Dance transcends cultural borders, and speaks a universal language of the soul. In the dance, one discovers a kaleidoscope of emotions – joy, passion, and even melancholy—that words struggle to capture. While many simply view dance as movements of the body in sync with music, its appeal lies not only in its aesthetic appeal but also in its ability to communicate stories, traditions, and personal narratives. The Lavani dance of Maharashtra is one such dance form, narrating the stories of the wives of Maratha warriors for centuries.
History of Lavani Dance
The ‘Lavani’ dance gets its name from the female name ‘Lavanya’, which translates to ‘grace’ or ‘beauty’. This dance has its origins during the early Maratha period and gained popularity during the Peshwa period, in the eighteenth century. The dance, accompanied by Lavani music, was a source of entertainment for kings and their courtiers in the royal chambers as well as in dusty battlefields for soldiers sore and exhausted after days of fighting. These two different kinds of performances- private and public, emerged as different genres of the performance itself, the former called Baithakichi Lavani and the latter, Padachi Lavani. Baithakichi Lavani is usually performed solo while sitting on the floor, and the singing and dancing is done by the same performer.
Themes Used in Lavani Dance
The dance has two distinct dominant themes- the Nirguni Lavani and the Shringar Lavani. The former incorporates mostly philosophical and devotional themes, and the songs of this form are very popular throughout the state of Maharashtra. The Shringar Lavani, on the other hand can incorporate very titillating and risque themes- portraying different scenes from the lives of Maratha warriors’ wives. This is the overwhelmingly popular form of Lavani. Shringar Lavani portrays subjects such as marital consummation, menstruation, soldiers’ sexual exploits while away fighting, and even adultery. While adultery is not commendable, mere acknowledgement of the existence of female adultery was very surprising for the times. And surprisingly, the raunchy songs of Shringar Lavani are always written by a male.
Lavani Dance Set up
The female performers are usually dressed in a nine-yard long(nauvari) saree draped in the traditional Maharashtrian style, with sparkly, shiny sequins or zari work. In addition to this, they wear a large red coloured Bindi and are decked in loads of jewellery, including various kinds of necklaces, varying from petite to heavy, earrings, armbands, waist bands and anklets.
Singers and dancers are usually all women, and the instruments, most prominently the tabla, are played by men.
Lavani Dance Variations
In Shringar Lavani, the lustful, raunchy branch of the dance, only women perform. In the variant of Padachi Lavani, performers dance and sing in groups seductively to the sounds of drums playing in the background, in open theatres or gathering places in front of crowds that usually consist of men. The steps are energetic, provocative and bold, and it is, all in all, an intense performance.
In Baithakichi Lavani, solo female performers do their steps while sitting down on the floor seductively. This variant is usually more slow, sensuous and indulgent, as it was reserved for aristocratic private audiences.
Prominent Lavani Artists
Many Marathi poet-singers contributed to the development of Lavani. Today, Lokshahir Bashir Momin Kavathekar, is one of the most important contributors to the advancement of the artform, and many of his compositions are widely used by prominent performers throughout the state. Honaji Bala, a poet who lived in the eighteenth-nineteenth century, pioneered the use of the Tabla in the art form and developed the Baithakichi Lavani as a separate variant of the art form. Parasharam (1754-1844), Ram Joshi (1762–1812), Anant Fandi (1744-1819), Honaji Bala (1754-1844), Prabhakar (1769-1843), Saganbhau and Lok Shahir Annabhau Sathe (1920 – 1969) are all prominent Marathi poets who have made their mark in this genre of music.
Challenges Faced by Lavani Dancers
Lavani is one of the country’s most unique dance forms, portraying the depths of the feminine mind and even morally incorrect subjects, such as adultery. It can be said confidently that Lavani is one of the rare dance forms in history that touches these subjects. It is exactly this that has caused a lot of problems to this dance form, both officially and unofficially.
After independence, in 1948, Balasaheb Kher, who was the chief minister of the state at the time, had banned the dance form because of complaints of its lewdness and obscenity. This, in a way, proved good for the dance form, since it helped sanitise the lyrics, while still portraying the subject matter effectively. However, performers continue to face challenges as they face sexual harassment and danger from the overwhelmingly male audiences. The practice of the dance form is on the decline because of the dangers and stigma surrounding it.
There are problems on the other side of the spectrum too. Veteran artistes of the Lavani argue that performers today have no respect for the art form, dressing and performing in overly sexual manners. Megha Ghadge, a well known senior performer, was in the news earlier this year when she lodged a complaint against a young Lavani performer, who, according to Ghadge, was dressed indecently and performing to an indecent extreme as well.
Lavani dance is one of the nation’s most unique and controversial dance forms. The dance form is centred around women’s minds and desires, making it one of its kind. Obscene or bold? Realistic or morally devoid? These are questions that are always up for debate. However, we can all agree that the dance form represents layers of history and has to be preserved in some manner for the future generations to see.