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Act like a woman: How a little-known folk art form is sweeping away barriers of caste and gender, one Launda at a time

The vibrant folk art form is known for its risqué jokes, unsophisticated language, men in drag and caste connotations. A legendary 92-year-old artiste recalls a lifetime on stage.

india Updated: Nov 05, 2017 15:44 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times

Ramachandra Manjhi is 92 but his crinkled hands steady themselves the moment kohl touches his face. With precision, he draws his eyebrows with a matchstick, peering into a grimy mirror. Manjhi is a legendary Launda Naach artist, a folk art form from Bihar comprising songs, dance, comedy and theatre, where men impersonate women in performances that last all night. (Sanjeev Verma / HT Photo)

Ramachandra Manjhi is 92 but his wrinkled hands steady themselves like magic the moment the kohl touches his face. With loving precision, he draws his eyebrows with a matchstick, peering into a grimy mirror. “I do my own makeup. I have been doing it for 80 years,” he says, fixing a weary wig.

Ramachandra is a legendary Launda Naach artist, a remarkable folk art form from Bihar comprising songs, dance, comedy and theatre where men impersonate women in performances that last all night.

Little formal literature exists about Naach that dates back hundreds of years and continues to thrive in eastern India – beginning around the Chhath Puja. Each performance is a mirror of the region’s caste and gender relations that shape who gets to be seen as an artist, and indeed, what is considered art.

For Ramachandra, a resident of western Bihar’s Chhapra, transforming into a woman on stage is routine – one he has perfected since he was 12. His clothes and makeup travel from one performance to another in a rusty steel trunk, one that he shares with his friend and fellow launda of 50 years, Lakhichand Manjhi.

They come together for a few winter months every year in a troupe that has now toured most corners of India. With fond pride, Ramachandra recalls how in his youth, he performed before sensations such as Suraiya and Helen.

“If we didn’t get news of men falling from rooftops or into wells during our performance, we would be depressed. It meant the night wasn’t a hit,” he tells me backstage at a performance in Gurgaon this week.

Outside, night is falling – the chill suspended in the breeze that smells of fumes and dung, characteristic of the fringes of India’s capital – and families are streaming in with children, jagged bits of Bhojpuri renting the air.

Inside the tent, though, everything is like clockwork. Ramachandra has changed from his soiled white kurta and dhoti into a shimmery blue zari sari. Lakhichand is fastening the ends of his gleaming yellow outfit – a shy smile playing at the edges of his wrinkled face as his eyes follow the photographer’s lens.

Ramachandra’s friend and fellow Naach performer for 50 years, Lakhichand is a member of the same troupe. Every winter they come together for a few months to tour India for their shows which typically start with the Chaath celebrations. (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

“My life is the Naach. But it is like work to me. I go to work, become a woman and come back home,” he says.

The troupe is performing Bidesiya, a groundbreaking piece by Bihar’s tallest playwright Bhikari Thakur, which revolves around a young man’s travel to “Kalkatiya” for work.

Lakhichand plays the wife who desperately tries to stop her husband and Ramachandra tells me, with a mischievous smile, that his role is that of the “Rakhail”, the woman who seduces the husband.

Outside, a local politician blares on the mike about how the Naach is preserving “Indian culture” from western pollution – a curious burden on a form reviled for its risqué jokes, unpolished language, men in drag, and caste connotations.

Gender Bender

In the past three decades, the 1887-born Bhikhari Thakur’s work has grabbed the national spotlight – with countless plays on migration, addiction, dowry and the condition of women, being translated.

But in the process, scholars say, the Naach has been sanitised, crunched and tailored to suit mainstream sensibilities.

“Launda is a dirty word… a ‘gaali’. It doesn’t suit upper caste sensibilities, you cannot say it in public…so when you go national, you change the form. You make the songs pacey, you cut down the performance,” says Jainendra Kumar Dost, a Naach performer and researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

At its core, Launda Naach is patronised and practised by the weaker castes and researchers say that is why the form failed to gain mainstream currency.

He points out Indian theatre has a long history of female impersonation by men – with Natya Shastra and Mahabhasya, two ancient Sanskrit texts, containing words like “Roop Anusarini” (follower of the form/gender).

In Bihar, Launda Naach gained currency in the 19th century when women were not allowed in public spaces, let alone the stage – considered polluted and dishonourable. Men, mostly from weaker castes, took their place.

This was also a time when dominant landlords and royals were extending patronage to baijis – roughly translated as courtesans – that was increasingly seen as the entertainment for the elite. A parallel grassroots response for the poor was Launda Naach.

Amitesh Kumar, a researcher on Naach at Delhi University, says the decline of Sanskrit and the rise of an assortment of tongues, dialects and languages loosely clubbed into “Apabhramsa” spurred a string of forms across India – among them Naach, Nautanki and Jatra in the north and Kathakali and Yakshagana in the south. Many were seen as non-classical forms – this is at the root of Naach’s ignominy – and receded into the villages.

But Jainendra also points out a crucial difference. Unlike some other forms, in Launda Naach, most performers lead perfectly ordinary lives as heterosexual men. Both Ramachandra and Lakhichand have thriving families and wives who know about their profession – none of the bashfulness and femininity on stage seeps into their living rooms.

“Many younger laundas have size-zero figures, long hair and provocative feminine gaits. But not Ramachandra ji. He titillates and jokes on stage at night but by morning, he’s transformed into a grandfather,” says Dost, who recently made a film on the art, called Naach Launda Naach.

