Art & Entertainment

Launda Naach: Why The Popular Folk Art In Bihar Stares At An Uncertain Future

A look at the world of Bihar’s popular folk dance form—in which men dress as women and different animals—as its most prominent exponent Ramchandra Manjhi passes away

Launda Naach: Why The Popular Folk Art In Bihar Stares At An Uncertain Future
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The news of Ramchandra Manjhi’s death, on the night of September 7, 2022, rea­ched me via social media. Sudd­e­nly, I was transported to an evening in Jaw­a­harlal Nehru University, New Delhi, around four years ago, when Manjhi was set to perform at the open-air amphithe­a­tre at around 9 pm. He, however, was already in his ‘zone’ from early evening, becoming one with his art, as he began applying makeup, hours before he was schedu­led to perform. When he fin­ally graced the open­-­air stage, a hush desce­n­ded over the boisterous cro­wd. As he began dancing, even students who did not speak Bho­j­puri watched with rapt attention.

That evening’s performance reminded me of the memoirs of IAS officer Jagdish Chandra Mathur, who was a popular figure as Bihar’s education secretary. In it, he wrote that he had once invited Manjhi’s guru Bhikhari Thakur to perform at Patna’s Harding Park. The park was jam-packed, with people climbing up on boun­d­ary walls and trees to get a glimpse of the performance. The crowd was turning into a mob, which the police found impossible to control. When Mathur explained the situation to Tha­kur, he came on stage and appealed to the audience for calm, before breaking into an impro­mptu performance. As Mathur recalls, suddenly, the world came to a standstill. The seemingly uncontrollable mob transformed into a disciplined audience.

The silence that followed Manjhi’s on-stage appearance in JNU made me think that there has to be a certain magic to this tradition that leaves spectators transfixed, with no need for an appeal for calm.

Manjhi’s death was natural. After a certain age, ailments arrive as mere justification for death. He fell ill and was admitted to hospital. A man who was physically and mentally at his prime, performing on stage till a few months ago, could not overcome his battle with illness, and passed away at the age of 95.

As a dancer, actor, singer and performer, Man­jhi had been bestowed with honours such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Pad­ma Shri. But people knew him as a member of Thakur’s troupe, someone who inherited and carried forward the legend’s legacy.

Manjhi’s death naturally elicited a number of tributes. Many people wrote: “Famous launda naach exponent Ramchandra Manjhi is no more”. Some referred to him as the last member of Thakur’s troupe—which is factually inc­orrect. The words launda and launda naach appeared repeatedly in the obituaries.

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The guru Bhikhari Thakur

Manjhi’s ustaad (guide) Thakur had prepared over two dozen plays based on stories and realities around him. These made him a unique art­ist of his time. He performed across the cou­ntry. Many of his plays fomented social change like women’s empowerment, and rescued the stagnating folk form.

There are many tales around Thakur that have become mythical. One of these is from Assam. Apparently, when Thakur went to Tin­s­ukia with his troupe to perform Bidesia (one of his most famous plays), he started attracting such huge crowds that evening shows at cinemas struggled to find audiences. When cinema hall owners complained to the district magistr­ate, Thakur and his company were evicted and banished from the district.

As an important member of Thakur’s troupe, Manjhi must have experienced countless such moments with his guru. He surely witnessed such adulation when he emerged from under Thakur’s wings as a standalone artiste.

Thus, to reduce the entire oeuvre of such an artiste to just launda naach is limiting. Male dan­cers of folk forms who perform to songs in the regional dialects of Bihar and Purvanchal (eastern UP) are usually called laundas, and their dance launda naach. They have been performing in villages and small towns for generations, on occasions like weddings and other rituals, apart from festivals. Traditionally, they danced wearing headgears and dresses in the shape of peacocks, horses, etc., and these performances would accordingly be called mor naach (peacock dance), ghod (horse) naach, Gor naach (of the Gor tribe), kaudi (cowri) naach and bhakhauti naach (dance to please gods for wish-fulfilment), etc. Many of these were very popular once, but now it is common to club all of them under the umbrella term of launda naach.

