The women who dance after dark at the Sonepur animal fair
‘This is my life now, and they are my family,’ says Diya Kumari (name changed to protect privacy), 22, pointing to a group of women around her. She is a part of the New Gulab Vikas Theatre located in Sonepur, Saran district, Bihar, and dances at the yearly animal fair.
Over three years ago, Kumari, from Siliguri, was sold to a brothel in Varanasi by her then boyfriend, for ₹50,000. She was pregnant at the time. A friend, who worked at an ‘orchestra’ in Bokaro, advised her to leave, if she didn’t want to abort the child. Kumari ran away and found a job at the theatre. ‘My daughter is three. My father is a rickshaw puller, and I am the oldest among three sisters. After leaving home, I have not contacted my family.’
The month-long Sonepur mela that begins every year on Karthik Poornima — full moon night — is believed to have begun during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, in the 4th century BC. Once considered Asia’s largest cattle fair, it is held every year in November-December.
Manvendra Kumar Singh, the seniormost member of the organising committee, Harihar Kshetra Sonepur Mela, and associated with it for the past 50 years says, ‘Chandragupta would source elephants and horses for his stables from here. Earlier, wild animals and rare birds would be sold, until that was banned. There were always theatres, but earlier, historical folklore was performed. From the 1980s, things changed,’ he says, referring to theatre companies introducing bawdy performances by women.
Until about 20 years ago, attendance at the mela’s daytime proceedings would be at 5-7 lakh daily. Now, it is 50,000, with the number doubling at night, when the area is transformed into a performance space, with five theatre companies setting up their infrastructure across the approximately 2.5 sq km. In the daytime, there are 55 big and small stalls, some of Bihar government departments, selling agricultural equipment at subsides rates.
Besides New Gulab Vikas Theatre, this year there are New India, Shobha Samrat, Payal Ek Nazar, and Samrat Theatre, each employing about 50 women. Singh remembers a time when there’d be 30 theatres, but claims the administration does not encourage it anymore.
The show begins
The show begins at about 6 p.m. with announcements, spanning the next 45 minutes- ‘Sahiban meherban kadaradan, aayee New Gulab Vikas Theatre par. Jitna pocket allow kare utna mein aayyee aur maza lutiya kamseen hasinayo ke naach ka (Respectable Connoisseur, come to New Gulab Vikas Theatre. Pay what your pocket allows. Enjoy the dance of these beautiful women).’
Patrons gather at the ticket counter. Every theatre has a seating capacity of 500 to 800. Prices start at ₹100 and go up to ₹1,200 — the closer to the stage, the higher the price. ‘We take precautions so that the ‘girls’ are safe. You can see the barricading after every row, and our staff is deputed everywhere,’ says Chandan Singh, one of the owners of New Gulab Vikas Theatre. He adds that CCTV cameras are installed inside and outside the structure. Theatres are often owned jointly by four or five people.
The women, who come onto the stage in a group of up to 50, are lit by about 500 sparkling lights. They are finally introduced to a leering crowd past 7-30 p.m., when the curtains lift. Their faces are caked with make-up and flashes of red, green, blue, pink shine off their nails. Some passers-by, unsure if they want to buy a ticket, watch from a distance, holding onto the iron gates; they soon head to the ticket window.
Many of the women, some barefooted, some with footwear, wear tight or thigh-high clothes, with some in saris. Some sport smart watches; all hold phones, to take selfies they will later post on social media, or to call their children backstage. It’s only when the women come onto stage that the men begin to occupy their seats.
As the night wears on, clothes come off, and they’re wearing nothing more than underwear. The men, across age groups, cover up with blankets. They get louder and make suggestive signs; and the women respond with eye contact, more movement, and similar signs. Many of the women are not from Bihar, so don’t understand the lyrics of the Bhojpuri songs with double entendre.
An audience member from Gaya district says he’s been coming here for five years to watch the performances. ‘This time four friends and I have driven down. We will stay overnight and return in the morning,’ he says. ‘Bahut maza ata hai yaha par aakar. Ek se ek item dekhne ko milti hai (We’re really enjoying ourselves. We get to see a lot of women),’ he adds, referring to them as ‘items’. The police look on.
A funny interlude
To rest the dancers, a comedian comes on stage as an interlude; the jokes are smutty. Women leave the stage to eat, to be substituted by another group. After 12 midnight, individual and small group performances begin.
‘The more the girls, the more crowds come to see them. It all depends on the moves of the girls. We give them everything from food to lodging and ensure that they do not face any physical trouble from the audience. No one can touch a girl,’ says Gabbar Singh, the owner of Shobha Samrat Theatre.
Stages span 10 to 15 metres and the entire set-up costs from ₹30-₹40 lakh for the season. Every theatre has a ‘theatre babu’, a middleman whose work is to gather talent. Sunil Kumar, from Uttar Pradesh, is one. ‘This year I have managed to bring 28 girls to the theatre from Maharashtra, Odisha, Delhi, Punjab, and West Bengal. These girls mostly perform in orchestras during weddings and at birthdays. I had a hard job of persuading them,’ he says, adding that the promise of money worked. He does not disclose how much he makes, but he says it’s a lot.
Many of the women are married and take care of their husbands’ expenses as well. Those who are not and have children, manage childcare with the support of their colleagues, who on their breaks, look after them. The women sleep on old mattresses, often in gloomy sheds, their makeup boxes by their bedside. They know their work is looked down upon by the very men who come to watch them, so they don’t often keep in touch with their families.
Search for online fame
Shaheen (name changed), 30, a dancer from Rourkela, was a member of a dance troupe back home, but the money wasn’t enough for a five-member family. Her father is a mason and earns between ₹5,000 and ₹8000 a month. ‘Here, I make ₹2,000 to ₹3,500 a day. By the time the Sonepur fair gets over, I earn between ₹1 lakh ₹1.5 lakh,’ Shaheen says. A beginner, who earns between ₹1,000 and ₹1,500 a day stands in a corner and follows the moves of experienced artists.
Another girl from Payal Ek Nazar theatre, Sneha, 19, who is a beginner, says, ‘This my first experience in Sonepur.’ She has come from Noida, where her mother works as a domestic help. She lost her father when she was just five. ‘I have come here to become viral on social media.’
At 4 a.m., the show stops, and the audience heads home, to mothers, wives and children.
(News Source -Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Times Of Nation staff and is published from a www.thehindu.com feed.)
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