Behind the gloss and the thumkas that light up the stage on a wedding night is an industry that’s largely unregulated and fraught with risks, as the recent death of a dancer in Punjab shows. ANKITA DWIVEDI JOHRI travels with a dance orchestra to a village in the interiors of Allahabad, the heart of the wedding entertainment industry. Photographs by Oinam Anand
Ek sundar bala, madhubala, sheetal ka anubhav karane aa rahi hain husn ki rani Simran. Zordaar taliyaan… With a twirl and a hip thrust, Sonia emerges from behind a soiled curtain and delicately glides into the neon haze generated by the smoke machine. The men in the audience, over 70 of them, have their gaze transfixed on her. Several mobile phones, all set in video mode, go up. The women, only a few of them, seated across the aisle, look on awkwardly.
“Mujhko ranaji maaf karna galti maare se ho gayi…” The loudspeakers blare out the 90s chartbuster and Sonia, dressed in a shimmery peach lehenga tied below her navel and a sheer dupatta, with an ornate sash around her waist, swirls and sashays to its beats. For the next three minutes, Sonia goes through her dance moves with practised ease. Her face breaks into an occasional smile when the emcee, Raja, says, “Ise kehtein hain artiste… taliyaan (This is who you call an artist. Applause).” But for the rest of the performance, her face is largely impassive. A few men climb onto the stage and throw a few Rs 20 notes at her and she obliges them with a thumka, nothing more.
Sonia Jaiswal, 30, who goes by the stage name Simran, is a wedding dancer. Tonight, she is performing at a reception party in Mau Dostpur village in Mau Aima town, nearly 40 km from Allahabad, the heart of the wedding orchestra, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. An online search for ‘Allahabad arkestra’ throws up nearly 5,000 dance videos and and even more on private sharing forums. The contents are the same: women dancing to hit Bollywood and Bhojpuri film songs, before a largely male audience.
A thriving industry in Allahabad for almost 40 years, the little-known world of wedding dancers made headlines in August this year when 32 girls trafficked from Chhattisgarh were rescued from an orchestra in the city. More recently, a wedding dancer was shot dead during a performance in Bathinda in Punjab, once again turning the spotlight on the lack of regulation and security in this largely unorganised industry.
Sonia didn’t let these events play on her mind as she set off from Allahabad in a Tavera with her group around 5.30 pm. She has been hired for this wedding season by Mohammad Arif, 42, the owner of Payal Orchestra who goes by the name ‘Marshall’. Today she is accompanied by two other woman dancers, a male singer, 10 orchestra artistes, the emcee, and her husband, Saurabh, a ‘dance organiser’. “Mau Dostpur mein transformer ke paas (near the transformer)” is all they had for an address. The dense fog and bumpy village path stretched their hour-and-a-half journey by another 60 minutes.
“I saw the video of the firing incident, it was frightening. It can happen to anyone,” says Sonia, who has been working for the past 15 years and has two sons, aged 12 and 5. She earns Rs 3,500 for a performance and gets to keep 50 per cent of the money tossed at her on stage. “Most men are drunk at such events and fights are common. Aur mujhe kabhi pata nahin hota hum kahan ja rahe hain (And I never know where we are going to perform). Earlier, I used to be scared, but now I understand it’s all just part of the job,” she says.
Now, sitting cross-legged on a mattress in a 10×10 enclosure under a stairway, their green room for tonight, Sonia is preening into a hand-held mirror, fixing her lip gloss and blush with swift strokes. Scattered around her are bags full of embellished clothes, imitation jewellery and make-up. In a corner, Seema Rawat, a.k.a Sapna, hurriedly slips into a red lehenga as the emcee calls out her name from the stage behind their room: “Welcome the queen of heaven…”
“Make-up mein zyada time lag gaya (Make-up took a long time),” Sapna tells Marshall, who walks into the room without knocking, urging her to hurry up. A final glance in the mirror and happy with her look — green lenses, fake lashes, silver eye-shadow and wavy hair extensions — she sprints towards the stage.
Sapna is tonight’s star performer. A Bhojpuri industry sensation, she has starred in over 35 videos and commands a higher price than the other girls. “Sapna ko dekh kar log stage pe paise bhi zyaada phenktein hain (People throw a lot more money on her on stage),” says Marshall, sneaking peaks at Sapna, as she takes to the stage.
