A man of the world, Abhishek Khedekar has decided to focus his newest photo book Tamasha (published by Loose Joints) on the Dalit community, the culture from which the Tamasha dance originates. Having travelled to many places around the globe, Khedekar has a very well-rounded knowledge of different cultures and the intersection of traditions and languages.
His emphasis on the Dalit people and Tamasha comes from the inspiration he felt growing up in his home state of Maharashtra, India, which also happens to be the home site of the famous dance. His personal connection to the subject and passionate study of the Dalit people in his new photo book have signified this project as Khedekar’s favourite publication to date. Based in New Delhi, the artist explores an interdisciplinary medium that crosses contemporary media and art with modern yet rugged photography. His work is raw and authentic to the experiences of the subject at hand. Today we speak with him to delve into the project and get to know him better.
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Congratulations on the publication of Tamasha. Your extensive CV shows that you are no stranger to publications, press, and exhibitions. How is this photo book different from other projects you’ve worked on? And what was the process like putting it together?
Thank you so much, Zach. Honestly, I can say that Tamasha is my favourite project and it's very close to me. Also, I have been involved with it for quite a long time. Perhaps, I have evolved a lot while working on Tamasha as well.
The other project titled Dapoli that I am working on is more research-based where I am slowly exploring, collecting information and photographing my own sleepy, sensitive town. While in Tamasha I started documenting folk art as my personal interest lies in dance, drama, and theatre, from a young age. Tamasha is spontaneous, and the photographs are from my own experiences as I slowly adopted the life of a performer along with other Tamasgirs. I spent months living and travelling with them. It was the first time that I tried different mediums for the project actively with the photographs.
In 2016, when I started my final year graduation project, I began documenting the daily life of Tamasha performers. Using my conversations with performers and others, I made my first edit and a dummy book. These images show the energy and vibrancy of the stage excitement and a variety of people, the gaze of villagers as well as my own experiences as a part of a Tamasha troupe. These aspects played a big role while putting the work together.
How did you end up choosing to focus your book on Tamasha and the Dalit community?
To begin with, my own interest is to document and showcase the Tamasha, a traditional performing art form that originated in Maharashtra, India. It combines elements of songs, dance, comedy, music, storytelling, and dramatic performances. Historically, it was not my intention to solely focus on the Dalit community, but since Tamasha largely consists of people from the community it was important to talk about it. However, largely my focus was on the everyday challenges faced by Tamasha and capturing its rhythm, which is very dynamic.
With my own experiences as a Tamasgir, while living on the move, I made a humble attempt to showcase and highlight the cultural expression and identity of marginalised communities who gave their lives to keep this art form alive. Over the years, Tamasha has evolved and expanded its reach beyond the Dalit community and received appreciation from a larger audience. But I must say that some of the oppressed castes are still devoting their life to Tamasha. With regard to your question, it was part of the process to understand the valuable art form (Lok-kala) that comes from my own state of Maharashtra.
In order to truly capture the experience of the Tamasha dance and its community, you got the chance to interact with community members. What were they like? Are there any specific interactions you’d like to share?
I made several trips to visit Tamasha. Documenting others' lives is not that easy. Also, the feeling is always hard to put into words for me. It was very difficult for me to get comfortable with the Tamasha people. I clearly remember I was sitting on the bus with Ba, a performer and singer. She is in her 80s, born in Tamasha, and a mother of three kids who also perform. She asked me not to go alone to the village and to keep my footwear on at all times. ‘There are thorns in the ground. They won't poke you much but if you walk barefoot on them, you will feel sick and feverish in the evening. Unlike the people of this village,’ she said to me. She smiled and asked me to take a picture of the plate of food as she served me and told me to stay alert in this village and to not easily trust people over here. Everyone took their own time to open up, but slowly I became a part of them.
One of the performers narrated: “I ran away from my home when I was very young and went to a train station where someone tried to harass me. I somehow managed to escape and went to my relative's place, and they convinced me to join Tamasha. Since then, I have been a part of this group and I also got married here. We are from different castes, but Tamasha gave us a new life and a new caste (Lokkalawant) performer.”
There are many interactions I had with almost everyone. I still talk to some of my friends from Tamasha whenever possible, and often visit their villages and frequently exchange calls.
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You like to explore images that blur the line between fiction versus reality. You’ve confessed that you like to keep some information secret about the individuals and locations of your photos. How did you explore this anonymity, and how do you feel it adds to the significance of the photographs?
I was particularly interested in trying different approaches while working on the images, the poses, the lights, and the clothes. I aimed to treat most images depicting events and dialogues through visuals. Also, I wished to make images that speak in multiple ways to make them ambiguous. The collages helped to make visuals more obscure – to navigate attention, to give hints, and threads to interpret and create my own stories for viewers. It gives openness to thoughts at the same time while having doubt and confusion.
I’m curious. I feel like subtext is something that is very important to photography. The knowledge of backstory in terms of the who/what/where/when/why/how of the image. Do you feel that this anonymity takes away from the humanity of the people and places you feature in your photos?
It is my understanding of the context of expression/exchanging information, ideas or feelings; both images and words have their unique power to evoke emotions. Both have strengths to enhance each other.
But sometimes words may be more dominant and escalate your thought or perception towards the images. I agree, it's important for the backstory in order to get answers to all questions, but it’s not imperative.
