One evening in 2016, while photographer Abhishek Khedekar was living in Pune in the Indian state of Maharashtra, he travelled to Narayangaon – a small town set just over 40 miles (70km) from the city. He’d caught a rumour that a travelling troupe of Tamasha performers were in the area and wanted to see the show for himself. Having grown up as a child in rural Maharashtra with fond memories of participating in folk dance, a friend of his suggested he check out a Tamasha show – a traditional form of musical theatre, often consisting of more than 100 performers, that travels from village to village around the state.
After a fortunate encounter with a man who supplied trucks to the roaming performers pointed him to the site and gave him the contact details for Papu Dada – one of the group’s organisers – he shoved some spare clothes into a bag, grabbed his camera and went to the site of the evening’s show. There, he was greeted by a flurry of lights, music and bright colour, and quickly felt a sense of wonder.
“I was amazed, like ‘wow, this is a different world here’,” recalls Khedekar. “As a kid I was performing on stage, but it wasn’t that elaborate – everybody was in makeup, the costumes were elaborate, the lighting was vibrant mixed with traditional music and singing.”
Asking for Papu Dada, Khedekar was invited backstage, where dozens of performers and crew members were frantically preparing for the next acts, while those who had just come off stage were catching a quick chance to rest and grab a bite to eat.
“Performers were coming and going, having their dinner, going back and dressing, there’s a lot of different sounds and lights. I didn’t take any pictures, I was just looking at them like ‘what is happening here?’” he says. “Then Papu Dada was kind enough to ask me, ‘have you had dinner?’ and I said ‘no’.
“He’s like ‘okay, you can have dinner here, the food we cook is a little spicy but you can manage it,” Khedekar continues. “From that day, I started travelling with them from one village to the next, and I started photographing everything.”
Khedekar would proceed to spend months on the road with the performers on numerous stretches until 2022, making pictures as well as mucking in with the production of the shows, and even getting on stage and performing. Now, some of his pictures are presented in his newly-published photobook Tamasha. With a mix of portraiture, candid shots of objects and creative collages, the pictures are a warm, vibrant and intimate window into the costumes, performances and characters of the nomadic show, as well as the wild operation that moving 100-plus performers, artists and crew on a daily basis takes.
“They’re doing it for like seven or eight months a year,” Khedekar explains. “There are around 70 people there who perform, but it’s not only like they perform – sometimes if the truck driver is not well they have to drive the truck, you all cook together and eat food together, you have to set up the tents everyday and even a small office space.”
The book is also a celebration of a joyous culture that has in recent decades come to be looked down upon and maligned by many. Originating in the 1800s, Tamasha troupes have traditionally been made up of Dalit folks, which is historically considered the lowest caste in Indian society – the word itself roughly translates to ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken.’ In the 20th century, as much of India moved away culturally from traditional forms of song and dance, they became stigmatised and shunned in many areas as they descended upon villages with their giant moving operation.
But that landscape is changing as more people come to value the skill, traditions and knowledge that Tamasha encapsulates, and troupes are increasingly made up from people across different classes and walks of life.
For Khedekar though, that time spent with them means even more than just the performances and entertainment. “It’s my family,” he says, smiling. “I say family because everybody stays under the same tent, everyone cooks food and eats together, performs, then goes again to the next village. A lot of them have become my friends, so Tamasha has given me an extended family, and I’m [grateful] I can be part of that.”