I’ve been on a high lately, following a lavani dance workshop. Lavani, of course, is the Maharashtrian folk dance, popularly associated with erotica. In fact, this traditional form could be philosophical, or a comment on society and politics, or emphasise shringar — romance and erotica; the last is a later development. My interest in Lavani began years ago, when I was trying to sense the difference between the choreography of Bollywood and Marathi movies. . I had a chance to pay closer attention to lavani through an unexpected opportunity, when I had curated the Indian Expressionism programme for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Bell Lightbox, Toronto, which explored the influence of German Expressionism on Indian cinema. I had included V Shantaram’s Pinjra (Cage, 1972), which has the same key story as Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, (1930) — an upright professor ruined by his love for a cabaret singer-dancer; here Anant Mane is credited for the script. The film’s songs and dances, including, Disla ga bai disla and Chhabidar chhabi, are popular even today. Also Sangeet Bari, the wonderful lavani show, piqued my interest.
A still from Apsara ali from Natarang
At the Lavani class, we were introduced to Chhabidar chabi and Tumhawar keli mi marji bahal from Pinjra, Wazale ki bara from Ravi Jadhav’s Natarang, and Ya ravaji basa bhavaji, a Baithakichi Lavani danced in a seated position, with emphasis on abhinaya (expression). Some day, I hope to learn Apsara aali, my favourite Lavani, from Natarang. It is so sensual and exquisite, in contrast with, say, Bollywood’s Chikni Chameli (a nod to the Marathi Kombadi palali song), which is Slutty 2.0.
In fact, I had enrolled in a Bollywood dance class a year ago, to find out if I could do slutty. It turned out that Gururaj Korgaonkar’s choreography was too graceful and elegant to be slutty. When I missed class and tried to catch up via YouTube videos, I realised his choreography was often superior to Bollywood’s. This was also partly because Bollywood choreography has much to do with picturisation — camerawork, spectacular sets and editing rhythms. Whereas Korgaonkar’s choreography was discreetly rooted in Kathak, semi-classical and Folk dances. His lavani tiptoed on the thin line between sensual and erotic. I had a sense of awakening in my body — of its sensuality, beauty, power and ease to tease. What a shame — I wish I had learnt it in my 20s. Also, the lyrics were revealing. For instance, in Chhabidar chhabi, the dancer taunts an adarsh village, for whom varan-bhat (dal rice) is manna, that it won’t be able to resist her charms. And I enjoyed its rustic core — a tambaku-crushing thumb gesture to signify a bossman type.
Well, Menaka was one of our more famous mythological apsaras or heavenly dancers. Indra, king of the gods, had sent her to seduce the sage Vishwamitra, whose penance threatened to earn him enough powers to make Indra & Co. nervous. And this dancer is the mother of Shakuntala and grandmother of the ‘ideal’ Emperor Bharata, after whom this illustrious, cow-loving, bar dancer-hating nation is named. Forgive me, saffron history rewritewallahs, for pointing out that this ‘ideal’ Bharat was born of Indra’s love jihad — of the Hindus, by the Hindus, for the Hindus. You won’t find this in Gujarati history books, but whoever said history is to do with the truth?
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.