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An actor prepares Ramchandra Manjhi

Any discussion on laundas and launda naach inevitably leads to the question: when, why and how did all popular, dance forms of Bihar and Purvanchal that have male performers, get generalised as launda naach? As per available records, the word launda only gained traction in recent decades, even as the world of male dancers changed, with Tara Bano Fai­z­abadi’s song, “Launda badnaam hua, Nasiban tere liye (The boy has earned a bad reputation for you, Nasi­ban)” as the biggest turning point. Inci­de­n­tally, it was later adapted into the Bolly­woood ‘item number’ “Munni badnaam hui (Munni’s name has been malig­ned)” for the Salman Khan starrer Dabangg in 2010.

Produced before the era of social media, when TVs were also rare, Tara Bano rhetorically asks in the song: “Who gave the launda a bad name?” With launda also widely understood in the colloquial as a ‘boy toy’—an underage boy who is an object of sexual desire—people soon began to read a salacious meaning into it, tainting the art form with the projection of their own rep­ressed desires. With one stroke, from being respe­c­ted artistes, male dancers of various folk dance forms bec­ame tainted. From respected artistes like Rasool Miyan, Chai Ojha, San­kata Bhand, Mukundi Bhand and Bhikhari Thakur, male folk dancers performing female roles got tagged as the vaguely disreputable launda dancers, and the art form fell into obscurity.

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While Thakur was a low caste barber, Rasool Miyan was Muslim and Chai Ojha a Brahmin born into aristocracy who began dancing at the tender age of 12.

Of late, though, launda naach has seen somewhat of a revi­val. Uday Singh of Bihar has reinvented it and taken it to several countries. The play, “Launde ka DNA (DNA of a boy)” was quite a hit, while Pankaj Pawan gained popularity with his play “Launda badnaam hua (This boy has been malig­ned)”. Launda naach itself gained screen time in films. However, the fate of the authentic folk artistes kept worsening, as the popular tradition itself regressed into obscurity.

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In the world of folk art, all dances symbolise a form of resi­stance. So is the case of launda naach, a product of a feudal society, which was developed and honed by artistes from Dalit and oppressed castes. To that extent, one can say the reversal in its fortunes was mainstream society’s response to deny it social acceptance by slapping disrepute on it.

With classical dance forms restricted to the realm of kings and courts, and later to zamind­ars and their tawaifs (courtesans), music and dance as entertainment were denied to the poor and marginalised. Inevitably, they developed their own form—a simulation of what the rural backward caste society imagined as approxima­t­ing the form of their overlords, but infused with their own expectations and exposure. And as is with all such societies, with women under purdah, their roles were taken up by men, for the pleasure of other men—the audience. The crucial difference with the entertainment of the feudal lords being that launda naach was accessible to the downtrodden and caste-oppressed.

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However, this is where the differences ended. With patria­r­chy remaining the dominant framework of soc­iety, poor and backward caste men who formed the audience for lau­nda naach, also replicated the mores of their feudal lords by groping the laundas in front of them—men dressed as women—deriving vicarious sexualised pleasure from the encounter. Soon, it became so popular that it even cau­ght the eyes of the zamindars and royals. As the feudal class began appropriating the entertainment, the form itself became hegemonic. And with this, it travelled up the social hierarchy, attracting practitioners from other religions and even upper castes. While Thakur was a nai (barber)—a low caste, Rasool Miyan was Muslim and Chai Ojha, a Brahmin. Ojha, in fact, was born in an aristocratic family and joined the world of naach at the tender age of 12. He went on to form his own troupe with mainly Dalit artistes, although for this act of defiance, he was ostracised by his village and community.

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This ostracism is not merely reserved for artistes of yore. Manjhi only became famous after receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Padma Shri. And there are many others who continue to remain in obscurity. Like Ramangeya Ram, another member of Thakur’s troupe, who is from a village near Ara. Even at the ripe old age of 100, Ram still strides on stage with infecti­ous vigour, performing both male and female roles in quick succession. However, let alone the country, he is barely recognised in his own neighbourhood.

Ramchandra Manjhi is no more. In him, male folk dancers found respect and fame. Only time can offer a true assessment of his work, but one can already say that by spreading his gospel and leaving behind several pupils, he has already contributed a lot towards destigmatising the art form that has long been tainted and mocked.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Behind the Veil")

(Translated from Hindi by Iqbal Abhimanyu)

(Views expressed are personal)

Nirala Bidesia is an independent journalist with interest in folk life, culture, music & cusine of eastern India

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