Shirley Abraham
Arts Research & Documentation | 01-12-2008 - 30-11-2009 | Completed

This project focuses on a unique system of film projection and reception—the tambu talkies or the tent cinemas. These tambu talkies travel with the jatras, the annual religious fairs that are hosted by nodal villages in Maharashtra. Writer and researcher Shirley Abraham will construct a history of the tambu talkies in Maharashtra by recording the oral narratives of tambu cinema owners and distributors, and she will excavate documents and other tambu talkies ephemera. Her collaborator is photographer Amit Madeshiya who will document the current state of the touring tent talkies. His visuals will capture the audience profile, the ingenious projection systems, the innovative advertising strategies and, most importantly, the sheer magic of the tambu talkies that draws hundreds of people to the jatra every year.

Shirley Abraham says, “The tradition of the: jatras has been integral to rural Maharashtra and these sacred sites developed into vast communal spaces where people from various villages came... the sheer number of the people assembled, further encouraged entertainment forms like Javani and tamashas, which were subsequently integrated in the traditional format of the jatras.. .” But in the early 1930s, a few decades after the advent of cinema in Bombay, people from some of the villages came together and bought second-hand film projectors and 16mm film reels and carted them off on bullock carts to screen films during the jatras. The first audiences watched mythological films and the unprecedented response to this new form of entertainment laid the foundation for and sustained the touring tent cinemas.

Abraham says, “It was only around the 1940s that a sort of organised exhibition of the films started in the villages... the tambu owners planned their tours according to the jatra calendars... and for more visibility many companies began to tour in groups following the jatras from one village to another.” The project will focus on this connection between the jatras and the tambu talkies. As Abraham explains, “Our research will trace the development of a symbiotic relationship between a new cultural experience of the tambu talkies and the old tradition of the jatras... Bahiram jatra located near Amravati is an important site for this study; this month-long jatra was consolidated by the introduction of the tambu cinemas. As many as 10 tent companies used to pitch their tents at one point in time. People remember it as a flourishing jatra, until there was intervention from the local authorities who stopped the tamashas and the tambu cinemas. Now the attendance is dismally low, and many cite the stopping of these forms of entertainment as the reason for the decline in scale.”

In her pursuit of locating tambu cinema owners Abraham met with 81-year-old Hari Krishnaji Ladah who founded the Azad Kaka Talkies, one of the oldest tambu talkies in western Maharashtra. He observed that “the jatras also were a testing ground to see what the audience’s response was to certain kinds of films.” The audience’s response to the films continues to dictate the distinct patterns of exhibition till date. Today these portable cinemas screen an eclectic mix of Marathi and Hindi films. Some audiences devour high-pitched Marathi social dramas; others prefer re-runs of rowdy Tamil action films. Occasionally, the big Bollywood blockbuster also runs to packed tents. The shows

start at noon and run back-to-back till 3 a.m., with the audience paying Rs 15 per show.

While the researcher will map the distribution cycle, the exhibition patterns and gather old photographs in order to create a narrative of the past, photographer Madeshiya will document the journey of two tambu cinemas, namely Krishna Koena Talkies from Satara in western Maharashtra and Novelty Talkies from Jalgaon in central Maharashtra.

1 Madeshiya says, “We will follow the companies as they set out to exhibit films... these images chronicling the existing form will also enable a comparative analysis with the early formats and operations of the tambu talkies.” Abraham raises important question pertaining to the evolution of formats and says that their research will also examine “how the physical organisation of the tambus changed with time. We will first establish what the early formats were and then investigate progressions in tent structures, sound systems, the range of projectors and screens and the modifications in the trucks and makeshift ticket windows.”

Finally, the research will yield insights into the effect of the booming cable T.V. industry and mushrooming VCD parlours on the tambu talkies today. Abraham and Madeshiya will also study the impact of Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Chitrapat Mandal’s attempt to resurrect the tambu cinemas as ‘rural multiplexes’ in collaboration with corporate houses. Madeshiya says of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Chitrapat Mandal that “they believe that any form of the media doesn’t sustain itself merely on subscription and sponsorship is crucial. The Chitrapat Mandal managed to procure advertisements specifically for the tambu audience by creating banners and stalls for the sponsors in some jatras.” Keeping this aspect in mind, the research will also look into the effect of this corporate sponsorship on the small family-run units.

Today, the number of tambu talkies is dwindling and in a desperate struggle for survival, the tambu cinema owners are trying to re-invent themselves. While there is documentation of the early Bioscope companies that travelled across Maharashtra, there is almost no documentation of the tambu talkies and their impact on Indian cinema. This project will fill that gap, mapping and analysing the relationship of the tambu to the jatras from the 1940s to the present. Apart from constructing a history of the tambu talkies, this project will yield a set of oral narratives and exhaustive photo documentation of the tambu talkies in its current form.


This description is part of the institutional records created by IFA at the onset of the grant. The project may have changed in due course as reflected in the deliverables from the Grantee.


Mid-term Deliverables

Final Deliverables

Media Coverage


Grant No : 2008-1-009

Grantee Name : Shirley Abraham

Programme : Arts Research & Documentation

Grant Status : Completed

Start Date : 01-12-2008

End Date : 30-11-2009

Duration : One year

Grant Amount : 3,00,000

Geographical Area of Work : Maharashtra

Disciplinary Field of Work : Cinema

Language : English