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Dancing With the Wolves: A Peek Into the Life of Bihar’s Anaarkali of Ara

A photograph of a group of men sitting, where some of them are wearing a red cloth turban.

When she is done hurling the choicest of abuses at her husband, Pooja Singh Rajput locks herself up in the bedroom of their tiny house at the end of a quiet bylane in Bhojpur district’s Ara town in Bihar. The pretty, tall 26-year-old woman, wearing a royal blue velvet suit with a pink dupatta, a trace of sindoor in the parting of her hair, declares that she won’t perform at the wedding tonight. It is too close to her relatives’ place, who, she believes, are unaware of her profession. Ram Kumar Pandey, her husband of 18 months and the owner of a local orchestra group, doesn’t budge. “One moment, he is my husband. And the next, he is an agent for whom I am just a woman who is supposed to dance dirty before raucous men to help him make a quick buck,” she says, referring to Pandey who has 14 girls on his roster who dance all night to Bhojpuri songs laden with sexual innuendos at hotel parties, ‘room parties’, birthday functions and weddings. “I am not a small-time dancer. I have worked in two films. I will perform on my own terms,” says Pooja, fanning herself with a jute hand fan.

Dismissing her tantrums, Pandey says, “She will be all right in no time. She is a darling.”

Five years ago, Pooja, a Ludhiana native, was shooting for a Bhojpuri music album in Ara, one of more than a dozen albums she has featured in, when her choreographer introduced her to Pandey, a well-built man who sports a handlebar moustache and is never seen sans his grey baseball cap. Pooja did not think very highly of live dancing until Pandey persuaded her to give it a shot. Four years later, she married Pandey and became the ‘star performer’ of his troupe.

Just like Anaarkali, the feisty live performer in the Swara Bhaskar-starrer Anaarkali of Aarah, Pooja is unapologetic about her profession and demands respect as much as money.

In fact, that holds true for the hundreds of stage dancers who are an integral part of Bihar’s live entertainment trade.

Dancers Naina Sharma and Shobha Sigdha share some light moments at their apartment in Patna . (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)
Bihar does not have many female dancers to call its own. In the state capital Patna, around 60 km from Ara, Shobha Sigdha, a 24-year-old dancer from North Kolkata’s Sealdah area, is irritable as we have woken her up at 5 pm. Her roommate, Naina Sharma, is also unwelcoming. “The girls were working all night. Usually they return by 6 am and are up only around 7-7.30 pm,” says Ashok Kumar, 31, who runs the event management company Rajdhani Entertainment, and is one of the most popular artiste coordinators in Patna.

Every year during the wedding season — April to June and October to December — Ashok’s agents in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Mumbai and Delhi send him a different set of girls.

For the period that they get work through Ashok, the girls are not allowed to smoke, drink, have a boyfriend or exchange their phone numbers with anyone.

In return, Ashok takes care of their accommodation, food and gives them assignments worth Rs 3,000-6,000 per night. Though Ashok says that the most important thing he gives to his artistes is security. During live shows, it is common for unruly, drunk men to open fire. In January, revellers shot dead a 20-year-old dancer during a tilak ceremony in Rohtas district, 150 km south-west of Patna. In December, celebratory firing at a marriage function in Punjab’s Bhatinda district took the life of a wedding dancer. “I run a verification check on the organiser of the event. I ask the organiser to give me a point-person who will be accountable in case anything untoward takes place. Plus, I remain alert myself. When I notice something wrong, I tell the audience to behave properly,” says Ashok.

For the girls, it is the money that keeps them hooked and does not allow them to think about such mishaps. “Sochenge to karenge kaise (I won’t be able to perform if I have these events playing in my mind),” says Shobha, who does not understand Bhojpuri. “I dance to the tune. Music is same everywhere,” she says in a matter- of-fact tone.

Naina is here with her husband Dilip Kumar Sharma, 27, a pad player. Both are first-generation artistes from Munger, east Bihar. “I am always fearful when she goes for an event without me but we can’t help it beyond a point. Every profession has some kind of risk involved.”

It is common for the audience to shower money on dancers. Owners of some orchestra companies keep all the money with them. Others keep half of the amount and give the rest to the artiste. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

A glow worm flickers afar as we take a right turn off the highway. A bumpy road passing through the fields takes us to an illuminated canopy set up in a moist patch of land outside the house of the bride in Garedhiya block, around 40 km from Ara — this is where Pooja will lead a group of four dancers tonight. Ram Kumar Pandey asks Pooja to wait in the SUV as he goes out to check the arrangements for the troupe. The rickety ride has woken up their four-month old baby daughter, Srishti, from deep slumber. A group of kids surround the car and incessantly bang on its window panes.