His co-director, filmmaker Shilpi Gulati, agrees – pointing out that the academic lens of gender doesn’t work here. “It is important to see that Naach is not a dying art. It is thriving.”

Shankar Manjhi, 42. He is the lead dancer of his troupe. Each Launda Naach performance is a mirror of the region’s caste and gender relations. The word ‘launda’ sounds like a gaali, one that can’t be used in public. The performers often have to bear with catcalls and insults for being a ‘launda’, though most performers are married and lead heterosexual lives off stage. There are, however, transgender performers too. (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

But in contemporary Bihar, Naach competes with other forms of entertainment like movies, Nautanki and orchestra, the last a common sight at functions with women gyrating to movie numbers all night. Kumar argues the absence of women has hurt Naach and forced the form, which needed years of rigorous training, to become more provocative, and lean on short item numbers to please crowds. “In addition, job opportunities have opened up outside the state and the money from Naach isn’t needed.”

Caste Cauldron

At its core, Launda Naach is patronised and practised by the weaker castes and researchers say that is why the form failed to gain mainstream currency.

Bhikari Thakur – a weaker caste man who rose to be called the Shakespeare of Bihar – doesn’t have any recording of his performances and Dost alleges most new researchers have never even seen Launda Naach because of its disrepute.

A scene from Bidesiya by playwright Bhikari Thakur. In the past three decades, Thakur’s work has grabbed national spotlight – with plays on migration, addiction, dowry and the condition of women. But in the process, the Naach has been sanitised, to suit mainstream sensibilities. (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

“Most performers are lower OBCs and Dalits. These communities don’t even get to go to school, so how will they write about Naach?” he asks.

There are plenty of other Naach playwrights – Dinanath Manjhi, Joginder Ram and Ramanand Ram prominent among them – but none of them have made it past local fame.

“To understand why Launda is stigmatised, we have to see the story…they are against hegemony, against Brahmanism and patriarchy,” Dost says. The vulgarity, for example, is often satire directed at society over the treatment of weaker castes and classes.

A 19-year-old performer Hindustan Times spoke to in Patna echoed him. He said no respectable person would think of humming these songs in public, let alone their children doing Naach. “We know it has no respect in society. Even my guru is getting his children trained in classical forms,” he said.

“My life is the Naach. But it is like work to me. I go to work, become a woman and come back home.”

The caste links of Launda Naach have also fostered political patronage, most notably that of former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Old timers recall how during his student politics days, Prasad, whose base comprises the poor and backward castes, would use the Naach stage to deliver speeches and backed the form when he came to power. “He knew the region and its castes identified with Naach and used it to build his base,” Dost says.

Tales Of Abuse

The first time Roshmi Das, a transgender rights activist, went to perform at a Launda Naach in 2006, she fled. The raunchy songs and raucous audience struck the fear of abuse in her.

After her father’s death later that year, she was forced to return. She toured eastern Uttar Pradesh, simultaneously performing to Bhojpuri or Hindi songs and fending off violence from her band members and audience.

“Once the villagers carried me away. Another time they sexually abused me in a room. I ran and hid in the fields all night,” the 39-year-old officer at transgender rights organisation Samabhavna tells me.

Such abuse is common among women and transgender people who travel through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for Naach. Band parties pick them up from prominent bus or railway stations on two-week contracts that comprise around five programmes daily.

The performers are poor and overwhelmingly high-school dropouts, meaning the ₹2,000-odd they get per show is pivotal. “Many times, they are not given water or pumped with injections to keep them going all night. Band members exploit them or rape them,” said Aparnita Das at trans rights organisation People Like Us.

Still, the Naach serves as a lifeline for many trans people and effeminate boys who are abused at home, or run away because their gender expressions are muzzled. The experience of having an income independent from their birth family is empowering.

After The Act

Back in Gurgaon, a weary Ramachandra leans on Lakhichand as he slowly takes off the bangles and earrings. Their performance hasn’t been smooth, interrupted repeatedly by guests and politicians.

The two begin walking down a dusty Gurgaon road to where they are staying the night – but a step outside the gate and a gaggle of fans gather around them. Facebook friend requests and offers of litti dinners pour in.

Ramachandra smiles. He is going back to Chhapra to his mud house that he shares with his 20-year-old granddaughter Pinki, who knows her grandfather becomes a woman every night, and doesn’t think much of it.

It has been a lifetime on the stage for the 92-year-old, who says he has lost his faith in god and now believes in “nirgun” – a canon of equality between species.

(From left) Ramachandra, Shankar and Lakhichand Majhi. The troupe was in Gurgaon recently to perform the great Bihari playwright Bhikari Thakur’s Bidesiya. While Lakhichand plays the wife of a man who is going to the city for work, Ramachandra is the rakhail or mistress who seduces him. (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

He recalls how he supported his family, and arranged for the weddings of his three brothers, two sons and three daughters through Naach – even performing for two straight nights on request at his youngest brother’s wedding.

He is quiet when we ask if people tease him in his village for being a launda, but his troupe confirms that he has dealt with comments, catcalls and insults for almost a century. But in his voice, there is only gratitude: “My life is over and I have only known Naach. I spent all my years doing Naach. I salute it. I am grateful that I didn’t need to do anything else.”

(With inputs from Reena Sopam in Patna)

First Published: Nov 04, 2017 20:03 IST