Romanticised in reel and reviled in real, Mujra dancers in the capital's red-light area are fighting a losing battle to keep a once celebrated art alive.
"I still remember those days when the 'kotha' was filled with people. Today, there are hardly a handful," says 45-year-old Shenaaz, as she dabs rouge on her cheeks, preparing for the routine mujra dance session that takes place on GB Road every night after nine. "There were times we were called to dance at parties and weddings, now few call us.
Everyone wants foreign women to dance at their parties; it's a matter of status. We'll probably embarrass them with our cheap saris," says Shenaaz who hails from Rajasthan.
Of the estimated 1000 odd sex workers on GB Road, only a few know and practice mujra now. While some train under artistes, for others the art has been passed down through generations.
"My mother was a mujra dancer and so was my grandmother. Under them I learnt the classical form of the dance, but now people want to see us dancing to Bollywood numbers. It kills the purity of the art, but do we have a choice! "Previously dancers did it because they enjoyed it, today it has become a matter of survival as those who dance are paid more" smiles 26-year-old Shanti from Lucknow, revealing her paan-stained teeth. Mujra, which incorporates elements of Kathak dance, was patronised during the Mughal era.
But over the centuries the term 'tawaif' (courtesans) became synonymous with sex workers and 'kothas' came to be associated with brothels. "We saw a demure Rekha in the movie 'Umrao Jaan' and Meena Kumari in 'Pakeezah.' They won acclaim for these roles, but reel life doesn't come close to reality," says historian Nazaf Haider, Associate Professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University.
People's perception of the art form has changed over the years, says Haider, adding that today these dancers are associated to prostitution more than the hundreds of years of culture that they represent. "When once Mujra was performed to 'thumris', ghazals or popular poems of Ghalib, today it is performed to Bollywood numbers.
In the original dance the emphasis was more on footwork. The art has lost its patronage. It is dead now," he says. "No, the art is not dead," counters Vineet Hans who runs an events management company in Delhi. "A lot of parties these days want Mujra dancers. The only difference is that the demand for blonde European women has gone up; white women up the glamour quotient," says Hans.