Neha, a 32-year-old mother of a child, is brutally honest about her profession.
“Hum unki shadi mein khushiya laate hain, aur vo hamari chheen lete hain, (We bring happiness at their functions, and they steal ours).”
Neha, who identifies herself only by her first name, is among thousands of women in India who dances at weddings, braving lecherous and drunk men, and even bullets fired in celebration, a highly controversial tradition rampant in many states, especially in north India.
The debate around guests carrying firearms to weddings was reignited after a 25-year-old dancer, Kulwinder Kaur, was shot dead by a drunk guest at a wedding in Punjab’s Bathinda on December 3.
However, for the dancers it is a risk that comes with the job, one they must continue with to support their families. After all, it is financial needs which force these women to the stage, where a mix of alcohol, guns and feudal culture often turns weddings into a death zone.
“We live in a one-room flat and it’s a struggle every month just to pay the rent. My mother doesn’t keep well and my siblings are studying. That left me with no choice but to earn money for survival,” said Shiree Naagar, 25, the daughter of a Delhi-based daily wager.
While she earns between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3500 for an evening, she has to give Rs 500 to the agents.
But her battle starts even before the performance. “Most of the agents say I have to sleep with them. I turn down such offers, which mean less work for me.”
Neha, who moved to Jalandhar from Bengal after her divorce, took up dancing to support her young son.
“In my seven years of this career, I have experienced physical abuse many times,” she said. Other dancers HT spoke to said they have endured groping and lewd comments by males.
Chandigarh’s Neha Rawat, 27, had to drop out of college to support her family after her father died of cancer in 2011.
“Once they (men) gulp down a few drinks, they are completely changed. And the ones beyond middle age are worse as they make vulgar gestures,” she said.
And the threat of guns is present everywhere.
Riya Rahi, 25, from Ludhiana recalled a performance at a wedding in Mohali last year when a bullet fired by a guest whizzed past her right ear and killed the videographer behind her.
“I have developed a constant fear that I will be shot while I am performing on stage. Some of my friends are so scared that they have stopped performing at weddings altogether,” said Riya, who earns Rs 1,000 for every performance.
Last year, a Delhi court sentenced a man to 25 months in jail for killing the groom’s uncle in a similar incident of celebratory firing in the national capital in 2012. But such convictions are rare.
Shiree Naagar, 25
I have been dancing at private parties, including weddings, since I was 16. I watch Bollywood movies to copy the steps of latest item numbers.
My father is a daily wage earner. He is old now. We live in a one-room janta flat and it’s a struggle every month just to pay the rent. My mother is unwell and my siblings are studying. That left me with little choice but to earn money for survival. Dancing at weddings pays well. I get between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,500 for an evening. I have to give Rs 500 from it to the agent who gets me work.
Most of the agents put a condition these days before giving work. They say I will have to sleep with them. I turn down such offers, which mean less work for me.
I recently went to dance at a bachelors’ party at a farmhouse on the Delhi-Haryana border, along with a few other dancers. The moment we got out of the car, we heard gun shots.
- On December 5, Haryana government banned carrying of arms at weddings and other functions under Section 144 of the criminal procedure code
- Aerial firing will be punishable with six months’ imprisonment in Haryana
- In Punjab, a ban on carrying arms to a wedding or a function is in existence since 2010, but lack of policing hampers implementation
- Banquet hall owners are asked to report guests carrying weapons
We saw a few men firing in the air. We were really scared, but we tried focusing on our work. The men got totally out for control after a few drinks. They came on the stage and started groping. When I objected, they abused me.
“Tu toh naachne wali, kya problem hai, paise mil rahe hain na. (You are a dancer, what’s your problem? You are getting money, right?)” one of them said.
I cried but kept dancing while their hands were all over me. I had to put up with it or else they would not have paid me any money.
We often have to perform non-stop for hours and many of us collapse due to exhaustion… forget about treating us as artistes, we are not even treated like human beings.
