Sanjana Sharma* is a confident young professional from a tier-two city in north India with an income of roughly Rs 1 lakh per month. But Sanjana isn’t your average successful professional. She’s one of several mujra dancers who have reinvented the profession made famous by Lucknow’s nawabs."I’m a qualified Kathak dancer but I knew I couldn’t make money from it. In Delhi, I met a girl who helped me train as a mujra dancer," says the 24-year-old. Today, she is choosy about offers, and has a few ground rules: no drinking, and no performing in her hometown and a few other cities. "I don’t want to embarrass my parents. I have no regrets about what I do, but they were initially upset when I told them about my career," she says.
Others seem more receptive to mujra. In Mumbai, Farita Boyce (who Suketu Mehta dedicated an entire chapter to in his book Maximum City), a law graduate and Kathak dancer, has been in the business for 20 years and runs a troupe of 11 dancers called ‘The Entertainers’. “I was the first to introduce mujra to the corporate world here,” she claims, and adds that Hindustan Lever regularly hires her dancers for product launches.
Typically, modern mujra dancers perform at weddings, bachelor parties, birthday bashes, engagements, and theme parties, for a fairly hefty price. In Lucknow, most dancers are Indian, but the ‘big money’ dancers are from Uzbekistan, Russia and Ukraine, paid between Rs 5,000 and Rs 25,000 per one-hour show. “They are trained in Kathak or Bharatnatyam, and some have picked up mujra expressions and gestures from films like Umrao Jaan,” says artiste manager Kabir Kakkar of K4 Entertainment Pvt Ltd. Boyce will not talk numbers, but says there is never a dearth of work. She herself only dances “for very select clients”.
Arpit Garg, 29, held a bachelor’s party last winter and the chief attraction was a mujra performance. “My girl-cousins gate crashed because they were curious. It’s innovative and healthy entertainment,” he says.
Nonetheless, Boyce no longer does bachelor parties because of “bad experiences in the past”, but Sanjay Nigam of the Lucknow-based Moksh Event Management says, “When we invite a dancer, we are responsible for her security, but mindsets are changing. We hardly find anyone misbehaving with the girls these days. It’s always more of a family crowd.”
Under the nawabs, mujra evolved as a Kathak-based form, with minor contributions from regional forms. Dancers, or tawaifs, performed at mehfils or at their own residences, the famed kothas. Their golden era was that of nawab Wajid Ali Shah, and the capital of the nawabs, Faizabad, remains famous as the city of Umrao Jaan, Badi Mushtari Bai (mother of Padma Shri Begum Akhtar) and Chhoti Mushtari Bai.
With the abolition of the Zamindari Act in 1953, mujra artistes began migrating to bigger cities, many of them turning to the sex trade. Tawaifs from Rasulabad and Arkuna villages — traditional centres of mujra — have shifted to bigger cities and only a few return during the marriage season.
In the village of Taquameenganj, Neelam (30) is the sole remaining mujra artiste in Faizabad. She performs at marriages, and cultural and even religious events.
A trained classical vocalist, she sings as she dances, and charges Rs 1,000 for two to three hours. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that her “rural background” keeps her from realising her potential.
Mujra artistes in cities face no such problems, though their social standing is still a little uncertain. Boyce, for instance, calls her ensemble a cultural group. “Besides mujra, they also do belly dancing, folk, Bollywood and other dances. Some of the girls have IT jobs, some model, others act in serials, and some do item numbers in films.” So, she explains, “It’s a bit demeaning to call them just mujra girls.”
However, even as she lists numerous overseas assignments — including performances in the USA, Taiwan, West Asia, Singapore, and the Philippines — and recalls a mayor’s award in Israel, Boyce declines to be photographed for this piece. Muzaffar Ali, director of the Rekha-starrer Umrao Jaan, says what we see today is not mujra. As he puts it, “It’s all so commercial and physical. Where’s the art?”
Also read: Fading music of the Darbesh
*Name changed on request
With inputs from Sachidanad Shukla in Faizabad and Lalita Iyer in Mumbai