They don’t get Pooja’s attention.

“My parents are against me taking Srishti to events. It is a bad influence for her. We have a caretaker for her but she is on leave,” says Pooja, consoling the toddler wearing a white frock, wrapped in a pink towel.

While Ram Kumar is nowhere in sight, she makes a quick phone call to a friend in Mumbai who, she says, lives in Andheri West and is a model like herself. “I am coming very soon, may be in a month or two. I am banking on you for accommodation. You better not ditch me,” she says before hanging up. “This one gets Rs 5,000-6,000 per shoot. I sent her my portfolio. She said I could easily get Rs 10,000. These shady dance shows are not meant for me.”

The history of the dance shows, now a fixture at different kinds of functions across Bihar, is less than 50 years old. Women stage dancers in Bihar were first seen working as ‘fillers’ during nautanki, a form of operatic folk theatre that travelled from eastern Uttar Pradesh to neighbouring Bihar. “Audiences crying over Lord Ram’s vanvaas would suddenly be whistling to the thumkas of the female dancer,” says Mohini Devi, a septuagenarian classical singer in Ara.

Gradually, female live dancers broke away and began performing — singing and a bit of dancing — at events. Naach became a regular feature in parties hosted by landlords and upper caste politicians in rustic Bihar. Among the most acclaimed of these performers, were the sisters Chand Rani and Bijli Rani, who used to live in Natwar, a hamlet 70 km from Ara, around three decades ago.

“Then came the cassette culture that changed things forever,” says Uday Kumar, a Patna-based playwright. “T-Series’ audio cassettes of Chand Rani and Bijli Rani’s songs found takers within Bihar and among lakhs of men from the state who were working in metro cities. These men used to visit their native villages with tape recorders and cassettes, leaving the villagers amused,” says Kumar.

Consequently, female singers and then dancers started replacing male singers in Bihar’s orchestras in the 1980s. Munna Burman, a keyboard player in Ara, recalls the shift. “I have played in shows that had four male singers and one dancer. Now the situation has reversed. I have stopped going to shows where dancers perform because I cannot stand this vulgarity.”

In 2005, after the Maharashtra state government banned dance bars, many of the dancers came to Bihar in search of work.

Three years later, YouTube launched in India and erotic music videos of dui arthiya(double meaning) songs by Bhojpuri folk singers such as Tarabano Faizabadi were put on the site, contributing to the current shape and scale of Bihar’s live entertainment industry. “Men have these soft porn videos playing in their heads when they ask dancers to perform,” says Burman.

Pooja Singh Rajput with her daughter Srishti at their home in Ara, Bihar. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

At 10 pm, Pooja is giving the final touches to her make-up. The sanskritik mela (cultural fare) begins with Ganesh Vandana followed by three live songs.

Ram Kumar Pandey doubles up as an emcee for the event: He repeatedly requests the groom’s guests to eat dinner; announces the money tossed to artistes; and calls for a fan for the green room.

At 11 pm, the lights dim and Pandey calls Maaya, first dancer for tonight, on the stage. She dances before a deadpan all-male audience to Chhoo le chhoo le (touch me, touch me), a song from 1997 Hindi film Mahaanta, starring Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Dutt. YouTube has multiple music videos and clips of ‘sexy dance’ performed on this song at events in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

After the acts of the three dancers, Pandey calls Pooja, the ‘Bhojpuri glamour,’ on stage. Men welcome her by whistling, clapping and hooting.

Pooja moves like a moth on the wooden stage as disco lights — pink, violet and orange — race to catch her flight.

She dances like she does not care. Not about the man on the stage showering Rs 50 notes on her. Not about her relatives who live nearby. Not about the friend expecting her in Mumbai. Not about her daughter left unattended in the airless green room.

Dressed in a pink choli, a black slip beneath it, and a matching sheer lehenga prominently displaying her black underwear, she spins, slides and sashays to the song Raate diya buta ke kya kya kiya (what did you do after turning off the lamp) by popular Bhojpuri singer Pawan Singh.

She grabs a pole and leans into it, sporting a coy but confident smile. This is all she will give away tonight to the raucous crowd of men filming her non-stop on their mobile cameras.

By 1 am, Pooja has changed four costumes and danced to seven songs. As she is about to enter the green room, Pandey holds her hand, signalling to perform once more. She pushes him back angrily and leaves the stage.

Pandey follows her, assuring the audience that khoobsurat si, pyaari si (beautiful, lovely) Pooja will be back on the stage in a moment.

This article was originally published in Hindustan Times.