Dancing Queens

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Photo: Ankit Agrawal
Photo: Ankit Agrawal

The launda makes an entry with the mandali performing to a classic Mohammad Rafi song, Teri Jawani, Tapta Mahina from Amaanat (1977). After some sultry dance moves, the launda welcomes the audience. “Mazaa aa raha hai?” (Are you having fun?) The audience is reluctant in responding. “Sab sootal hai bhai. Yahan sootne aaye hain ki paise kharch karke dekhne aaye hain. Apne hi paise ka izzat nahin hai.” (All you people are so dull. Have you come here to get bored or get entertained by paying money? You don’t respect your own money.) And now the audience is in tune with the launda.

Like Gotipua of Odisha, Jaatra of Bengal, Naach of Chhattisgarh and Tamasha of Maharashtra, Launda Naach is a folk art in which men dress up as women and dance at social functions and festivals in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The tradition of Launda Naach dates back to 11th century. In Jyotishwar Thakur’s Varna Ratnakar, the first encyclopedia in any north Indian language, there is mention of Vidawat, which means performer. Vidapat naach of the Mithila region in Bihar, an offshoot of Vidawat, gave birth to Launda Naach in the 15th century.

Mrityunjay Prabhakar, producer of Launda Badnaam Hua, a solo play directed, written and performed by Pankaj Pawan, says the “tradition of men performing as women is very old, emanating from restrictions on public dancing for women who performed only in temples and for feudal lords. The masses could only be entertained by men dressed as women. Even in Parsi theatre, women characters were played by men and they were so popular that women from the upper classes used to see these plays to learn about their responsibilities as housewives.” The art is on the verge of extinction as people no longer invite them to perform in their weddings and parties. “Launda Naach was gradually replaced by newer forms of entertainment,” says Prabhakar, a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Pankaj Pawan, who comes from Supaul, Bihar, has known about Launda Naach since childhood, though his father did not allow him to attend performances. When Pawan’s family moved to Delhi, he joined the Act One theatre group. Four years ago, an acquaintance told him about a friend from a Brahmin family in Begusarai, Bihar, who thought of himself as a woman and wanted to live like one. “I went to meet him and found him wracked by guilt from family pressure. Six months later, when I went back, I learned that he had found the courage to leave home and live as he wanted,” says Pawan. His story left an indelible mark on Paw an. He began to read as much as he could and found references in Bhikhari Thakur’s Bidesiya, Jaishankar Sunda ri’s Kuch Aansu Kuch Phool and the works of Bal Gandharva. “I discovered the beauty of this art in its purest form through these works. Its contemporary degradation saddened me. I decided I had to write this script,” says Pawan.

In his play, he puts the blame on the male psyche for the death of the art form. “First you don’t allow women to go out and perform, then you pass lewd comments at the men who perform as women.” Criticising male double standards is an integral part of Pawan’s play, explored through the issues of love, marriage, female foeticide, crimes against women, torture and the rapes of Soni Sori and Manorama Devi. “Men feel women are at their disposal. This is the image we have created in our society, that after marriage a man becomes not the husband but the owner of his bride.”

Anger overshadows dance in Pawan’s play: the protagonist is anguished by the lack of due recognition given to art and artists; by the government leaving folk artists in the lurch; by audiences wanting particular kinds of performances from artists; by families not allowing their children to pursue the arts. Much of Pawan’s own sorrow and frustration is channelled into the play. “Though my father has somehow accepted me as a theatre actor,” he says, “he still does not approve of me being a ‘launda’ and playing a woman.” It’s Pawan’s anguish that makes his one-man play such compelling viewing.

(Launda Badnaam Hua will be staged in Gwalior next month)

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article…to add to this:
    There was a time when female impersonation in folk theatre was a regular affair, and beautiful effeminate boys with a knack for dancing and singing were in high demand. In some parts of India, men still play female characters, but were/are not necessarily pigeonholed as ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ or ‘transvestite’. It would be interesting to note that how this tradition was and is a pan-Indian affair, and how these folk dramas were/are charged with an intense homoerotic energy. These men in drags were/are often objects of love and lust of their ‘male’ audience; but in remote villages, where the rhetoric of sexual identity politics is still unknown, they were/are seen as different, but not usually as the Other. Here are a few folk-dramas where men enact female roles:
    1. Bhawai (Gujarat); [female impersonators are called Kanchalia-from ‘kanchuli’]
    2. Khyal (Rajasthan)
    3. Gabari (Rajasthan)
    4. Jakshya (Karnataka)
    5. Maach (Karnataka)
    6. Doddatt (Karnataka)
    7. Swango, Nautanki, Bhagat Sangeet (Himachal, Punjab, Haryana)
    8. Mudiyettu (Kerala)
    9. Krishnatyam (Kerala)
    10. Raaslila (Vrindaban)
    11. Bhnarpathar (Kashmir)
    12. Kariyala (Himachal Pradesh)
    13. Ankiyanat (Assam)
    14. Videsia (Bihar)
    15. Terukuttu (Tamil Nadu)
    16. Alkaap (Bengal)
    17. Ghentudol (East Bengal)

  2. The article is a bit inaccurate; Launda dance is very much a vibrant and living tradition and every year, hundreds of dancers, especially from transgender (kothi and hijra) communities migrate from West Bengal to Bihar and eastern UP during specific seasons for L.N.; while it gives them a platform for self expression it can also be accompanied by sexual abuse and exploitation (see the PLUS report ‘Dancing Boys’, easily available on the net, for more details).

  3. Secondly, the fact that lot of the ‘dancing boys’ are indeed demarcated in terms of gender and abused/exploited as such suggests that the opposition between urban sexual identities and rural fluidity may not stand – while of course launda as an occupational designation can permit shifting gendered embodiments (many Laundas need not cross-dress consistently, many may be ‘straight’ etc.), there also seems to be an increasing trend of such performative occupations being taken up by (and designated for) people who are indeed ‘othered’ in gendered & sexual terms through various shifting designations (moga, chhakka, maigga, etc.)

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