Every year, in December, Mhaswad becomes a hub of excitement. Several thousand people from neighboring towns and villages descend on this small and sleepy town on the occasion of the yatra (journey). The yatra is the largest religious festival of Mhaswad, where the rath (chariot) of the god Siddhanath is pulled around the town.
Local folklore has it that the yatra tradition was started since Lord Siddhanath wanted to show his newly wedded wife his hometown of Mhaswad. The yatra is accompanied by a large mela (fair), held at the maidan (ground). This itself goes on for a few days before and after the actual yatra, and is the talk of the town.
My colleagues at the office had been planning for the yatra for weeks before it took place. They had also given me colorful descriptions of what the procession and the mela would be like. I had never experienced a yatra or a mela in a small town before and couldn’t help but be swept away by the excitement. In my anticipation, I ended up making plans with several different groups of people and was counting down the days till the yatra arrived.
It was apparent from a week before the festival that something grand was coming up. There were more people (especially men) on the streets, and eating joints were doing brisk business. The day before the yatra, cars and buses full of people from villages and towns all over Maharashtra began piling in. The neighbor’s plot, where my colleagues lived, was completely overrun by vehicles and entire families, who had made their camps out under the open sky. People had also come from all over Maharashtra to sell their wares at the mela.
The next day was the day of the event i was waiting for. People milled around the streets with their families, covered in pink gulaal from head to toe. Street hawkers had arrived overnight and were selling ice cream, shengdane (peanuts), bor (ber) and peru (guavas). Around early evening, we heard the sound of drums and excited chants, announcing the rath’s arrival. I had never seen anything like it before! It looked like quite a ramshackle structure, but had immense wheels and a throne at its centre, where the Raja Rajmane of the royal family of Mhaswad would sit. A special place at the centre was also occupied by the idol of the god Siddhanath. Only those communities who traditionally had a role to play in the making of the rath were allowed to sit, stand on or pull the rath. The rest threw coconuts and gulaal at the moving behemoth. So much gulaal is used during the yatra that Mhaswad becomes a pink city for days afterward!
In the fiery glow of sunset, the rath slowly progressed towards the bus stand, taking with it the mixed crowd of people and trinket sellers. They left in their wake carpets of gulaal and cocunut. From the bus stand, the procession would make its way across Mhaswad, depositing the idol of Lord Siddhanath at the temple before finally ending up at the maidan, where the mela was being held.
The mela was a far more extravagant affair than I had expected! Those who traveled with the mela had also arrived a few days before the yatra, and they had managed to set up their entire apparatus within one night! This included classic fair rides such as the giant wheel, boat and break dance (something like crazy cars), food stalls as well as trinkets, utensils, toy and shoe stalls. The stall owners had come from places as distant as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They were all part of the traveling mela, and had journeyed from Karnataka, the neighboring state. After Mhaswad, they would be making their way westwards across Maharashtra. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of a life they led, always on the move for the better part of a year. We could see their makeshift camps on the ground, with bedding, utensils and clothes all piled in a heap. In the last few days of the mela, once the rides and stalls had been dismantled and packed up, these were all that would remain, reminding us of the people who had worked behind the scenes to put up such a grand affair.
There was another aspect of the mela that I only got to hear about and could not experience first-hand. This was the Tamasha, a traditional folk theatre form of Maharashtra. The Tamasha evolved from a variety of other folk art forms, such as Kirtan, Jagran and Gondhal . As a discrete art form, it emerged in the late sixteenth century, and was known for its lewd and bawdy content. This was especially targeted towards the armies of the Mughals and the Marathas, who had made the Deccan a playground for their various altercations .
Although in later years, the Tamasha was refined into a form of family entertainment known as Loknatya, in many rural areas, it retains its bawdy content. Thus, the attendees are mostly all men. In Mhaswad, the Tamasha was held in the nights, on the eve before the yatra and the day of the yatra. A very famous Tamasha troupe had come to perform, that of Mangala Bansode, daughter of the well-known Tamasha artist Vithabai Bhau Mang Narayangaonkar . The performances consisted of dances, songs and humorous skits with double meanings, and incorporated modern content.
While I briefly considered disguising myself as a man to attend the Tamasha, reason prevailed and I ended up staying home. I returned to a train of thought that hardly ever leaves my station, the rigidity of certain gender boundaries in rural India, and their consequences for the women who lived with them. In my understanding, the women who performed as part of the troupe were also oppressed by the very same logic that kept ‘respectable’ women away from the Tamasha. They presumably had little agency over their choice of profession. But the men who attended the Tamasha probably never stopped to understand or hear their stories, just like I had failed to engage with the stories of the vendors who had traveled from distant places to sell their wares at the mela.
On the other hand, the Tamasha folk tradition also had a long and chequered history. Folk art forms are one of the ways in which communities express themselves collectively, and are often a source of cultural pride. In fact, the Maharashtra government has honored several Tamasha artists with recognition and awards, including Mangala Bansode and her mother Vithabai, in whose honor the Maharashtra government initiated a lifetime achievement award. There has also been a ban on the Tamasha tradition for its vulgarity (this was apparently enacted to prevent the exploitation of women performers). It was soon realized that the ban caused more distress to the performers than relief, and the ban was lifted, making way for a set of guidelines to prevent the exploitation of women Tamasha artists .
My exposure to rural India has certainly broadened my predominantly urban understanding of feminism and women’s empowerment. It has allowed me to see the many complexities of an issue before making a judgement on it. While I would like to live in an ideal world where women and their bodies are not commodified, I realize that is not even an option for several women. In such situations, can these folk traditions and the norms governing them provide some measure of dignity and respect for women who would otherwise not receive such appreciation? The question is open to debate.
 ‘Setting the Stage: 12 Little Known Traditional Folk Theatre Forms of India’, by Sanchari Pal, in The Better India, October 18, 2016.
 Abrams, Tevia. ‘Folk Theatre in Maharashtrian Social Development Programs.’ Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 27, no. 3, 1975, pp. 395–407. JSTOR.
 Vithabai Bhau Mang Narayangaonkar, in Wikipedia.
 ‘Tamasha Folk Theatre of Maharashtra’, in Sphoorthi Theatre, Sunday, 12 February 2012