The last show: The mujra dancers at Delhi’s GB Road struggle to keep alive the once thriving form of entertainment
Once they danced for royalty and were known for their lavish lifestyles. But dwindling patronage and a changing cultural market have pushed mujra performers to the margins
Soni’s curt tone, dark lips, stained teeth and pudgy build make her appear older than her 36 years.
She’s one of the last mujra dancers of Delhi’s Garstin Bastion or GB Road (renamed Shradhanand Marg), performing a delicate dance form that goes back to Mughal times. Wearing a maroon salwar kameez with a matching cardigan, Soni is wary of talking, she keeps looking away while we chat, her foot tapping impatiently on the floor, a frown furrowing her forehead. Long pauses and disconcerting stares precede each of her brief responses. “It is our family profession. I became a dancer out of will,” she says, gazing at a point beyond the balcony of the three-storied building on GB Road, the city’s red-light district, also one of the country’s largest sanitaryware markets.
Banks, restaurants, mobile stores, warehouses and under-construction buildings form the urban landscape.
The image of her aunt rehearsing her dance steps with a troupe of musicians in an airless room is etched in Soni’s memory. Soni comes from a long line of mujra dancers also known as nautch girls. Her aunt was a star performer in many naach evenings and nights hosted by some of the wealthiest and most influential men in Delhi. In Soni’s clan, daughters choose between marriage and dance. She opted for the latter. “I was around 16 years old then. The idea of wearing makeup, dressing up in pretty clothes, the combination of singing and dancing fascinated me,” she says.
Around 50 dancing girls, including Soni, keep alive the once flourishing tradition of mujra at GB Road, which involves live singing and dancing to songs, mostly on demand. They perform from dusk to midnight.
By the time Soni was trained in dance, the respect and fame once attached to the profession had given way to scorn and debauchery. Over the decades, alternative sources of leisure, dwindling remuneration and vulnerable working conditions pushed dancers to the brink. There was always a grey area between dance and prostitution, now they are considered synonymous.
Inebriated men competing to shower money on the dancers, and forcing dancers to remain ‘loyal’ to them, have replaced royal patrons. “Last night, the boyfriend of a dancer threatened to jump off the balcony. Such brawls bring a bad name to the kotha. The police will blame the dancer saying that she took the money and killed him. This is why we have made these cages,” says Soni, pointing to the high iron grilles in the windows.
DANCING TO THEIR TUNE
The influence of nautch girls went beyond the realm of art and culture. “At least a few courtesans would have wielded some influence through their husbands, their friendships with royalty and the blessings of Mughal kings,” says historian Sohail Hashmi. Delhi had its share of such legendary women.
Mubarak Begum, one of the 13 wives of the first British Resident in Delhi in the early 19th century, Sir David Ochterlony, was a dancing girl.
Austrian mercenary Walter Joseph Reinhardt married a 14-year-old dancing girl who was undergoing training at Chawri Bazaar (erstwhile Bazaar-e-Husn) in the 18th century. She acquired the name Begum Samru and went on to become the ruler of Sardhana estate near Meerut (western Uttar Pradesh).
Within artistic circles, the dere daarni – the dancer associated with one nobleman or camp – was at the top of the hierarchy in the community. “Their bordellos were centres of culture. Children from wealthy families were sent to them to learn etiquette and social decorum,” writes Maheshwar Dayal in Alam Mein Intekhab-Dilli, a book that documents the culture of the time.
Some dancing girls were especially popular because of their lifestyle and extraordinary temperament. Noor Bai was one such. She was a gold-digger, with never-ending demands, according to Muraqqa-i-Dehli, an account of the city’s life written by Dargah Quli Khan in the 18th century. Noor Bai severed ties with her patrons when they ceased to be rich. Once bowled over by her charm, men would do anything to form an alliance with her.
Ad Begum, famous for attending gatherings naked with choli and pyjama designs painted on her body, also finds space in Khan’s text.
