Although she was awarded two medals by the President, very few know of late tamasha artist Vithabai Bhau Mang Narayangaonkar. Photographer Sandesh Bhandare met her for the first time in 2000, two years before she died. A chance meeting, Bhandare was at a tamasha performance when she walked in. Although in her advanced years and no more a performer, Vithabai’s presence had tamasha fans hooting. But what struck Bhandare was the fact that she was not only living in penury but that the most renowned and respected artist of the folk art form of tamasha had hardly been chronicled.
The incident became the trigger for Bhandare’s most noted project. The Pune-based photographer has since spent the following 15 years, off and on, tracking tamasha troupes and the evolution of the folk art form through a series of pictures. “After I started working on my project, I applied for a grant with the India Foundation for the Arts. That allowed me to quit my job, focus on the project, and travel to distant villages across Maharashtra to study tamasha,” says Bhandare, who was in Mumbai early this week to talk about tamasha as part of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s ‘Museum Katta’ property.
While he began researching and chronicling tamasha back in 2002 and has in the past years also worked on other photo projects, this one remains special to him. He keeps revisiting it every few years and has now planned to dedicate his time until May 2018 to tamasha once again. “The nature of folk art forms is such that they change and evolve every 10-15 years. In January, I was attending a few tamasha programmes in Narayangaon, known as the hub for tamasha, when I noticed certain changes that have begun to creep in. It’s a good time to research the subject again,” says Bhandare, adding that he will travel to watch tamashas once the season begins in October.
According to the photographer, his initial observations reveal that one major change in the tamashas today may be the exclusion by the big troupes of the segment that addresses social issues. “Usually, the posters of a tamasha announce that as an attraction. I have come across tamashas that have addressed subjects like AIDS. Dowry, alcohol addiction,and education, however, are common issues. But of late, these posters and the theme were missing. Is it a loss of interest on part of the audience, or is it no more profitable for the big troupes, I am not sure yet,” says Bhandare, “But I doubt it has vanished altogether because this January I saw a tamasha by a small troupe in a village where the theme was demonetisation.”
Why this is an important aspect to explore, Bhandare says, is because originally, tamashas have served to not only entertain but also educate the masses. The season kicks in when jathras, the village fairs in Maharashtra, begin. Bhandare’s fascination with the folk form started while researching local wrestling in the state — both wrestling and tamasha are an integral part of the jathras, a huge attraction to the attendees. “Maharashtrians working outside of their village, return for the jathra annually. So often, there would be more people collecting in a village than it can accommodate. Initially, tamashas became the makeshift place and pastime for these people to spend the night before they could set off in the morning to where they came from,” says Bhandare.
The key attraction of tamasha, however, is that it goes on from six to eight hours, catering to different audiences by having separate segments for women, the aged, the youth and so on. However, the form and flavour of tamasha varies from district to district. For instance, in Khandesh, men play the part of the women, the version in Narayangaon has big troupes of over 100 people, whereas in Sangli and Satara, the tamasha is performed under a tree. Bhandare has managed to capture these flavours through his project as well as the lives of the artistes and workers who are part of the troupe.
While the photographer is keen to look at the changes that have come in with also the advent of smartphones and internet, he dismisses the idea that tamashas may be losing their popularity. “Narayangaon still has over 40 troupes and Karad alone was hosting close to 25. Tamashas are the pulse of rural Maharashtra. There may be programmes every day on television but tamasha comes once a year and people are not going to give it up anytime soon.”