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Photographs: Udit Kulshrestha
Sonepur is a small village 25 kilometres from Patna, and less than 38,000 people call it home. It finds place in record books for having the eighth-longest railway platform in the world, but is better known as the place where, every November, Asia’s largest cattle fair takes place. For 26 days the Sonepur Mela sees the trade of cattle and horses, and for 26 nights it sees trade of a different kind altogether.
On makeshift stages, women of varying age, agility and attractiveness gyrate to the latest Bollywood item numbers, sending their appreciative, all-male audience into a frenzy. The barbed wire that separates the performers from the spectators offers little actual protection, but is essential precaution.
The girls come from Kolkata, Muzaffarpur, Varanasi, and Delhi, brought by the handful of companies that manage the theatres. Most are junior dancers in Bhojpuri films, or makeup artists and masseurs, but make the annual trip for guaranteed cash, making anywhere between Rs 15,000-50,000 during their stay; money that makes the grubby accommodation and groping hands a little easier to ignore.
Their modus operandi is simple: tease and titillate. But it wasn’t always like this. For nearly a century, nautanki reigned supreme as North India’s most popular form of entertainment with its fusion of dance and dialogue, romance, humour and melodrama. This was filmi before Bollywood. But its fall from grace has been sharp, and at Sonepur you see it die a painful, gyrating death.