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Friday, Nov 15, 2019

When dancing means survival

With too many mouths to feed, these young dancers from Uttar Pradesh brave society’s disdain, ogling eyes and sore muscles to put up a performance. We spent a day with them when they visited the city recently to dance at a fair.

art-and-culture Updated: Oct 22, 2019 17:58 IST
Shara Ashraf Prayag
Shara Ashraf Prayag
Hindustan Times
(The girls earn between Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per day. They live in tents behind the stage for 10 days during Ramleela. “For the rest of the year, we dance at jaagrans and weddings. There are loans to be paid off, children to be fed. We set up tents near the venue. Isko party lagana kehte hain (We call it setting up a party),” says Aarti. )
         

An infant sleeps on a rickety cot placed under a metal shed. Squatting on the ground, his father Arun insistently wards off curious flies sketching a halo on the child’s head. Barely 25 days old, the child has been named Varun — the god of oceans. His mother Karishma sits on another cot stretched close by, dotting her face with yellow pancake. Next, she deftly outlines her lips with dark purple lip liner. “Youtube par dekha thaa kaise lagate hain,” Karishma tells me. Her friend Pinky pours some cola for us in a steel glass. “Baithiye naa, abhi show mein time hai, araam se baat karte hain,” she gestures, pointing at the cot.

Karishma and Pinky are part of a dancing troupe from Uttar Pradesh that has come to perform at the Lal Qila Maidan, Old Delhi. Accompanying them are Nisha, Vidya and Aarti. They take turns to talk as they keep beautifying their makeup, choosing from glittery eye shadows, fake lashes, bright lipsticks and kajal pencils heaped on the cot.

Karishma, 23, has brought her 20-day-old son with her. Her husband attends to the infant when the young mother performs on the stage. She sometimes takes breaks to feed the little one. “I want to give my child a good life, educate him. That’s why I am here to dance,” Karishma says.  (Photo: Gokul VS/Hindustan Times)
Karishma, 23, has brought her 20-day-old son with her. Her husband attends to the infant when the young mother performs on the stage. She sometimes takes breaks to feed the little one. “I want to give my child a good life, educate him. That’s why I am here to dance,” Karishma says. (Photo: Gokul VS/Hindustan Times)

Karishma begins first. “I have come with my husband. My baby Varun is also with us. I learnt dancing by watching Bollywood films. My husband can’t earn enough so I dance at parties to keep our stomachs full.” Karishma, 23, married a farmer two years ago.

Pinky is older, about 27. “I have two school-going children, a girl and a boy. I want them to become officers. When I dance, my body often aches but my feet don’t stop. I have to fulfil their dreams,” she says. Her in-laws back home don’t know that she dances for money. “Woh nahin samjhengen...kala hai..galat nahin hai…lekin hum unko nahin batate..bol dete hain theka mila hai, Dilli jaa rahe hain 10 din ke liye (they won’t understand..it’s art..nothing wrong in it, but we just tell them that I have got a contract, we are going to Delhi for 10 days),” says Sonu, whose farming doesn’t fetch him enough money to take care of his family.

Nisha, Vidya and Aarti are married, too, with small children back home, waiting for them in the village to return with sweets, toys and clothes from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. “Parhe likhe toh hai nahin, aur kya kaam karenge? Bachche parh jaayen, isiliye naach rahe hain (We are not educated, so what else to do? We are dancing so that we can educate our children,” says Nisha.

The girls know how to deal with men who can’t behave. “We signal our husbands who call the policemen. They come and throw out the rowdies,” says Pinky.  (Photo: Gokul VS/Hindustan Times)
The girls know how to deal with men who can’t behave. “We signal our husbands who call the policemen. They come and throw out the rowdies,” says Pinky. (Photo: Gokul VS/Hindustan Times)

Girls are only allowed to dance after marriage, once they have a ‘protector’, their husband, such is the tradition in their village. “Pati saath ho toh himmat rehti hai..(we feel courageous if our husbands are with us), ” says Pinky. When anyone in the audience tries to misbehave, Pinky signals her husband to deal with them. But no one can reach the stage or touch the girls. If a guy creates trouble, the husbands call the policemen stationed everywhere in the fair. But sometimes, men pass dirty comments, which make Sonu angry. “Kabhi kabhi mann mein aata hai, marein unko par kya karein (Sometimes, I feel like beating them up, but I am helpless,” he says. The crowd is evolving, insists Aarti. “Earlier, it was only men who would buy the tickets. Now, people come with wives and children,” she says.

Our little chat has delayed today’s performance. The organiser is getting restless. The girls rush to change. We stand in the queue to buy two tickets priced at Rs 50 each. Crossing iron railings, we walk into the tent with a raised stage in the centre, and gaudy fabric curtains. About 70 iron chairs have been placed in straight lines. The girls have begun today’s performance with the disco hit Ladki Aankh Mare.

The girls know how to deal with men who can’t behave. “We signal our husbands who call the policemen. They come and throw out the rowdies,” says Pinky.  (Photo: Manish Rajput/Hindustan Times )
The girls know how to deal with men who can’t behave. “We signal our husbands who call the policemen. They come and throw out the rowdies,” says Pinky. (Photo: Manish Rajput/Hindustan Times )

We see young and old men — mostly the working force of the city, the migrants from India’s numerous kaleidoscopic villages, cheering and vying for the performers’ attention, recording videos. There are three burqa clad women sitting in the centre, with restless toddlers tucked in their laps. I remember Aarti telling me how she felt good to see women in the crowd. Once, a woman in the audience had called her an artist. Aarti cherishes those words. The girls have now switched over to Tu Jab Jab Mujhko Pukare from the 90s hit Kurbaan.

The girls wave to us as they notice we leaving. One of them is stepping down the stage to feed her infant. Breaks are limited and short. It’s going to be a long performance. We walk out of the tent. The weary old man sitting on the raised metal platform outside keeps inviting passersby in with a mike in his hand: “Aaiye, kahan chal diye? Aaiye, dekihye, aaj ka show…sirf 50 ka ticket hai aapke liye.” He has to ensure a houseful or else someone else will take his place. ‘Sapka pet paalna hai (Have to feed so many mouths),” as Sonu puts it.