Eleven women in saris sway gracefully to the beats of the lejhims (hand bells) in their hands. A bespectacled man instructs them with a piercing whistle and a thumping drum.
A commanding woman up front leads this troupe, the youngest of whom is 28 and the oldest 62.
The easy poise comes naturally to her: She is, after all, the sarpanch (village head) of Shirgaon in Tasgaon taluka, Sangli district, about 430 km southeast of Mumbai.
Four years ago, the idea of women over the age of 25 playing lejhim in this verdant hamlet of 2,500 people was not only frowned upon, it was unthinkable. This athletic dance form was considered appropriate only for men and children.
That was until 47-year-old Anjanitai Amrutsagar was elected sarpanch in 2005, thanks to the government’s 33 per cent reservation for women candidates in panchayati raj institutions.
This was the first time in the village’s history that a woman — and a Dalit one at that — had been voted sarpanch.
“Everyone thought I was going to be a nominal leader. They thought no one would listen to a woman,” says Amrutsagar.
Unfazed, this Class 10 graduate went about her work after being trained by the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan — a campaign for women in governance.
She concretised the village lanes, commissioned a Rs 5-lakh water pipeline, built a samaj mandir (community prayer hall) for the Dalits and installed an effective drainage system.
Concerned about the absence of women from the gram sabha (village council), she also initiated the first mahila gram sabha, a women-only village council, in which women meet every month to discuss local issues and understand government schemes.
A firm supporter of the Nationalist Congress Party, Amrutsagar credits R.R. Patil, then deputy chief minister and Tasgaon’s MLA, with her village’s development, which has the maximum number of women self-help groups, at 37, in Sangli district.
The oft-heard complaint of government officials refusing to release money to the village sarpanch without receiving a commission doesn’t apply to Shirgaon.
So far, the government has granted Amrutsagar Rs 85 lakh for development projects in Shirgaon.
Development aside, this spirited sarpanch’s claim to fame is getting the village’s ladies to perfect the male-dominated sport of lejhim, despite having men call them badchalan (immoral).
But one man, D. Kumbhar (60), head of the local primary school, resolved to train them. “Why can’t women play this game? In fact, it is very good exercise for them,” he says.
They practiced in the fields, the toll of their hand bells sounding the breakdown of taboos in the village. They went on to win the first prize at a district competition last year.
And while Amrutsagar may dance gracefully, her authority in a crisis is undisputed.
Last month, she led her village to prevent a mob of 25 men from desecrating the local mosque during Sangli’s communal riots.
“She told them not to touch it because we (the villagers) had built it ourselves,” says Mukund Thomre, the deputy sarpanch. “They respected her as a woman and left.”
Shirgaon’s men now hold Amrutsagar in high esteem.
“Women make better sarpanches because they don’t drink alcohol,” says Vijay Gaikwad, a driver.
Amrutsagar now harbours ambitions to be elected in the panchayat samiti (the taluka-level council).
“I run my house, my farm and my village. I will go a step at a time, and one day, I will be right at the top,” she says with a smile.