The Rivalry of the Ribald: Feudal Bhojpur’s Rajputs and Yadavs

By Chandan Nandy

Beyond their intense political rivalry, the outcome of their segmented standing in Bihar’s social hierarchy, the Rajputs and Yadavs of Bhojpur district display markedly different preference for entertainment, though the common denominator of their source of amusement is, by today’s standards, smutty and tawdry.

As the wedding season begins smack in the middle of a gruelling election season, Bhojpur’s launda naach, once patronised by Lalu Prasad — when he was still Lalloo Prasad Yadav and had just become the Chief Minister in 1990 on his social justice plank — is hitting the tracks. Young boys and men with feminine manes and slender frames descend at the rickety doors of Suresh Rawani’s Azad Natyashala Dance Party in Gajrajganj town near Arrah, the dusty district headquarters of Bhojpur.

In Arrah town, the naachnewalis or baijis, as they prefer to call themselves, too receive calls from far-flung districts to perform not only at engagement ceremonies and weddings but also private nautch and mujras for their Rajput patrons. The Rajputs, in keeping with their feudal background, have stuck to the baijis for entertainment; the Yadavs prefer boys or, of late, even transgenders, to dance to the beats of raunchy Bhojpuri numbers that would make you blush or sway, depending on your taste for music.

This mirrors the social hierarchy. The upper caste Rajputs, being wealthy, are able to afford to get the naachnewalis to perform, while the less affluent Yadavs are left to seek pleasure by watching and regaling in the hip-gyrations of teenage boys and clean-shaven men or transgenders.
- Suresh Rawani, Owner, Azad Natyashala Dance Party

The assembly room for Rawani’s troupe is plastered with posters of the RJD candidate for Shahpur constituency.

Dirty bras hang from hooks stuck into the walls. A tabla set and a harmonium are draped in cloth to prevent them from gathering dust.

Rates vary according to gender: While a nubile naachnewali’ would command anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 to dance through the night, a launda barely manages to earn half and sometimes less than half of what a woman would.

While Rawani, who plays the harmonium at functions, insists that his laundas are engaged in the purest rendition of the genre created by his guru Bhikari Thakur — a claim that is certainly not true — the baijis unabashedly proclaim that besides the more benign forms of performances during Dussehra or lagan and wedding ceremonies, they dance on stage in tawdry nautankis, arkistra (orchestra) and “DJ” (disk jockeys).

“Times have changed and we are barely able to keep up with various demands but we improvise,” says 55-year-old Vimla, flashing a bored smile that reveals a set of gutka-stained teeth. The five girls in the room, their age ranging from 23–35, can neither disclose their names nor be photographed.

But in the dark, dingy and honey-combed rooms, interconnected with steep staircases, where gaudily made-up faces stare at outsiders, one gets the visceral sense that dancing is a cover for a thriving flesh trade based on exploitation. This is reflected in two wingless caged parrots that Anjali feeds from time to time. She is having lunch — rice and a vegetable — when I peep my head into her room. “Khana khaiyyega?” she asks, her languid arms beckoning me inside, but her smile and her eyes are distinctly sad.

In Gajranjgang, Manoj Sau, a 35-year-old launda of Beloniya village, breaks into a doleful song for he is about to board a ramshackle jeep to head for Masudhi in Jagadishpur assembly constituency to sing and dance at a shraadh ceremony in a bereaved Yadav family. Manoj’s attire for the function is the usual ghagra-choli and he is perfectly capable of bosom-heaving moves that could compete with those of the naachnewalis.

Both the laundas and the naachnewalis have, like the politics in Bihar, been dependent on patronage, which was and remains the sine qua non of a feudal society that has only just begun to transition to an egalitarian one. The laundas have lost their patron-in-chief, Lalu Prasad, who has out-grown his preference for launda naach when he was in power.

As railway minister, Lalu had some of the laundas recruited in the Railways but they promptly lost their jobs when the Yadav boss demitted office. But that’s okay. If the Mahagathbandhan wins the election, we can again hope to improve our lives.
- Suresh Rawani, Owner, Azad Natyashala Dance Party

Arrah’s naachnewalis are betting on the return of Nitish Kumar as chief minister. “We are illiterate but we know he has done good work for Bihar and its girls and women. We too have children and would want their future secure. Do you think he will do something so we can get some kind of pension?” asked one of the women who did not want to disclose her name. “We perform for all, including the Rajputs. We have no political stakes. So, perhaps, Nitish ji would do something for us,” she rued.

(This story was first published on The Quint)

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