As the 26-year-old gyrates to the tunes of the hit Bhojpuri song Chalakata hamro jawaniya, the audience goes into a frenzy. Unlike Sonia, Sapna is all smiles and expression, engaging with the men who have clambered onto the stage. And like Marshall had predicted, this time, the money comes in Rs 100 notes.
“The audience only wants Bhojpuri these days. Sab double-meaning songs hain, mujhe toh bhasha samajh bhi nahin aati (The songs are full of innuendo, I don’t even understand the language),” says Sonia, changing into her next outfit, a yellow lehenga. She wears a black slip inside to avoid any wardrobe malfunction on stage. “On stage, everyone wants to touch us… I pin my dupatta tightly. Mai toh sober dance karti hoon taki mahaul kharab na ho (I prefer sober moves so that the crowd doesn’t go beserk),” she says, as her husband Saurabh arrives with plates of noodles.
“Pehle paani toh pilwado (Get us water first),” she yells at her husband, her voice drowned by the music on stage. She gestures to indicate water and Saurabh gets the message. “They only want us to come and perform; no one is bothered about our food or water. At least here we have a room to change; in most villages, we are put up in a tent outside the stage. Koi izzat nahin hai (There is no respect),” she says, now asking her husband, who has returned with a bottle of water, to find her earring which she has dropped on stage. He rushes off once again.
“In the wedding season, we perform at around five functions. The events continue till early morning and we get to sleep for only two-three hours. It gets very tiring,” she says, relieved to see her husband return with her missing earring.
Soon, Sapna walks into the room after her performance, all huffing and puffing. “We have a break,” she announces. “Dulhe ke bhatija ka birthday hai, singer happy birthday gayenge abhi (It’s the groom’s nephew’s birthday. The singers will sing the birthday song),” she says. She then asks Sonia if her husband can escort them to the toilet across the courtyard of the house.
Saurabh instructs the girls to wrap themselves with shawls and walk behind him. As they step out of the room, all eyes are on them. The groom’s friends, the cooks and cleaners and a few women guests look on as the girls walk, eyes on the ground, behind Saurabh. The girls take turns to use the only toilet in the house as Saurabh waits outside. A few men approach him and try to strike up a conversation. He ignores them and accompanies his wife and the other two dancers back to their room. The group of men trails them all the way up to the room and disperses only after Marshall intervenes.
Once a source of entertainment for the landed gentry, over the years, wedding dancers have begun catering to people across social and economic strata. “Earlier, the Thakurs and Brahmins organised mujras for their guests, where tawaifs (courtesans) performed. Sometime in the ’70s, orchestra groups replaced the mujras and became accessible to everyone,” says Shukla.
But while these performances became accessible and affordable to more people, the lack of regulation and security has left the dancers vulnerable to exploitation — women have to perform in distant villages, before largely male audiences, with no police or security cover. That’s the ‘security’ that Sonia found in Saurabh. “Things can get out of hand at these functions. If not for Saurabh, I wouldn’t have been able to continue in this job for so long,” says Sonia.
As the night grows darker and colder, the women and children leave the venue. Around 10 pm, it is time for Sonia’s next performance.
This time, as she dances to Lata Mangeshkar’s ’80s chartbuster Kaliyon ka chaman, her performance picks pace, the moves are racier and she even mouths the lyrics. Many in the audience move towards the stage, more money is hurled and Marshall is a happy man. Saurabh watches it all from a corner of the stage.
In Allahabad, the world of wedding orchestra unfolds in the lanes of Kydganj, a locality that houses both the offices and the homes of its many managers, singers, dancers, announcers and musicians. Back in 1983, an orchestra group here gave Prashant Gautam his first “break” as a congo player. “I later moved to drums, became a singer and announcer, and finally set up Gautam Orchestra in 1997,” he says, sitting in his small office whose walls are lined with photographs from his days as a musician.
