A Tamasha Empress who bestowed the folk art a place of prestige through her amazing talent
It was the period when the Bhau Bapu (Maang) Narayangaonkar Tamasha troupe was propagating the fame of Tamasha, a folk art, all through Maharashtra. Shantabai, Bhau Khude’s third wife, was pregnant for the fourteenth time in the village of Pandharpur, Solapur district. The Tamasha troupe was in Pandharpur for a performance on that day. It was a night in Ashadhi Ekadashi (one of the holy days as per the Hindu almanac). As the tempo of the Tamasha performance grew, so did Shantabai’s labour pains. Approximately around midnight, Shantabai gave birth to a beautiful girl. It was as if on that fateful dark night, a new bright star shone on the horizon. Since the girl was born under the shelter of Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur, Bhau and Shantabai named her Vitha. Vitha it seemed had timed her own birth to an auspicious time and place, because this star shone brightly in the world of Tamasha later. Bhau Khude’s daughter made the entire Maharashtra dance to her tune later. Vithabai Bhau Narayangaonkar took the art of Tamasha right into the court of Delhi.
Vitha grew up in a house of artistes. The Bhau Bapu (Maang) Narayangaonkar Tamasha troupe, a family troupe run by her father Bhau Khude and his cousin brother Bapu Khude, was a fine example of folk art. Most importantly, Tamasha was a medium of social reform for these artistes. With a heritage of art, Vitha was a born artiste. She was drawn towards dance and singing right since her childhood. While at home she was constantly exposed to the different songs of Tamasha like Lavanya, Gavlani, Bhedik, etc. At school, she was especially attracted towards poetry. Realising her deep attraction towards art her father did not insist too much on her schooling and she stopped attending school at the age of four- five. She instead started touring with her father’s troupe. At the same time Mama Varerkar – Altekar was attempting social reform through his one act plays and street plays performed by his Art Group. He was highly impressed after watching Bhau - Bapu’s Tamasha performance. He realised that Bhau and Bapu were attempting social reform just like him. This common purpose endeared Bhau, Bapu and Mama towards each other.
Vitha had started displaying samples of her talent every now and then in Bhau – Bapu’s Tamasha performances. Mama Varerkar recognised the extent of her talent and requested Bhau Khude to send her to his Art Group. Bhau accepted that request for a while and Vitha started performing for Mama Varerkar’s Art Group. Working with Mama Varerkar’s Art Group enhanced and broadened Vitha’s experiences and her art. She developed a viewpoint with respect to the nation and the society. She developed new facets to her art that she learnt in the Tamasha troupe. Her art became more refined. Her expertise grew.
In the meanwhile, Bhau – Bapu’s Tamasha troupe was in Kole village in Karad district for performing. At the same time, another Tamasha troupe run by Bhau Akelkar had also set up in the village. Both the troupes challenged each other and that night the Bhedik form of Tamasha started between the two troupes. The troupes challenged each other by posing riddles and answering the same through songs. Both the groups matched their wits, and this went on for long. Finally after a long battle of wits, Akelkar’s teenage daughter rendered Bapu speechless by posing her question, what treasure of beauty do you have tied with you? This was because Bhau - Bapu only had male dancers in their troupe. Bhau took this defeat to heart. He immediately left for Mumbai and caught up with Mama’s Art Group. He narrated the entire incident to his daughter Vitha. Vitha too was fired up by her father’s defeat and taking leave of Mama, she accompanied her father back to Karad.
That night there was once again a Bhedik challenge between the two troupes, and Vitha revenged her father’s defeat by winning that night’s challenge. Vitha’s stepping onto the stage that night was historical, because that was her first step into her brilliant journey ahead. At this juncture, Vitha was merely thirteen years of age.
As days went by, Vitha’s art was entrancing the audience. Her youth and beauty were enrapturing them. Vitha was adept at both dance as well as singing. Her melodious voice beautifully rendered Gavlani, Lavni, and songs from Marathi and Hindi movies. It was an incredible delight to watch her dance on the beats of the Dholaki. Her popularity reached new heights as days flew by. She placed Tamasha on a completely new plane.
Vitha was also slowly getting familiar with the life of a female artiste in the world of Tamasha. She knew that female artistes in the Tamasha never got married. But nobody can escape the basic needs of a body. Her beauty and art attracted many.
