In the village of Buxar in Bihar, where theatre director Dilip Gupta grew up, a wedding or a social celebration almost always included a dance by a woman who was actually a man. “The tradition was called launda naach or the netua naach. As children, we were fascinated by these normal-looking boys who would go into a room and emerge from it looking like women. We would peep from cracks in doors and open windows as he dressed up,” says Gupta. Earlier this month, the theatre director enlivened the story of these men who performed as women dancers in a play, titled Netua.
Who would watch a play about folk dancers from Bihar in the heart of Delhi? More than Shri Ram Centre in Mandi House could accommodate. Long after the curtain rose and the doors shut, the crowd kept growing outside the hall. The enterprising among them tried to look for secret entrances — up the steps that lead to the Green Room — or called “people inside”. Neither scheme worked. Netua was house full, with standing room near the walls and in the balcony taken. The air-conditioning barely managed to keep up.
The play begins with a netua performer, called Jhamna, refusing to let his son join the profession. His reason forms the body of the script, and allows actor Raunak Khan to get under the skin of a dancer, who clings to his art even as people around him, especially a zamindar, become incapable of seeing him as a man. The exploitation — sexual and social — of the zamindar increases but Jhamna holds his ground until a terrible incident forces him to cast away his coloured skirt. The dances are energetic and the music evocative of the heartland but Netua suffers from uneven acting and tacky light design. Performers maintained the momentum of the play, and kept the audience applauding.
Gupta knows the terrain in which the play is set, and recreates the raw and rough. Netua also demonstrates the immersion of an artist into his character. Gupta’s past plays have included Urf Chocolate Friends, about migration, and Bathan, about caste politics and naxalite problems, among others. In Netua, a Saraswati Puja scene depicts a bhajan performed to the tune of a yesteryear Bollywood hit. A native of the region would recognise how folk music is increasingly being juxtaposed with film tunes.