Today, at 52, he says he is disillusioned with the industry. “In Kydganj, there are over 150 orchestra groups, but they can hardly be called artistes. Teen dancer aur dedh metre ke banner ke saath sab apne aap ko orchestra group bolte hain (Anybody with three dancers and a one-and-a-half metre banner calls himself an orchestra),” he says, angrily calling up dancers who haven’t arrived yet. His group has to perform at a wedding in a few hours.
“All of them must be sleeping. No rehearsals, no riyaz (practice)… Bhojpuri orchestra has killed the industry. We used to sing songs of Lata, Rafi and Kishore and dancers did kathak. Now every time a singer gets on stage, audience usko bhaga deti hai (the audience hoots him out). Now they say, ‘Bhaisaab, sirf dancer chahiye (they say, we only want dancers)’. And we are left catering to the demands of the dancers,” he says. “The wedding season is a headache, we are better off doing jagrans during Navratis. At least people listen to devotional songs out of fear of God,” he says.
Wedding entertainment, or janwasa as it is referred to in UP and Bihar, is an old tradition. In the early days, the bride’s family arranged for such functions for the groom’s friends. Similar events were also organised by the groom’s family after the wedding. Today, janwasas are limited to villages, and orchestra groups travel hundreds of kilometres to make such appointments.
Ravi Shukla, or Ravi Raj, as he is known in orchestra circuits, remembers making a 700-km trip to Gondia in Maharashtra, only to find out that all the groom’s friends had left before they could reach. A “dance broker” today, he says that while “such setbacks are a part of the job”, what irks him is people’s attitudes towards the industry. “Bobby mein Dimpleji ne bikini pehna tha, swimming kiya tha (In the movie Bobby, Dimple Kapadia wore a bikini and swam), but you could watch the film with your family. That is because people’s thoughts were clean. In the ’90s, parents of dancers and singers accompanied them to janwasa functions and watched the show. But around the year 2000, vulgar Bhojpuri songs were released and it all went downhill from there. Now no parent wants their children to join orchestras. It has become a big taboo,” says Shukla, who gets dancers to Allahabad from Delhi, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar during the wedding season.
He says it’s the taboo that has forced dancers to assume stage names. “Till the ’90s, dancers used their own names. They were famous artistes and people adored them. But over the past 15 years, since the advent of Bhojpuri orchestra, dancers have started seeking anonymity,” says Shukla, who started his own career in the ’80s as a jagran singer. “At one point, we even tried to introduce duets, but they failed miserably. The men in the audience would get on stage and push the male dancer out,” he says.
Playing the video of the Bathinda firing on his phone, Shukla says, “This is another worry. I am the local guardian for these girls. If something happens to them, I will be held responsible. I often warn them to stay alert and remain in their rooms after the performance… These girls are smart, they know how to take care of themselves,” he says, now making his way to the rented accommodation behind his office, where three of his dancers stay.
Seven years ago, Jyoti, a resident of Punjabi Bagh in west Delhi, told her mother that she had landed a job at a neighbourhood beauty parlour. Her mother, who worked as a tailor, was elated. After her husband’s death, the family was going through a rough time, and with seven daughters and a son to take care of, any income was welcome. What Jyoti didn’t tell her family was that she had, in fact, taken up an offer to become a wedding dancer.
“My first performance was at a village near Gurgaon. I got Rs 800 for it. Fortunately, I was part of a group dance and simply copied what the seniors did. For outstation performances, I would tell my mother that I have been hired for make-up by the bride’s family. This time too I said the same thing,” she says, sitting in a dingy room with pink cobwebbed walls in Kydganj. She has been hired by Shukla for this wedding season and he takes care of her accommodation and meals during the months. Two other girls — Esha from Delhi, who performed at the Mau Dostpur reception the previous night, and Nisha from Punjab — share the room with her.
“I take this place on rent for four months a year and hire a cook-cum-cleaner for the girls,” says Shukla. The room is small, with a bed, a few racks and no windows. There are clothes, mostly embellished ones, and imitation jewellery strewn all over the place.
As Jyoti informs Shukla that she is unwell and can’t travel to Sultanpur, 100 km away, to perform, Shukla dials another orchestra group to arrange for a dancer and asks Nisha to pack her bags quickly. Around 5 pm, Nisha reluctantly steps out of the bed and asks Jyoti to help her out. “Na nahaya, na khaya, bas bhagna padega (I haven’t taken a shower or eaten anything, I have to rush),” says Nisha, who only returned at 5 am that morning from a performance.
