A lively portrait of India’s nomadic Tamasha performers

Abhishek Khedekar’s debut photo book sees him go on the road with a Dalit community involved in Tamasha, a traditional performance found across Maharashtra

In India, particularly across Maharashtra, a nomadic, centuries-old form of performance takes place by the name of Tamasha. “It combines elements of songs, dance, comedy, music, storytelling, and dramatic performances,” says New Delhi-based photographer Abhishek Khedekar, who has based his debut photo book on the traditional practice. He explains that Lokkalavant, or performers, use Tamasha to share stories, culture, histories, and observations on politics, class, and society.

Growing up, Khedekar was always more interested in dance and drama than sport and academia. When he was around 12 years old, a Tamasha troupe visited his hometown of Dapoli. “I recall my mother not allowing me to go to the performance that night. I stayed at home but I remember listening to the music that was buzzing that night from the grounds nearby.” His interest lasted well into his postgraduate degree, when he began to document Tamasha for his final project.

All images © Abhishek Khedekar, 2023. Courtesy Loose Joints

The project has been published in a modest, brochure-like format as part of the inaugural Publishing Performance residency orchestrated by Loose Joints and Mahler & Lewitt Studios, which was created to spotlight the “intersections of photography and performance”, according to the publisher. Khedekar spent the residency in Spoleto, Italy, during which time the kernels of a new project emerged, after he connected with an Italian guru who runs an ashram in northern Umbria.

Tamasha fell by the wayside after India gained independence, according to the publisher. The perception of Tamasha in India also goes hand in hand with the perceptions of those who are involved with it – often people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom are minoritised by the caste system.

It is most closely (though not exclusively) associated with Dalit communities – pejoratively named ‘untouchables’ – though only while creating the project did Khedekar become aware of just how important Dalit communities and Tamasha are to one another.

“Through this platform they have been able to talk about the caste system, and social-political issues, and spread awareness while entertaining people,” he explains. “One of the performers mentioned to me that Tamasha had been a part of his family for several generations and that there were many who shared this similarity with him.” The performer said that although the art form was his main source of livelihood, he still isn’t respected by society.

The physicality of performing Tamasha is reflected in Khedekar’s experimental, tactile approach to creating the body of work. Photographs are cut out, collaged, and detached, just as the people within them are detached from any one place. As Khedekar’s hand presents itself in the work, through slicing images or mark-making, he becomes woven within the world of Tamasha, creating a kind of mixed media extension to the performance.

“It was challenging to have a performance element such as live music, dance, energetic performances, comedy, and storytelling translated into a static book. But I feel the editing plays a big role here,” he explains. “I made small prints of approximately 2,000 images and I sat with [Loose Joints founders] Lewis and Sarah, who helped me to come up with the smaller edit to get the complete scenes of Tamasha.” He edited the work based on his personal experiences and nostalgic feelings, listening to traditional songs from the Tamasha to keep him in the headspace of the performance.

The sequencing of the book evokes the rhythm and routines that go into each Tamasha production. “The flow of the book reflects a journey, immersing the viewers in the unfolding events and allowing them to experience the Tamasha in its entirety. The collages created here helped to focus on the few objects that are easily ignored but are vital to the Tamasha and speak volumes about them.

“I noticed that the performances happen in the same pattern in each village and even the rahuti (tents) and stage are set up in the exact direction in every village,” he explains. “In the book, I aimed to capture the essence of a complete day of Tamasha, from its vibrant beginning to its grand finale.”

Tamasha by Abhishek Khedekar is published by Loose Joints; loosejoints.biz