jatras (village fair), weekly markets, etc. in front of large audiences.


The Sangeet Bari on the other hand, is stationary. It comes under the Baithakichi Lavani type. Sangeet Baris traditionally feature only female artists. The females in these communities are generally not allowed to marry, which prompts their entry in this profession.


Lavani for Cross-Dressing Men

Lavani-dance

The mention of Lavani often conjures up images of beautiful and elegant women singing and dancing. But this notion, that Lavani is a sensual dance performed by women for men, is just one among the many interpretations of folk dances. Lavani thrives as an art form performed by cross-dressing men in many parts of Maharashtra.


In 2000, the show Bin Baykancha Tamasha (tamasha without women) was co-founded by two Lavani dancers. It started the trend of crossdressing-men performing Lavani for urban audiences. While the idea of men performing Lavani may seem radical and gender-bending in cities, it is common in several rural areas in Maharashtra.


While cross-dressing men have come forward and started performing Lavani, a large part of the society still doesn’t accept this. It is seen as ‘less masculine’, ‘not appropriate for men’, etc. People often criticize the male dancers on their choice of profession. Many male dancers are seen avoiding to perform in their cities or villages, because they’re afraid of their friends and families. They often hide their profession from their kin in order to not be criticized.

This issue also throws light on the LGBTQ rights in India. It shows the mentality of the people which often depresses and upsets the youth of India. While heterosexuality is a different subject altogether we can’t avoid this topic.


During research, professionals have observed that homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual choices is rampant among cross-dressing Lavani performers. Due to the fear of criticism from the society, many men insist that they are straight who just dress up for the performance.


Indians have been oppressed since a long time now. The emergence of cross-dressing men in Lavani just shows how we have decided to come forward and speak our mind. It shows the spirit of Indians who want to fight for their rights and happiness.


Troubles of Being a Lavani Performer

Lavani-dance

While discussing the topic of cross-dressing men in Lavani, we can’t ignore women who perform it. Lavani is Maharashtra’s oldest folk dance and it has made a great contribution in the folk theatre of Maharashtra. Lavani has reached foreign lands now and people from the whole world have taken interest in this dance form. With all these merits, one might think that Lavani performers would be much respected. Alas, no they aren’t.


As mentioned above the genre of Lavani songs is generally sensual and erotic. Due to these aspects, many people often question the character of Lavani performers. The argument is quite irrational, if you ask me. Society often objectifies Lavani performers. They are expected to stay unmarried throughout their life and the sole reason for their life is ‘supposed’ to be ‘serving’ men. While marrying or not marrying is their decision altogether, the society shouldn’t interfere with their interests and choice of life.

In rural areas men are often seen harassing Lavani performers. Even women criticize their fellow women for their profession. Lavani is the only dance form which highly expresses all the secrets of women’s desires and amorous feelings in a very expressive and aggressive way without any binds from society. Perhaps that’s the reason they criticize Lavani dancers. Because they express themselves without giving any heed to the society ‘rules’.


This brings forward the subject of the liberation of artists. Female artists in all the art industries often face the same criticism and shaming. Not only are their characters questioned, but also their way of living, their choice of clothes, skin tones, etc. are also a nice juicy gossip for society.


India is a country known for its vivid culture and different art forms. An art form like Lavani, that is vibrant, liberal, expressive and aggressive form of dance, deserves to be appreciated by the audience like us, without any limitations of who performs it. Whether it is male or female performer, everyone’s effort and love towards the art form deserves to be appreciated! What do you think?


Pratha-Aayushi

Author

Aayushi Wadale

Pratha Content Writing Intern


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