In Pictures: On the Road With a Troupe of Indian Dancers

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Tamasha by Abhishek Khedekar
Tamasha by Abhishek Khedekar© Abhishek Khedekar 2023. Courtesy Loose Joints

Abhishek Khedekar’s new photo book Tamasha captures the theatrical spectacle of the folk art form, yet remains attentive to the complex social histories associated with it

In 2016, Indian artist Abhishek Khedekar took to a life on the road alongside a nomadic community of performers participating in the tradition of Tamasha. “Being backstage, I saw how everything was happening all at once; there was loud music and colourful lights all around us, with some performers changing into costumes, while others joined me for dinner before going back to perform onstage,“ says Khedekar, recalling his first evening with the Maharashtrian folk troupe in 2016. The photographer, whose own interest in the performing arts began at a young age and persisted through his adult life, was immediately captivated; he spent the next several months with this community, moving from one village to another and capturing the kaleidoscopic cast of performers as they combined poetry, dance, music and comedy in their distinctive visual production.

Fast-forward to 2023, Khedekar’s long engagement with Tamasha has materialised into a photo book of the same name. Published by Loose Joints as part of the Publishing Performance award with Mahler & LeWitt Studios, Tamasha captures the theatrical spectacle of the folk art form yet remains attentive to the complex social histories associated with it. “I felt a deep connection with the performers and would travel with them, talk to them about their lives, eat with them and sometimes even perform with them on stage. For those months, I was part of Tamasha,” Khedekar tells AnOther.

His gaze, informed by his proximity to the Dalit ‘families’ that make up the troupe, is unencumbered by the limitations of objectivity. Instead, the photographer moves between the liminal spaces of fiction and reality, presenting his subjects and their daily lives with an unimposing sincerity. “There’s a beauty to how Tamasha performers transform backstage and captivate an audience,” Khedekar explains. “I wanted to see if I could deliver the magic of each performance – the energy, the vibrance, and the fanfare – through the book.” This modality of the project was further developed during the artist’s residency at Mahler & LeWitt, where the photographer was creating new collages, constantly working on the sequencing of the photographs, and thinking deeply about how he could emphasise the vibrancy and emotion at the centre of the Tamasha through artistic techniques, instead of using words.

Flipping through the pages of Tamasha, you are confronted with a sense of spectacle, evoked in part through the artist’s use of highly saturated images of the stage, dazzling disco lights, close-up shots of ankles adorned with ghungroos and stylised portraits of the performers. Elsewhere, it is Khedekar’s experimentation with collage and reappropriation of archival images as an artistic technique that adds a narrative layer to this work. “I started working with collages as it was important for me to maintain a certain level of ambiguity to my images,” he reveals of this visual intervention.

Khedekar, introduced to photography by a friend at a photo studio in Pune, has always been intrigued by how images can be used as a mirror rather than a document. To him, the photograph can tease out different memories and emotions from its spectator, making it an apt vehicle to explore the unique visual language of Tamasha. “I avoid thinking of these photographs as a visual diary of my time with the group or a depiction of the people and performances I saw there, which is why I call this project a docu-fiction,” he explains further. “As we are all connected to dance, music and performance in some capacity, I wanted to retain a sense of subtlety and nuance in the images and keep it open-ended for the viewer so that they can interpret and reflect on these images of Tamasha for themselves.” 

Tamasha by Abhishek Khedekar is published by Loose Joints and is out now.