Dance is a medium of prayer for many. It is sacred if you happen to be a dance devotee. There are many dancers including me who take dance not just as passion and love but life or even more than life sometime. But are there similar dancers with such feelings and thoughts? This is something I was made to think recently when I met a young girl from Kolkata for whom dance was a medium to earn a living for her household. A superb dancer she was, I must say but, would like to add that she was a dancer without direction.
I was told a horrifying story which made me realise that all fabulous dancers might not love dance and people who see the graceful dancer might not always be dance lovers. There is a lot more behind the scene in this mad and bad world, what we think is simple love of dance can be a trauma, a compulsion and many-a-times, even sex trade.
Every year fortnight in November, the sleepy town of Sonepur in Bihar transforms into a hub for the largest cattle fair in Asia. This cattle fare is world famous where men (mainly from Indian villages) from all over come to buy, sell and book cattle for the coming season. But for a large section of the men attending the highlight is not trading of hundreds of animals but the nautanki that takes place every day during this time in Sonepur.
There is a bizarre show every day where some really amazing dancers step on stage to entertain the so-called dance lover tourists at the fair. The crowd at Sonepur Fair are entertained by eight-10 nautanki companies which are popular and all the time compete among each other to bring on stage the best dancers from India. The popular show has skimpily clad women dancers gyrating to the latest Bollywood tunes. Be it Sheila, Munni, Chikni Chameli or Jalebi Bai, all were on the floor, trying to outdo each other. Tickets for these shows are typically priced at Rs 50, a price almost unheard of in metros for a dance show.
Claiming to be dance-lovers, men strain to catch glimpse of the stage and even try and pay double the price to get the front row entry. Bigger dance companies like Payal Ek Nazar and Gulab Vikas Theatre have a big team of dancers, up to 40-50 in the group. To ensure the safety of the dancers, the stage is barricaded with iron bars but is not always safe, I am told.
Girls who have amazing moves and jhatkas from near and far like Kolkata, Muzaffarpur, Varanasi and even Delhi are brought to dance at these popular shows. A presenter stands next to a bench on which shorter girls stand so that they can easily be seen by the audience. The crowd often turns rowdy and can get out of hand during the performance. Some men even try to jump the barricade and climb up on stage. Each company hires well-built local bouncers for crowd control. The police too monitor proceedings to prevent the girls from being molested but they are not successful all the time.
There are shows that happen throughout the day during this fair period while a few shows start in the afternoon. The more popular ones have dancers entertaining the packed crowds all night. Since its common for the dance-lover men to throw money and gifts at the women they fancy, the dancers too put a lot of efforts for their appearance. To maximise crowd attention, attractive dancers are placed in the centre of the stage. Often men throw things like candles, biscuit packets and even cell phones at women to get attention. Many do manage to go up on stage and molest girls as well.
Men profess their love for the dancers and often smash beer bottles on their heads to prove so. Regulars from the audience are often allowed to climb up on stage and dance with girls. Man men throw and offer money to dancers at the heat of the moment. Some rich patrons are known to have thrown expensive gifts, gold jewellery and even cash amounting to thousands of rupees on the moves of the women they love. The dancer might be good at her skills but is paid a paltry daily wage by theatre owners and is dependent on tips for their livelihood.
The dancers attempt to seduce men with gaudy makeup, the idea being to stand out under the harsh stage lights. Since most of the dancers cannot afford expensive branded cosmetics, they have to improvise on their makeup skills and products. For instance, instead of foundation, most dancers use fuller’s earth as base. The dancers are also made to live in tiny makeshift rooms for the duration of their stay in Sonepur. Such is life for some amazing, undiscovered dancers of India.
But what is this nautanki in Sonepur? Is it another form a dance bar? If so, then the same rule should be applied on it, the way it has been applied on Mumbai bars. And if it is not a Mumbai bar then where is the respect for women and the art of dance? Nowadays, we read cases of molestation and rape every day. Don’t ‘shows’ like these encourage this even more? Can the real men please stand up and stop this disrespect of women and the art of dance?
Sandip Soparrkar is a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with National Achievement Award and National Excellence Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]