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Literary Review

Life and times of a kalaakar

C.S. LAKSHMI

VITHABAI BHAU MANG NARAYANGAONKAR died on January 15, in the morning hours, this New Year. She was 74. Vithabai Narayangaonkar was a Tamasha artiste famous for her songs, dance and plays. Everyone knew her in Maharashtra and the media had given her extensive coverage. I met her in the course of documenting her life and work for SPARROW. We had heard that she was ailing and that she would appreciate it if someone documented her life story. When we tried to contact her through friends in Pune, she was most willing to co-operate. But we had been warned that she had given so many interviews that she spoke about her life as if by rote and that the documentation may turn out to be just a routine job. Those who had told us this probably did not know how versatile an artiste Vithabai was. The details of her life are well known and there are specific incidents that everyone knows. But when Vithabai spoke about her life she spoke as if it was the first time she was talking about her life. She recalled memories with such gestures and in such a language that her entire life unfolded before you with all its complexities with the ease of rolling out a carpet. And one could only listen while she traversed the distance of her life.

Vithabai was born in Pandarpur and hence named Vitha. She was born into a Tamasha family where her father and uncle together ran a Tamasha troupe known as Bhau-Bapu Mang Narayangaonkar Tamasha group. Vitha said that her father had put her in school but she was not interested in studies and was constantly standing and taking various poses as if she was dancing. Although she could not grasp any of her school texts she could understand how to perform on the stage, how to sing and how to speak with no effort at all. Vithabai constantly referred to herself as a kalaakar, an artiste, who has performed from her childhood. But it was not an easy process. There was no permanent place to stay put any time. They were constantly on the move and often, in villages where they performed, Vithabai was sent with a basket to go around and ask people for food and other things. "My parents have come to do the Tamasha for you; give us something," the child Vitha would beg and people would give. And after her father's death, the responsibility of seeing to it that the show went on fell on the tiny shoulders of Vithabai, whose Uncle was there to support her. But this uncle had not initially approved of her father bringing her into Tamasha. Now, the two of them had to carry on the show.

Vithabai used the choicest words of abuse when she referred to the man she called her husband. When she was still in her early teens, this man who was a toughie, jumped on to the stage after her dance, brandishing a knife, and told her, "You have to be mine." Her uncle approved and the young Vitha herself was probably overwhelmed by all the drama. But her life with this man was a journey of violence. He would drink and beat her up and book programmes for her even when she was pregnant and take away the money and go and visit his three other wives. Once he booked a show for her when she was nine months pregnant. She came on the stage and did all her usual acrobatic movements and the audience wondered if she was some kind of a devil that she could do this. And then she felt the pains coming. She told her two elder daughters who had begun to perform with her and who normally sang during the interludes to sing for ten or fifteen minutes longer. She went to the makeshift green room and lay down. There was no doctor, no mid-wife and no one around. She was alone and she delivered a male child. She wrapped him in some cloth after cutting the umbilical chord with a sharp stone lying nearby. She wore her nine-yard sari tight and appeared on the stage to dance once again. The audience burst into applause wanting to know what baby she had delivered. When she told them it was a boy they began throwing money on the stage. "No water, no doctor, no mid-wife, no mattress, no facilities at all — that is how I delivered all my children," Vithabai said in a dry voice and suddenly the tears came and she said, "But now when the mother cannot perform, what is the worth of that mother? One life as an artiste will do for me. No more, no more." And she leaned back on the wall to let the tears flow. But it is the artiste within her who had kept her alive, giving her the strength to overcome all kinds of obstacles including an abusive and violent husband.

Vithabai with her quick repartee and imaginative extempore dialogues and a vibrating singing voice brought about many changes in the Tamasha performance repertoire. She brought in Hindi songs and a range of plays and dialogue sessions with her performing daughters, which kept the audience spell-bound. She was always in control of her audience, whom she referred to as "the public", and did not brook any nonsense from them. During one performance, her daughter Mangala came in complaining that the audience was throwing stones and things at her. Vithabai consoled her saying, "But this is the public," and then she came on the stage and gave the audience a "lecture". She told them that they were artistes and the audience must treat them so. She also told the audience that it was full of real idiots. "You don't even realise that the stones you throw at us are fortunate enough to touch our bodies; you can't even do that." The audience fell silent. If anyone in the audience dared to come up to her or one of her daughters, Vithabai held him by the collar and set him straight.

Travelling from one village to another and performing in makeshift stages was what Vithabai liked best in spite of the nature of the audience. Dancing in a tamboo is more exciting than dancing in a theatre, she felt. The well-to-do audience, which comes to the theatres, will be satisfied with anything. They watch classical dances and they can also watch this. But those who come to the tamboo, she felt, were the real "public" whose admiration she enjoyed. She felt the same way about films. She has danced in Marathi and Gujarathi films but she said that the film medium did not thrill her at all. She did not like the way they treated women, especially dancers like her and she said that they wanted the sari to be tied in a revealing manner. When she worked in films, Vithabai did not feel in control of things and that made her uncomfortable.

Vithabai has won many Central and State Government awards, not to talk of awards from various cultural organisations. Narayangaon, a small village that grows grapes, has come prominently into the map because of Vithabai. In recognition, the village officials had given her a small plot of land and a small house. Her name Vitha, is prominently written on the front wall and that name works like a magic wand in the village. You only have to enter Narayangaon and ask for Vithabai's house and even a little child can lead you to her house. Vithabai's daughters have their own Tamasha groups and they too have contractual marriages with men who are part of Tamasha. Their men sit and book shows for them and they perform. But these men have been part of Vithabai's Tamasha group and hence Vithabai's daughters enjoy more freedom in terms of what they want to do.

After speaking to Vithabai, it is difficult to put her in the victim mould of an artiste abused by her man but it is equally difficult to call her a woman with power who controlled her life. What Vithabai was, was an imaginative and brilliant Tamasha artiste, who learnt to walk the difficult path of a Tamasha artiste's life, at times overcoming and at times succumbing to the pressures of this life. A professor's wife had accompanied us when we did the documentation. She came along probably thinking it would be a picnic to a village. At the end of the day after listening to Vithabai's life story told by her with no holds barred, the professor's wife hesitantly asked, "But who is this woman we met today? She seems to be a..." We did not let her complete her sentence. "She is a kalaakar," we said almost in one voice. And that is how the entire Narayangaon will remember Vithabai — Vithabai, the kalaakar, the artiste.

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Researches on Women).

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