The life of artistes in the Tamasha is very different. Most male artistes despite being married would leave behind their wife and kids in their native village and develop a romantic affair with a female artiste. The moment she would get a little tired or the relationship would sour a little, she would be left behind and a new relationship with another female artiste would be struck! And the female artiste too would find a new partner. The children born through these relationships would grow up with the troupe. These children would be bereft of schooling. After the children matured a little, they would start working odd jobs in the troupe. The uncontrolled environment of the Tamasha affected the children culturally. The girls were worse off than the boys. They had no control over their sentiments or their body. After a while they too fell into the trap of men who would take advantage of their helplessness.
The artistes in Tamasha would frivolously enjoy their youth in this manner. They would have money, but no foresight to save it for the future. Therefore enjoying their youth to their heart’s content, they would reach old age with nothing left in their hands and no means of earning it at that stage. They would thus be left derelict.
Vithabai was in the prime of her youth, sweet sixteen going on seventeen. At the age of seventeen, Vitha became a mother giving birth to a girl. Later, Vithabai travelled a lot with the Tamasha troupe. In these travels, she had affairs with multiple men and even had children through these associations. This wasn’t unusual for Vithabai because that was the culture in the Tamasha world. Vithabai bore a total of five girls and three boys.
Through all this, Vithabai had completely captured the stage. The audience would throng purely to watch Vithabai’s dance and hear her sing. Bhau- Bapu’s Tamasha troupe was now Bhau’s and Bapu’s only in name; Vithabai had completely taken it over. Every Tamasha performance is initiated with a Gan followed by a Gavlan before the main performance commences. The moment the Gan and Gavlan got over, Vithabai would come on stage. She would be welcomed with a riot of hoots and applause. Then aficionados would shower her with requests. Vithabai had captivated the audience with her Ghungroo, her spirit, her coquetry and her delicately amorous gestures.
All the different types of Tamasha like Gavlan, Batavni, Vag, etc presented by the Bhau – Bapu troupe had always been of excellent quality. The topics for the Vag dances ranged from the historical (tales of the mighty Shivaji), the religious (Satyavan – Savitri a mythological story in which Savitri brings her husband Satyavan back from the dead), to the social (stories like Chandra – Mohan and Mevadcha Koli). This would draw audience right from the intellectuals in urbanised cities to the illiterate in pastoral villages. Most people with an affinity for literature and folk art had seen Bhau – Bapu’s Tamasha. Some senior artistes on the Sangeet Natak (Music and Drama) Academy Board too had seen their performances. They recommended Bhau – Bapu’s Tamasha to the Board, informing them of how the troupe endeavoured social reform through the medium of art. It was through their recommendation that the Bhau – Bapu troupe got the golden opportunity and honour to perform before Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India. Even for this performance, Vithabai was the main attraction. She returned from Delhi with high appreciation. Soon the Academy recommended the troupe for an award and Bhau – Bapu’s troupe had the first honour of receiving a President’s award in the Tamasha genre of art.
After receiving the high honour of royalty, Vithabai never looked back. Her competitors were by now left far behind. Tamasha had now become firmly associated with Vithabai. Vithabai believed that her sole purpose in life was to serve at the altar of art. An incident in this respect is worth telling, since it reveals her dedication to art and the level to which Vithabai was willing to go for the sake of art-
In the year 1967, the Bhau - Bapu troupe had set up in the Shingnapur village for performing. Vithabai was pregnant at that time, and was almost due. But Vithabai did not have the patience to sit still. Even in that state, she attired herself and came on stage. She danced uninhibitedly with the Gavlan dancers. But as the Batavni performance started, Vithabai’s labour pains became unbearable and she returned to her tent. An old midwife who had come to watch the show helped Vithabai deliver the child. Naturally, after delivery Vithabai was feeling extremely exhausted. But the audience had as usual thronged to watch Vithabai’s performance, and they clamoured for her. Lying exhausted in her tent, Vithabai heard the uproar. On realising that the audience refused to listen to reason, she re-tied the Ghungroo that she had untied for delivery, tied a band tightly around her lower stomach, changed her Saree, and stepped back onto the stage. Now the audience was awe struck, because just a half hour back they had seen her carrying while dancing on stage. This was the extent of Vithabai’s dedication to her art.
