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Launda Naach and Kaniyan Koothu — When men dressing and dancing like women is not obscenity

As the narratives of both Naach Bhikhari Naach and Sing Along Dance Across progress, they not only divulge reversal of gender roles, but also emphasise on how politics of caste and a search for livelihood has resulted in co-option of the art forms.

Written by Soumya Mathew | New Delhi |
Updated: June 11, 2018 12:44:18 pm
kaniyan koothu, launda naach, psbt open frame film fest, public service broadcasting trust film fest, psbt film fest, indian express, indian express news Both documentaries essentially looking at how male performers of the lower rungs of caste hierarchy dressing up as women and dancing at social gatherings and temples. (Source: Public Service Broadcasting Trust/Facebook, PSBT India/YouTube)

“Who are we to decide what is obscenity? Vulgarity is contextual,” says Jainendra Kumar Dost, the co-director of ‘Naach Bhikhari Naach‘. Screened at the recently-concluded Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s Open Frame Film Festival 2017 in New Delhi, both ‘Naach Bhikhari Naach‘ and ‘Sing Along Dance Across’ are documentaries essentially looking at one single interesting context — Male performers of the lower rungs of caste hierarchy dressing up as women and dancing at social gatherings and temples.

But as the narratives of both films progress, they not only divulge reversal of gender roles, but also emphasise on how politics of caste and a search for livelihood has resulted in co-option of the art forms — this, in addition to varying perceptions of vulgarity that form around the performers.

POLITICS OF CASTE AND MIGRATION

Even without a written history record, Launda Naach, is at least 350 years old, says Dost in an interview to indianexpress.com. Bhikhari Thakur, the pioneer of the subaltern art form that originated in Chhapra and Arrah regions of Bihar, to whom the film is a tribute in itself, is said to have formed his troupe in 1917.

Popularly known as the “Shakespeare of Bihar”, Thakur’s plays were catalysts that made sharp observations about social and political issues. One such play was Bidesiya — a 20th century play about a man who left his family in Bihar and migrated to Calcutta in search of a livelihood. So popular became this particular play, that the upper castes slowly sanitised Launda Naach and rechristened the art form itself as Bidesiya. This, when the art form encapsulates much more than just the story of migration that Thakur narrated through Bidesiya, says Shilpi Gulati, the co-director of Naach Bhikhari Naach.

Prasanna Ramaswamy’s Sing Along Dance Across, focuses on Kaniyan Koothu — a 300-year-old temple performance art in Tamil Nadu which is an offering to gods wherein men dress up as women to dance. However, the young generation of the Kaniyan community settled in Tirunelveli, refrained from performing at temples dressed up as women. And men like S Chitravelu and M Muthu Manikandan, from an entirely different community of that of shadow puppeteers, known as the Tholpaava Koothu community, have taken it upon themselves to save the art from dying and also to earn a living.

Watch Sing Along Dance Across’ trailer video, here.

About 20 minutes or so into the film, the camera lingers for five seconds or more at Chitravelu’s father’s face as he looks at his son walk away with the four-and-a-half kilo anklets that they wear during the koothu. “They have a sense of hapless shame and regret for abandoning their community’s art form and taking up another. He does not even go and watch his son perform,” Ramaswamy told indianexpress.com.

Interestingly, in both cases, the performers understand the caste politics involved. According to Gulati, when they are called Bidesiya performers outside their village, they do not correct the usage because they understand that calling their folk art form Launda Naach (which is deemed crass) in big cities like Delhi will only limit its appeal. When Chitravelu and Manikandan, of the leather shadow puppeteer community, realised their traditional occupation was on the verge of collapse, they set out to earn a living — and they found asylum in performing Kaniyan Koothu.

‘WHO DECIDES WHAT IS VULGARITY?’

After a high-spirited performance which includes endless swirling, a steady build-up of beats and matching effeminate dance movements, Chitravelu, with sweat all over his make-up putty, says that they are sometimes mistaken as transvestites. People pass lewd and obscene remarks but this is our duty and we are doing this for our god, he says. They don’t let the sneers and curious glances get to them, he says in the movie.

(Source: PSBT/Facebook)

Dost explains that upper castes think of Launda Naach as obscene because of their ignorance. It is important to understand each performance in its cultural context, says the 32-year-old who is a Research Scholar at JNU’s Art and Aesthetics department. Many tend to abhor the performances because it shows men dressed up as women, but Dost explains that it has been traditionally performed at weddings, birthdays to funerals — which wouldn’t have been the case had the community itself thought of it as vulgar.

BENDING GENDER DEFINITIONS

Ramaswamy thinks the koothu doesn’t affect the gendered identity of the dancers because they are also doing other jobs around the year. “They are a son, a father, a husband, a balloon seller, a construction worker when they aren’t performing and I believe this helps in not imbibing the mannerisms of a woman beyond the performance,” says the 64-year-old filmmaker.

Interestingly while both Gulati and Dost assert that Ram Chandra Manjhi Bade, Ram Chandra Manjhi Chote, Shivlal Bari and other performers would keep their professional and personal lives strictly apart, Gulati says there are some evident manifestations. “Shivlal Bari goes home after the performances and takes care of the household, because his wife is mentally unstable. He even feeds her,” says the 30-year-old National Award-winning filmmaker. So not only are they not conforming to gender roles, they also harbour a liberal approach towards feminism, she asserts.

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