MEN, WITH ARMS raised, hips jutting, mouths agape, revel in a performance. The stage is invisible, but the excitement of the men, who stand behind a high fence, is palpable. They cheer, they jump, they dance, they yell, they gawp. They draw energy from each other, they draw energy from the stage. A disco ball from above casts its rays in every direction. A couple are caught in a dance move, their faces are obscured by shadows but the man’s jacket and the woman’s exposed midriff is ablaze with colour. These photographs heave with life, even while freezing a moment. While some are straightforward portraits, for example of an artist ready for performance, others are silhouettes, outlining the musician with his dholaki, or a truck with loudspeakers.
These are all photographs shot by Abhishek Rajaram Khedekar and now available in a book titled Tamasha, (88 pages; ₹3,600) designed and published by Loose Joints, a ‘collaborative design studio and creative consultancy rooted in book design and the visual arts,’ based out of London, UK, and Marseilles, France. Khedekar is the recipient of Publishing Performance 2022—an artist’s residency and publishing award focused on the connections between photography and performance. He developed this work as artist-in-residence at Mahler & LeWitt Studios in Spoleto, Italy, for a book to be edited, designed and published by Loose Joints.
Delhi-based Khedekar (born in 1991) has his roots in Maharashtra. Originally from the coastal town of Dapoli (200 km from Mumbai), he did his Bachelor of Arts from Bharati Vidyapeeth, Pune, before completing his master’s in Photography Design at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. As a freelance photographer and designer, his work is borne from reality, but in its final reckoning often appears surreal.
His docu-fiction images—whether they are from Batla House, Delhi, or from Dapoli, Maharashtra—have an immersive quality. Devoid of captions, they tend to zoom in close (like into the individual segments of a jackfruit, or a batua hanging from an old lady’s waist) or to look from afar (a bridge across a stream snapped in two, with a woman washing clothes in its waters). The photographs seem to tell of a connection between the photographer and the subject, where the photographer is an archivist and not a passer-by.
THE IMAGES IN Tamasha, shot over the years, are taken from a participant rather than a voyeur’s lens. Khedekar first started shooting Tamasha back in 2016 as part of his master’s project at NID. From a young age, he had an interest in dance and music and was less keen on sports and studies. His childhood friends and he often performed at local festivals. He honed this interest when he moved to Pune for his undergraduate course and was soon performing at intercollege festivals. At a friend’s suggestion he decided to go explore Tamasha, as it tied in well with his own personal interests.
Locating the wandering folk artists was not the easiest task. Tamasha, a travelling performance that combines dance, music, song, dates back to the 16th century. The nomadic artists live like a family of 70-80 during the pilgrimage season, and often return to agriculture in the monsoons. They all wear many hats, and will pull off the role of singer, driver, dancer, cook, tent installer as and when required. Over time, Tamasha has been marginalised due to its often bawdy nature and jokes with innuendo. Khedekar’s images shine with an empathy for these artists, with whom he travelled and lived with, starting in 2016. He journeyed with them by truck from one village to another, helped them set up camp as they would wait for the village panchayat to send a water tanker. He would bathe in wells or rivers and eat the same food as them for weeks on end and over the years.
His first encounter with Tamasha occurred in village Pandharpur, where he met up with the Tukaram Khedkar Pandurang Mule Loknattya Tamasha Mandal. At first, he was too “overwhelmed” to shoot. He recalls, “There were 400-500 people. The music was very loud. There was a vibrant performance on stage. There was screaming. It was all very energetic.”
But after watching the artists and interacting with them over days, he found himself shooting them constantly. He started to recognise the many parts of Tamasha, which typically lasts five to seven hours. The show starts with an invocation to the gods, then moves onto the emcee who is both comedian and moderator. Hindi songs are always in demand, and the singers oblige. The singing is followed by a Lavani dance. To keep in tune with the times, a hip hop performance by youngsters is also included! Tamasha often ends with Waghnatya (a play) on socio-political issues such as the dowry system.
Watching the show in Pandharupur, he remembered that he’d first come across the folk form in his hometown Dapoli. The maidan that he crossed every day to school was the site of a Tamasha performance. Attracted by the music he wanted to see it, but his mother forbade him as she felt the content and the audience were not suitable for a young boy. Today, when Khedekar talks about Tamasha he slips into ‘we’. He says, “I say ‘we’ because I feel a part of Tamasha.” What was disallowed in his youth is now an intrinsic part of his identity.
Dalit families from Maharashtra are most often the Tamasha performers. The troupe has now expanded to include artists from Uttar Pradesh. Khedekar learned the many stories that these artists carry. Often villages were friendly, occasionally hostile. Many performers did not want their names mentioned, as their families did not know they were travelling artists and so he chose to display his photographs without any captions. But what was a secret to some, was also home to many. A few of the women had escaped abusive families and found refuge in the dance troupes. He recalls meeting a woman in her eighties called “Ba,” who’d given birth at Tamasha and whose children and grandchildren were also part of the group.
He made his first book on Tamasha in 2016, which chronicled his experience of it as well. A few years later, having been exposed to national and international exhibitions and having worked with the Delhi photographer Bharat Sikka, he reopened the project. This time he noticed the gaze of the audience, the doggedness of the artists, who would unpack, set up, perform, pack up and travel, through rain and shine, for weeks on end. By 2019, he’d created a new dummy with a mix of collages and archival images. His new book he feels—thanks to the guidance of his publishers—now reflects life on stage, as it bursts with colour and vibrance. He adds, “I wanted to keep the images ambiguous. I put the pictures in a sequence that would be open ended. I wanted the viewer to create his own dots. I did not want to include text that would escalate someone’s thoughts into something specific. With these images you can start to create your own story—on Tamasha or the project—based on your own experiences.”
I return to the book, and this time find it telling me another story, about a people and their land. I see a truck with a Maharashtra registration entering a dusty road. A few heads peep out from the top. This is Tamasha’s entry into a village. I see a man’s torso covered with garlands of bulbs. He is perhaps going to prepare the shamiana. A blue-eyed girl holds a phone to her ear. The first daubs of foundation have been applied to her face. In this moment she is both the soon-to-be artist and the worried friend/ daughter/sister who listens intently to the person on the other side. She is both here and elsewhere.
Khedekar’s Tamasha reveals both the simplicity and dazzle of the folk art form. Here the ghungroos are heavy, the costumes sparkly, the makeup exaggerated. It is an art form both of trunks and trucks, of harmoniums and tun-tunas. It is also an art form where for a single night men lose themselves, as they raise their arms, pump their fists, and scream into the night.