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Upcoming photo exhibition to examine the decline of Lavani

Updated on: 09 January,2023 11:16 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Shriram Iyengar |

Social taboo, injustice and a dying art form unite in an exhibition of photographs at an art gallery in Byculla

Upcoming photo exhibition to examine the decline of Lavani

Young lavani dancers rehearse their moves on a decorated stage ahead of a performance

Art forms are always evolving. It is the one constant in a world drastically being altered by AI (artificial intelligence) and digital media. This does not mean that they evolve in the favour of artists. 

Sudharak Olwe’s upcoming exhibition of photographs, Lavani, at the Nine Fish Art Gallery this week documents the many layers of struggle, power and expression of the declining performance art of lavani.

A dancer holds a pose at the onset of her performance. Pics Courtesy/Sudharak Olwe A dancer holds a pose at the onset of her performance. Pics Courtesy/Sudharak Olwe 

A Padma Shri-awardee, Olwe began documenting tamasha troupes in Western Maharashtra two decades ago. “It began in the early 2000s when I was pursuing a story. It sparked my curiousity about the people and the art form,” he says. Over the years, the photographer returned to the community of tamasha performers, building friendships while documenting their changing lives and struggles.

Lavani is a dance form from Maharashtra that is performed on public stages. And while it is popular for its sensual vibe, the performative tradition also has a history of biting dialogues often toned with socio-political satire. “The performers come from the marginalised backgrounds of the Kolhati community, and travel from one place to another. There is also the element of caste that plays into the paradigm. This adds to the negative treatment of the female performers,” he says. 

Sudharak OlweSudharak Olwe

Olwe points out that Mumbai, once the hub for the labour class, had several lavani theatres that have since shut down. With lack of avenues, and scarce documentation owing to the perception of the performances, the art form is on a perennial decline. “What amazes me is their humanity and vulnerability. Many performers often take to the stage with their hearts on their sleeves,” he reveals.

Jointly presented by the gallery and Gourmoni Das’ Dot Line Space Foundation, the exhibition will be launched on January 12 with a performance by a lavani troupe. Gallerist Das explains, “This is one of my first attempts to explore the lavani art form by bringing the artistes here.” Addressing the perception of the art form as gaudy and low-brow, he says that the exhibition sheds light on its authenticity. “There is a very socialistic angle to the struggle of these artistes. Historically, there was lavani for the labour class with the dance, but the baithakichi lavani spoke about intellectual issues. It was purely through expression and singing,” Das elaborates. Throughout this collection, Olwe is able to capture the subjects in their most expressive moments. 

A majority of the collection is in black and white that enhances the emotional depth of the moment.

Olwe attributes that to his close bonds. “There is a thin line of separation when you document people’s lives. I build a friendship with them to understand their lives. It makes a difference,” the photographer remarks.

With diminishing avenues, changing perceptions and artistes in decline, perhaps the art form may be in its winter. This makes the photographs the last evidence of their way of life.

From January 12, 6 pm (preview); January 13 to February 18, 11 am onwards
At Nine Fish Art Gallery, The New Great Eastern Mills, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Road, Byculla. 
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