Moreover, a description takes away the ambiguity of the images and limits the viewers' vision and imagination. Perhaps, photographs have a unique ability to transcend language barriers and communicate across cultures. In some way, anonymity is helping me to have a protective shield in order to respect and trust the individuals that I photograph, who let me inside their world and let me see it up close.
Tamasha is a photo book that is absent of text, though I did see a photo of a note that had a list of information written in, I believe, Hindi. How do you view the relationship between telling stories through images and telling stories through text? And how do you view the decision to not include any captions or text ads towards the anonymity and fiction of your book?
The decision to not include text was a collective one, between me and the publisher. In my earlier dummies, I added text where I was talking about the process. It doesn't feel right to force myself to explain the process of image creation. I use images to explore things. I am a visual person, so I prefer images to understand things. The choice to exclude captions or text was made to emphasise the anonymity and fictional nature of the content, perhaps an open-ended experience for viewers. As you mention in the photo of a note that lists information written, it is actually a Marathi song from one of the performer’s notebooks.
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Your collection includes a mixture of coloured and black-and-white photographs. How do you decide whether to keep a photograph in colour or not? And what is the intention behind this choice?
I frequently worked with archival material for this project and I have managed to get the archival images from one of the Tamasha groups as well. While researching, one day I visited Avishkar Mule (Papu dada) Head of the Khedkar-Mule Tamasha group, and I had the privilege to go through a family photo album of his. Some of the images in the book you see are from the archive.
I personally connect myself with the sense of memory of the place from my childhood for Tamasha. To get the nostalgic feeling, I have kept the images in the black-and-white format to simplify the visual elements and highlight the shapes. Perhaps the colours were distracting me to evoke a sense of nostalgia and timelessness in one particular photograph. On the other hand, colour photographs helped to keep the energy and impact to give experiences about colourful, loud, musical performances that I was part of.
The press release of Tamasha mentions the photographs as a means to encapsulate the “synaesthesia” of the community you were documenting. How do you link your photos with that phenomenon?
Tamasha's performance goes on for the whole night, for around five to seven hours. It starts with Gan and Gawlan (refers to the group of performers), with the help of rhythmic music using traditional instruments: Gholki, Tun-tuna, and Halgi. Gan and Gawlan set the energetic and vibrant tone of the performance, with live folk songs and interactive play with colourful bright lights illuminating the whole stage to gravitate the audience and attention. Then, a poetry form called Sandha with the help of comedy having a humorous or sentimental mood, usually in the Marathi regional language, conveys the theme of the performance.
After that, Natya (Drama) performs folklore, mythology, and social issues, engaging in storytelling with funny dialogues. Later on, Lavani, a popular dance form within Tamasha, involves expressive movements and footwork with the use of traditional instruments, and after that, Hindi and Marathi songs with dynamic movements, jumps, and leaps. It adds an element of athleticism and intensity to the performance.
Toward the end, Waghnathya (play) talks about elaborate costumes, a combination of set and backdrop and dialogue. It is trying to give social and political messages to villages. Tamasha showcases the cultural heritage of Maharashtra, combining vibrant lighting, music, dance, theatre, and storytelling into a captivating and entertaining performance. Blending all the expressions, moods and feelings triggers other feelings. This multi-sensorial Tamasha performance encapsulates the holistic experience where the audience and performer simultaneously feel the same. That’s how I relate the concept of synaesthesia to this experience. 
You’ve also engaged in the exploration of sculpting and collaging within the collection. Multidisciplinary art is always very appealing, and it is very interesting to see how different artists approach it. How did you find a balance between all three mediums – sculpting, collaging, and photography? And how did you implement them in a way to maintain a cohesive message?
I personally like to work with various explorations and engage with several mediums with different qualities. I believe with placement, scale, and a harmonious relationship between images that set typologies of the work and juxtaposition feel like one family. How the viewer's attention will flow from one media to another can help to set the work together. Also, based on my understanding of several media in exhibitions including audio, projections of film, or other media work to give a holistic experience.
However, it highly depends on the way you exhibit the work. With the help of an experienced curator, I feel it's interesting to install several media in one exhibition site. During my residency with Mahler & LeWitt Studio in Italy, Guy Robertson (curator & co-director) helped me to understand many things about the exhibition. Also, in my head, I work by putting the pieces together and working them like a puzzle. The collages of multimedia have helped me to put a well-integrated body of work that helps me visualise effectively.
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What is the message you hope to convey to viewers?
Tamasha is a traditional form of performing arts that has deep roots in the cultural heritage of India. I wish that my viewers show interest and keep this art form alive by giving it encouragement and exposure. We can ensure the continued relevance and appreciation of this colourful art form. I would like to convey to the viewers to respect and honour the Lok-Kalawant (a performer who performs for people) and the traditions of Tamasha.
You are quite active on Instagram, and you travel a lot as I can see from your story highlights! What has been your favourite place to travel, and where have you found the most inspiration?
It's difficult to choose just one favourite place to travel as I've been fortunate to visit so many incredible places while working with artist Bharat Sikka. But coming back to my hometown village Dapoli (Maharashtra, India) always inspires me like none other.
Tamasha captures the essence of the Dalit people. From your travels, do you know where or whom you’d like to focus your next project on?
Tamasha does not only capture the essence of Dalit people. Tamasha intends to show a traditional performing art form that originated in the state of Maharashtra, and the Dalit community there has played a significant role in preserving and practising it. Over the years, Tamasha has evolved and expanded its reach beyond the Dalit community. My next project is yet again from my home state, Maharashtra, where I focus on the coastal village where I grew up named Dapoli.
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