Before the pandemic, Amrapali Punekar was a star Tamasha artiste with a loyal fan following in the villages around Nashik, Sangli and Satara, among others. Now, on days when it does not rain, Punekar leaves the house every morning to work in the fields for a daily wage of Rs 200.
“All that we artistes know is performance but there is no work now and we have to take up any job we find. Whatever we earn, we bring home. I have never learnt farming and this is the first time I am going to the field. Sometimes, I feel that we artistes are lost in a deep forest and nobody cares about us any more. I have four children, my parents and grandmother so we have to get used to working with the soil,” says Punekar, founder and head of the Amrapali Punekar Tamasha Mandal.
Tamasha companies such as Punekar’s would be booked for around 100 shows during the season that extends from autumn to early summer. March and April were the busiest months, when fairs attracted hundreds of people for whom the grand Tamasha was a chief attraction for its high-octane performances, stories, songs and dances. When a strict lockdown was announced in India in March, the Tamasha performances, the only source of livelihood for many artistes, was called off.
Each group, with an average of 130 members, earns between Rs 70,000 and Rs 3 lakh per performance, which sustains them through the lean seasons as well. In 2020, the Tamasha companies were still recovering from the hammer blow of demonetisation when the coronavirus swept through the world.
“I knew things were bad because our shows were cancelled but I was hit the hardest the day I withdrew the last of my savings from the bank. Now, my accounts are empty. I have started visiting local money lenders for loans just to put food on our plates. The members of my group are working as drivers, hired hands in fields, hotels and factories, and as contract employees in small companies and workshops, or just waiting at home for some job,” says Raghubir Khedkar, who has been on stage since 1959 and contributed to innovations in sound, lights and performance styles, such as mimicry and dialogue delivery, in Tamasha.
His shows depicting the lives of great heroes such as Rajaram Raje, the son of Shivaji Maharaj, and events such as the Kargil war have been instrumental in spreading social messages among audiences.
“We visited the Mantralaya and met several leaders. They said that we should not worry and that the government will help us. We are waiting for help. Since the lockdown, Tamasha performers have been facing a lot of problems…. A few social workers have given performers some help but we need a sustained scheme to help us tide through this phase,” says Khedkar.
As autumn arrives, Tamasha artistes would traditionally fine-tune their acts for the new season. In several parts of India, theatre performers are taking tentative steps towards creating shows for audiences while observing social distancing and other precautions but Tamasha, which draws the masses, isn’t ready for the plunge.
“Even if the government gives permission, who will come to watch? In the villages, people are very scared of the coronavirus and rightly so. This means that we will continue to be without work in the near future,” says Tanaji Seth of the Mangala Bansode Tamasha Group.
Every day, he hears of yet another artiste who does not know where next month’s rent will come from or whether they should pull their children out of school. “It is an era of uncertainty and we artistes, who have dreamed only of entertaining and elevating audiences through our performances, do not know when the darkness will end,” he adds.
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