“Nisha is my best friend,” smiles Jyoti, asking her roommate to wear some perfume. “Two years after I became a dancer, I married a man who did odd jobs at the Navy base in Delhi. I quit dancing completely then, but the marriage only lasted two-and-a-half months. He would often get drunk and beat me up. I got a divorce and returned to dancing. Nisha stood by me like a rock during those times,” she says.
“I have a five-year-old son. He stays with my mother. Dancing has helped me pay for his education,” she adds. She plans to quit the industry in another three-four years. “There is too much pressure. Acha dikhna, gande Bhojpuri gaanon pe nachna, ajeeb logon se milna (You need to look good, dance to vulgar Bhojpuri songs and meet strangers). I am already 28, there are very few years I have anyway,” she says, seeing off Nisha, who rides pillion on Shukla’s scooty till the main market, where a Qualis with the other orchestra members is waiting for her.
Before leaving, Shukla says, “Dancers can only work till they are 35. Phir moti ho jati hain, jhuriya aa jati hain (Then they get fat, get wrinkles) and younger dancers replace them. But then, there is Sonia, who you met last night. She has really taken care of herself. She says she is 30, but she must be at least 40.”
There were many things that brought Sonia and Saurabh together 12 years ago. Four years into her job as a wedding dancer in Ludhiana, Sonia arrived in Allahabad from her hometown, Jalandhar. “My father, who worked in the Army, died when I was 14. My mother died a few years later. I was their only child and suddenly, I was all alone. An aunty from Ludhiana got me into the profession. I worked with her in Ludhiana for three-four years. She taught me everything — dance, make-up… She was the only family I had,” she says. “When I came to Allahabad for a performance, I decided to stay on.”
In a new city, Sonia, who “only spoke Punjabi then”, says she wanted some security, somebody she could rely on. That’s when she met Saurabh.
Saurabh had been working as an orchestra organiser for five years and was looking to marry someone from his own profession. “We dancers are a kasba (community) and we understand the pressures of the profession. I fell in love with Sonia the first time I saw her perform. Eventually, after two years, I asked her to marry me,” he says, struggling to get out of bed around 6 pm. “Hum maan gaye, kaise na karte (I agreed, how could I have refused),” says Sonia coyly. “We had an Arya Samaj wedding,” she adds, now instructing her son, Anuj, who has just returned from his tuition classes, to get potatoes from the market. Her younger son is at her sister-in-law’s home, a few houses away.
After the marriage, Saurabh and his parents moved from their family home to Kydganj. “We took this two-room place on rent for Rs 5,000 and have been living here ever since,” says Saurabh, getting ready for the evening’s performance. After a quick shower, he prays and asks Sonia to prepare dinner for his parents.
Soon, Anuj returns with a bag of potatoes and hands it to Sonia, who is rolling out chapatis in the kitchen. Still dressed in her night gown, she says, “A year ago, I told Anuj I was a dancer. It is better that he gets to know from me, rather than from neighbours. But I don’t want him to get into this industry,” she says. “Par kismat to dekho, iske sar par bhi dance ka bhoot chadha hua hai (But just my luck, even he wants to dance). He watches all the dance reality shows on TV.” Turning to her son, she asks, “Kaunse show mein jaane ka bolta hai (Which is that show you want to participate in?). “DID (Dance India Dance),” he responds in a flash. “Yes, that one. But I have asked him to study till Class 12 and then think of anything else,” she says, preparing the curry.
“Haan, par do saal baad isko ghar par baithna hai, ab bahut ho gaya dance (Yes, but after two years, she has to sit at home.) I am planning to start my own orchestra group. We will have enough money to take care of the family then,” says Saurabh, now ready to set out for one of the last events of the season.
“The children need me. I have to leave them at my sister-in-law’s home every time we go out. If I am not around for them, they will turn wayward,” she says, calling out to her father-in-law to say that dinner is ready. But will she miss dancing? “Sometimes I wonder what will I do at home all day. I will get bored. Saari zindagi dance hi to kiya hai (I have been dancing all my life),” she says.