Women in ghagra cholis and men clad in traditional blue kurtas and white dhotis tap their feet and wave their hands as they go around in circles, a man dressed as a primitive tribesman joins others and breaks into acrobatics and stunts, all to the rhythms and tunes of a dhol, tam-tam and trumpet. A captivating scene in Chhota Udepur's Bodeli as a 35-member team of timli dancers keep the crowd engaged for an hour before BJP president Amit Shah arrives to address a public meeting.
The dancers are usually in great demand during election season but they say 2019 has been dull, with their bookings down to just one-third of what it in 2014.
"Is baar kuch mahol thanda hai (This time the environment is mellow)," says Kanchanbhai Rathwa, who leads the troupe. "Narendra Modi was contesting from Gujarat in 2014, from the Vadodara seat and the environment was very different," he explains. "There were rigorous campaigns and public meetings and we went to various places in Vadodara, Chhota Udepur and even Dahod. Many known leaders used to come here to campaign and we performed at those functions. This time not many national leaders have come for meetings to these constituencies."
Bansi Rathwa (40), whose father started the 'Rathwa Apasi Lok Nritya' troupe in 1970, said, "So far this is only our third performance, with just two more days left for the campaigns to end. In 2014, we performed at more than 15 such campaigns for both the BJP and the Congress in various constituencies."
When the troupe was formed, they initially performed only at village-level functions. "But eventually we expanded, and now we perform across the state and even in various parts of the country," said Bansi. "We were expecting to encash a good amount this election season, but that did not happen."
In this election, the troupe has until now performed twice for Chief Minister Vijay Rupani's event, in Vadodara and Chhota Udepur, and for Amit Shah's event here on Friday. In Vadodara, they participated in a road show for the nomination filing of Ranjan Bhatt apart from two public meetings. "At public meetings we perform to fill gaps. Then we sit down and listen to the leaders. At a rally we have to perform continuously and that is much more tiring but both pay equally," Kanchanbhai said. With no pay rise in the past five years, they are given the same wages as in 2014, Rs 1,000 per person, with an additional food and travel allowance.
All the dancers in the troupe, with the eldest member aged 47 and the youngest 15, are natives of Raisingpura village in Kawant taluka of Chhota Udepur, and belong to the same family, closely or distantly related to each other.
With performances mostly restricted to festivals and such public events, the performers otherwise work as farm hands and labourers. With just few days to the polls, the team is now approaching parties to bag more bookings.