Some clients say that they will only pay if I strip down to a bikini at the end of the performance. The lesser the clothes, the more money they are willing to pay.
Many dancers I know have got into prostitution…my work too is not 100% clean but it is still better than prostitution. I have self-respect and I do not want to lose it. “
My family is always worried about my safety. Ever since they saw the video of the dancer who was shot in Punjab, they have been asking me to quit dancing. They do not know if I will return alive or not.
I get really scared when I see that video. But what choice do I have? I have to be really brave, and carry on my work.
(As told to Shara Ashraf)
Riya Rahi, 25
In Ludhiana, 25-year-old Riya Rahi, who started as a dancer 10 years ago, says Kulwinder’s death has given her stage fright. She was dancing at a wedding at a resort near Mohali last year when a bullet fired by a guest whizzed past her right ear and killed the videographer behind her. She is still to get over the incident.
“It was a narrow escape after the bullet went past my ear. Now with this dancer being killed, I have developed a constant fear that I will be shot while I am performing on stage. Some of my friends have stopped performing at weddings altogether,” she says.
The eldest of seven siblings, Riya supports her family financially. Her father runs a dance group too. “I get Rs 1,000 for every performance. My earnings increase at the time of the wedding season,” she says.
She admits drunk men hurl abuses and harassment is common but is not shy about her calling.
(As told to Aneesha Sareen Kumar)
Neha Rawat, 27
Neha Rawat had to drop out of college to support her family after her father died of cancer in 2011.
The eldest of three siblings, she started singing and dancing at small events and now performs at weddings, corporate events and other functions to take care of herself, her mother and younger brother.
“ I fail to understand that if we can have checking at malls and discotheques, then why not at weddings?”
“I started with birthday parties and was also employed with a Chandigarh hotel for two years. Then, with word of mouth, I started getting offers for high profile weddings and corporate shows. I charge between Rs 20,000 and Rs 50,000.”
Like other dancers, she acknowledges that it is not an easy profession.
“Some men pass lewd remarks, others try to cosy up to you and some shamelessly try to get on stage. In case of extreme misbehaviour, we suspend the show in between and wait for things to normalise to begin the performance again.”
Alcohol makes the situation worse.
“A majority of the loose remarks are by the ones who appear to be suited and booted and well educated. Once they gulp down a few drinks, they are completely changed. And the ones beyond middle age are worse as they make vulgar gestures,” she says.
(As told to Monica Sharma)
Namrita Kaur, 28
Dancing to the tunes of popular Bollywood and Punjabi numbers, 28-year-old Namrita Kaur (name changed) gives her best even when a group of drunk men stares at her. Not that she likes such an audience, but it is just that she is helpless and has to earn her livelihood and support her family. Hence, the show must go on for her.
However, after the Bathinda shooting, she and other dancers are trying to frame their own rule book.
“We won’t perform at weddings where people are carrying weapons. We will take an undertaking that if something happens to us, the host and the accused would be taken into remand. This is so unfortunate that the woman dancer who lost her life has not been valued. The person who fired is still not behind bars,” she says.
“We should be called artistes or performers if the word dancer is a stigma in society. And if we are performing, the male audiences should realise it is not by choice, but due to our situation.
Namrita, who started performing at the age of 16, feels she has passed the prime of her life in the demanding profession to feed herself and her family. But she is proud that she held herself up and worked with dignity.
“I am not shy about my profession but yes, at times, I have to be secretive about being a woman dancer as mindsets are such in Punjab that the moment they hear the word ‘dancer’, they look down on us. Like other professions, this is simply a profession, but it lacks respectability,” Namrita says.
She also hates being addressed as a dancer. “We should be called artistes or performers if the word dancer is a stigma in society. And if we are performing, the male audiences should realise it is not by choice, but due to our situation.”
Talking about the challenges in her profession, she says, “Performers and artistes are looked down upon. Men feel that we are just objects without any dignity, but that’s a shameful mentality. They drink, pass lewd comments, misbehave at times but that clearly shows their family values.”
(With inputs from Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Amritsar)