July 2014
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Sonepur Nautanki

Photographs: Udit Kulshrestha

For 26 days the Sonepur mela sees the trade of cattle, and for 26 nights it sees trade of a different kind.

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.

Tickets for the shows are priced at Rs 100 and Rs 200, and Rs 500 for VIP enclosures.
One of the scores of theatres that entertain visitors to the Sonepur cattlefair. Between 50-70 girls dance on this stage from 5-11 pm.
CDs and pen drives with Bollywood numbers and remixes, the soundtrack of the nautch girls.
Cattle traders and visitors from Patna and neighboring towns flock to the theatres. There are between 12-15 theatres that operate during this 26 day fair.
Billboards advertising these events.
Moushmi Sarkar, aka Kunti, is a trained nautanki dancer from the Kanpur Gharana. At 34, she has been a nautch girl for 10 years, claiming experience at nautanki fests in Nairobi and Dubai. She is paid Rs 2,000 per day.
Raj Kumar Singh, aka Kumar, prepares a summary of last night’s performances and the next day’s schedule. He has no permanent home, and travels with the troupe wherever it takes him.
A nautch girl checks the list backstage. The girls live in makeshift quarters.
Sangeeta, a Delhi-based nautch girl, dances to “launda badnam hua” while her drunk audience try and engage with her. Chits with mobile numbers and “cash awards” are often used as lure to get closer to the girls.
The excited men often start drunken brawls.