It's an Omelas kind of dilemma.
The name Vithabai Bhau Mang Narayangaonkar works magic in Maharashtra even today. A gifted tamasha artiste, she entranced Marathi audiences for several decades with her rustic voice, robust repartee and earthy charm. Vithabai died on January 15, 2002. I had met her in Narayangaon, near Pune, a few years before the end came. She was 70 and battling a heart ailment, but still cheerful.
The walls of Vithabai’s two-room dwelling were a memorial to the past, with photographs of her performing on stage during her youth and accepting national and state honours from important public figures.
The Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee had announced a donation of Rs 25,000 to help meet her medical expenses, and there were others who had put in their generous bit. That the cheque from the Congress state unit bounced is a different story. Like all tamasha artistes, Vithabai knew by instinct that the generosity of the high and mighty does not last long. Still she preferred to be grateful for life’s small mercies.
It was I who felt guilty seeing her in such a poor state, almost bedridden. Vithabai herself was matter of fact, and had carefully preserved the cheque: “Just in case an MPCC member happens to visit again, I will show him the returned cheque,” she quipped.
The choicest abuses were reserved for the man she had called her husband since her early teens. He would drink, beat her up and take all the money she earned through her performances, which were held even when she was pregnant.
On one occasion, her husband had booked her to perform when she was nine months pregnant. Vithabai talked about this particular performance to all and sundry, and when she told it to me I wondered whether as a Maharashtrian I should be more ashamed than proud of our patronage of the tamasha because of what this incident revealed.
The nine-month pregnant Vithabai took the stage as usual. She was performing together with her two teenage daughters so when she felt the labour pains coming, she conveyed to them that they should prolong their part of the performance, and quickly went to the makeshift green room where she delivered a baby boy. The delivery was quick, she said, and so she just wrapped the newborn in an old sari after cutting the umbilical cord with a sharp stone, had a bath with cold water, wrapped her traditional nine yard saree tightly around her waist and within an hour was back on stage to entertain the audience, whose lusty whistles compelled her to continue the performance.
“Believe me, it was the artiste in me that has kept me alive till today. Who knows how I survived this life with all its ups and downs,” she said. Despite the accolades accorded to tamasha, Vithabai was certain that “one life as a tamasha artiste is enough. No singing and dancing in the next birth for me”.
*Actually, I suspect we will, so long as it doesn't impinge on our consciousness.