Every year a fortnight in November the sleepy town of Sonepur in Bihar transforms into a hub for the largest cattle fair in Asia.
Dance is a medium of prayer for many. It is life and more than life sometimes for us, more important than breath. But are there similar dancer 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. 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 lot more behind the scene in this mad 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 a fortnight in November the sleepy town of Sonepur in Bihar transforms into a hub for the largest cattle fair in Asia. This cattle fair 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 8-10 Nautanki companies, which are popular and all the time compete amongst 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 are on the floor trying to outdo each other. The 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 a glimpse of the stage and even try and pay double the price to get the front row entry. Bigger dance companies such as Payal ek Nazar, Gulab Vikas theatre have a big team of dancers almost going up to 40-50 dancers in the group. To ensure the dancers safety 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 Kolkatta, 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 loving 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, the attractive dancers are placed in the centre of the stage by the theatre organisers.
Often men throw things such as candles, biscuit packets and even cell phones at the women to get their attention, many do manage to go up on stage and molest girls as well.
Men enter the stage despite the guards and police presence. These are mostly local goons, influential men or regulars who are allowed to get close to the dancers despite not buying tickets. Men profess their love for the dancers and often smash beer bottles on their heads to prove their love for the art and the artiste. Regulars from the audience are often allowed to climb up on stage and dance with girls too, many 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 or cash amounting to thousands of rupees at the moves of the women they love. The dancer might be good at her skill but is paid a paltry daily wage by the theatre owner and is dependent on such tips for their livelihood all the time. The dancers attempt to seduce men with gaudy makeup, the idea is 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
What is this nautanki in Sonepur? Is it yet another Mumbai dance bar? If so then the same rule should be applied on it the way it has been applied on Mumbai bars. And if is not a Mumbai bar look-alike than where is the respect for women and the art of dance here? Nowadays, daily we read cases of molestation and rape. Doesn’t a ‘show’ like this 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 Government of India. He can be contacted on email@example.com