In this interview, he discusses the nuances of khele and how it has changed in his lifetime.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted in two parts—on January 14, 2018 in Oshi village and on October 13, 2018 over telephone. Originally in Marathi, it was translated into English.
Sonam Ambe: What is khele?
Ganpat Bargade: Khele in Marathi comes from the word khel, which means game. It is usually a recreational activity. Khele, for me, is a performance that brings a community together. It is an excuse for get-togethers. Our daughters who are married in other villages are invited with their families to watch the late-night performances. They stay over and leave the following morning.
SA: When is khele performed?
GB: Khele can be performed any time after Dussehra. Though it must be remembered that it cannot be performed on Gudi Parwa. In Ratnagiri, there are year-round performances for people’s amusement—nach or jhakadi (a musical duel) in the monsoons and naman or khele in late winter and summer.
For us in Oshi, khele starts with Makar Sankranti (celebrating the apparent northward movement of the sun on January 14, Gregorian calendar) and Holi. Our khele does not begin with the New Year but with the end of the monsoon. Holi is our biggest festival. We call it Shimga. We light the bonfire of Holika (a demoness in Vedic mythology) on Holi night and perform our khele. The act begins at 11 pm and continues till 2 am.
Khele is communal in nature. It is also performed on occasions like weddings and barsa (naming ceremonies) in the villages.
SA: You have been performing for the past 30 years, can you describe your earliest memory of khele?
GB: I was 10 when I joined. We had a designated area in the village to perform khele. We would wake up early in the morning and gather bamboo and supari (betel nut) trunks from the jungle to build the mandav (a temporary stage). We would raise the mandav with bamboo and cover it with a thatch made of coconut leaves, and then decorate the structure with mango leaves and pataka (colourful paper decorations).
In the evening, one or two hours before the performance, we would visit the Navalai Mata Mandir and perform before the goddess. We call this thap, where we offer prayers to the goddess and seek her blessings for the khele. The first performance of the year should start with thap as it wards off ill-fortune. After the thap, we would go to the mandav and prepare for our audience.
In the early days, we had only two makeup accessories—powder and soot. The gavalans would put powder on their faces to look womanly and those cast in male roles would accentuate their moustache and beard with soot. There was a time when there was no electricity for the night performances. The troupes had to perform around Holika bonfire or light batons. In fact, my first memory of watching a khele performance is one staged under Petromax lamps.
SA: What changes have you seen in khele performances over the years?
GB: We are a very competitive village. Every time we go to another village to see their performances, we take their good bits and include them in ours.
In 1985, one of our villagers, Ganpat Solim, went to Mumbai. He worked at Kohinoor Mills. He watched the local dramas in Mumbai theatres and decided that our khele performances should also have costumes. That year he stitched our costumes and we received more supari (offers) for our performances.
In the older days, we would just wear our white kurtas and the customary masks. Now we have costumes and props, we have updated and bettered ourselves.
SA: How do you compose khele?
GB: A typical khele has four main parts—Ganache naman (prayer to Ganesh), gavalanicha bhag (the act with the gavalans), vagh (the main story) and the Ravanacha nach (Ravana’s dance).
In Ganache naman, a young girl, praying to the God, is shown being abducted by a dacoit. The girl’s father fights the dacoit and brings her home. Once the girl returns home, the naman ends.
In gavlanicha bhag, prepubescent boys dress up as gavalans. There are at least five of them in the performance along with their maushi (also played by a man in woman’s attire), who is a mediator between Krishna and his consorts (the gavalans).
The next part is the vagh. Every troupe has its collection of stories for this part of the performance. I have bought more than 50 books on the Puranas from the Saraswati Granth Bhandar in Pune. These books give us story ideas that feed into our script. Sometimes we change prose to poetry or develop it as a dialogue as the script demands. We follow the formulaic tropes of romance, fight scene and comedy to rope in the audience. Sometimes we even include messages on the evils of alcohol or importance of education. I remember this one incident from my youth. We decided to use a chabuk (horsewhip). That day the audience literally cried and asked us to stop hitting the actor. Of course, the whip was just a prop and the actor was not really hurt but it helps to engage with the audience.
We conclude khele with Ravanacha nach where performers sing a couplet and dance wearing Ravana masks.
SA: How many kinds of masks do you use in a performance?
GB: We use masks when the actor's expressions are not enough to communicate the character. We use the masks mostly when we have non-human characters like cows and horses, or have to play Ganapati or Ravana.
These wooden masks were invented when there were no costumes or props. They helped in communicating the story.
SA: How are these masks made and who makes them?
GB: When I was young, I remember our troupe had masks of Ganapati, Ravana and horse, but we did not know who made them. Soon their colours faded and they warped in the humidity; we needed new masks. There was no mistry (woodworker) in the village, so I decided to give it a try and went to another village to learn from skilled carpenters. I learnt how to choose the wood and how to sculpt it. Today, I can proudly say that I have trained 64 men. I can now make mango crates, use plumb line for concrete construction and even build wells.
SA: What has khele given you?
GB: Khele has given me peace. Khele has given a new life to many in my village. In the early 1970s, our village was dealing with alcohol addiction. One of the villagers, Banu Gunaji Solim, brought all the men together and directed them towards khele. Thus, art replaced addiction and men of our village got a new lease of life. Banu made a team complete with actors, musicians, singers and dancers from the village and started the true exploration of khele for Oshi. Similarly, Banu's wife organised the women of the village through communal rituals of Makar Sankranti and haldi-kumkum. We have kept our traditions alive.
SA: Why is khele a male-centric performance? Why do women not participate?
GB: We perform for the women. Why would they participate? They are our guests at the show, our audience. You will notice that even the seating arrangement for the audience prioritises women. The area exactly in front of the stage is reserved for women and guests from other villages.
SA: Yes, but I mean to ask if women are allowed to participate in the performances instead of men playing their parts?
GB: If the performance is in the village, we are open to women taking part. But none of them have ever shown an interest in acting. However, we would not let women perform with us outside. We live in a society where women performers are not seen as morally upright. Who will marry them?