She connected with many people because of her dedication. Some of these people dated back to the time of her father. Through their help she took her art to many places.
In 1962 another important incident took place in Vithabai’s life. Vithabai and her troupe received an invitation to entertain the soldiers at the Nefa border. This was another high point of honour for Vithbai’s art. At this juncture, Vithabai’s daughter Malati was barely three months old. But Vithabai prioritized her duty towards the nation and leaving behind her children in the care of her family, she took her troupe to the border. She stayed willingly in the cold and forested environs at the border. It was tough to move from one camp to another every day, set up stage, and perform in those freezing and mountainous environs. Most importantly, she was bearing this stress at a time when she was in need of rest.
After many such years, when both Vithabai’s father Bhau Khude and Uncle Bapu Khude expired, Bhau’s other cousin brother Bhau Savlaram took over the troupe. But in Savalaram’s era, greed and enmity took over the troupe. The financial situation deteriorated. The relationship between Savlaram and Vithabai soured. The troupe was entirely dependant on Vithabai, but leave alone cherishing her merit, Savlaram kept her oblivious of the financial affairs. Her brother and husband Maruti Savant treated her as a goose who laid a golden egg. Frustrated with this state of affairs, Vithabai broke away from the troupe and along with her daughters started her own Tamasha troupe by the name of Vitha- Bhau (Mang) Narayangaonkar. Her popularity was increasing day by day. She was associating with illustrious people from the political, social, educational and art fields. In this way, Vithabai’s art journeyed from the small by-lane of Narayangaon right up to the stage in Delhi.
Vithabai was financially sound too. Along with popularity, Vithabai had collected a good some of money because of the generosity showered on her by her audience. But her husband had his eye on her money since long, and one day looted her to her last piece of wealth.
But Vithabai did not lose heart and through Prabhakar Kamekar of Mumbai, an old associate, she once again set up her Tamasha troupe. She brought in new artistes. This time around she had her daughter Malati to help her. By now though, Vithabai was to some extent shattered by the shocks that she bore in her life thus far. The shenanigans of her husband Savant every now and then, the separation from her eldest daughter Mangala Bansode, the accident to the bus carrying Vithabai and her troupe, and many such incidents were mentally and financially collapsing her.
Her art though stood her in good times and bad. Her dedication to her art and her audience was well known. There were therefore many who were willing to help her in her times of need. The foremost among these were Madhav Gadkari, the then editor of the newspaper Loksatta, news reporter Pradeep Bhide, and Tamasha scholar Prakash Khandge. All three of them canvassed Vithabai’s condition before the society through newspapers and the television and started a flood of funds for her. Durgabai Bhagvant donated Rs.10,000. From this emerged the idea of felicitating the Tamasha Empress. And thus Vithabai was felicitated at the hands of Durgabai Bhagvant in the Asiatic Society Hall in Mumbai. This felicitation programme once again refreshed Vithabai’s love and dedication for her art in the minds of the audience.
With the funds collected, Vithabai reimbursed all her old loans, and got all her vehicles released that were on lien. She did not have the enthusiasm left to run her own troupe all by herself. She therefore merged her troupe with her daughter’s troupe and returned all by herself to her native place, Narayangaon. But because of the popularity that she gained, her name constantly came up in the cultural scene of Maharashtra, with the result that though she retired from performing, she was still in front of the public eye through the felicitation programmes. The height of recognition was when she was selected for the second time by the Sangeet Natak Academy for an Award. She felt satisfied of having served her purpose in life. Vithabai received awards even in the last phase of her life.
Taking a walk through Vithabai’s life one is held awe struck by her love and dedication for her art, the sacrifices that she made for art, and the hardship that she bore. The distress that she bore despite amassing a lot of money was also a major part of her life. But at the end of it all, what remains in our mind is nothing but her amazing effort in the field of Tamasha! Vithabai gave the status of a nationally renowned folk art to a rural street art. Vithabai was nothing less than a miracle. Her art, dedication, the ups and downs in her life, all of it was overwhelming. In this male dominated society, even the Tamasha troupe and the female artistes in it are dominated by males. A woman performs, receives ovation from male audiences in the form of money, on which it is once again males who stake their claim. Even in these circumstances, accepting all ails of the world of Tamasha, Vithabai nurtured her art and gave pleasure to her audience. This underlines Vithbai’s magnanimity.