Their downfall begun after the 1857 Uprising. Richard David Williams, lecturer at the University of London, in his paper on courtesans in colonial North India, notes that the anti-nautch movement led by the colonial administration and Indian social reformers clubbed prostitutes and courtesans as public women. “These different campaigns against ‘fallen women’ had multiple implications: song genres were de-eroticised; instruments associated with the nautch became unpopular; women from ‘respectable’ families began to appear on the public stage; and many professional entertainers were forced into sex work in the absence of cultural patronage.”
By the end of the 19th century, the nautch girls were relocated from Chawri Bazaar to GB Road, then considered the outskirts of the city.
In their new hub, dancers were initially treated with respect. Over the decades though, the profession began losing its sheen. “Once, imparting training to mujra dancers at GB Road was an achievement of sorts. It was far from notorious. I also trained some of them,” says Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan, classical vocalist and head of the Dilli Gharana of music.
DEVOUT LIKE NONE
In the backdrop of sectarian violence during Independence, a majority of the Muslim dancers shifted to the Hira Mandi area in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital. Women from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh – predominantly nomadic tribes – filled the vacuum, thronging to bordellos on both sides of the street with shops beneath them. Mushtari Begum from Jind (Haryana), Maya from Shimla and Tara Bai from Kalka (Himachal Pradesh) were some of the famous nautch girls of this period. Soni’s ancestors, from the Bediya community in Madhya Pradesh, made GB Road their home.
It was and still is common for dancing girls to court one patron, often a prelude to monogamous relationship. One such man is the father of Soni’s son. “My boyfriend lives with his family. We meet once a month and during festivals. That is how it is with all the girls here,” says Soni in a nonchalant manner.
What comes as a surprise to many observers is how pious the girls are. “It was common for them to organise soz khani majlis (session in which songs of lament are sung) at their bordellos during Muharram,” recalls Ahmed Iqbal Khan. “And all of them would become extremely spiritual once they were past their prime. It was as if they transformed into another personality,” he adds.
Rajni is currently the most popular mujra dancer at GB Road. Her friends jokingly call her Radhey maa due to her devout nature.
Two decades ago, underground dance bars came up in many parts of Delhi, affecting the clientele of Soni’s tribe. Bar dancers appeared contemporary, performed to an orchestra, and offered a welcome change from the dingy rooms at GB Road. “Dance bars finished us,” says Soni.
Companies providing mujra dancers from Russia and Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for private parties also dented the fortunes of dancers in Delhi’s red light district.
Now, sex workers outnumber mujra dancers in the locality. Mujra performances take place in 12 rooms – colloquially known as mujre waaley kamrey – in two of the 77 brothels. There were 30 such rooms when Soni started in 2002.
The rooms have been sold many times over. Each room has a different owner. Some rooms are tiny and drab, with a pungent smell and seepage on walls. Others have brightly coloured walls, vintage tiles, clean bedding and chandeliers.
Soni is not sure for how long GB Road, less than a one kilometre stretch adjoining New Delhi Railway Station, will accommodate her or other dancers or the dance style itself. Last year, her landlord sold his property to a trader, including the two tiny rooms on the terrace in which she was living with her parents. She moved to a colony in East Delhi.
THE SECOND BIRTH
Soni wants an escape. She says that she can switch careers if there is pay parity. Last year, she joined Kat-Katha, an NGO working on GB Road to end forced sex work through various holistic rehabilitation projects.
She works as a cook at the community kitchen run by the NGO which prepares meals for more than 100 children every day. “I am slowly coming out of that world,” she says.
For most of the time she spends at the kitchen, Soni keeps to herself, with songs from ’80s Hindi films on her playlist, for company.
People around her have seen her eyes glitter only when she talks about her son who has started working as a property dealer.
Soni has tried to quit dancing many times, only to find herself performing once again before her clients. “It comes naturally to me. This is what I have done all my life. Also, I have to provide for my parents. Eventually, I will quit,” she says.
At the mujra room, Soni lives one night at a time. Wearing loud makeup, a dance costume and heavy anklets, she joins the group of women sitting on a wooden bench outside their rooms, waiting for their turn. They chat about the men in their lives, the latest episodes of daily soaps, new mujra numbers in a film, and ways to deal with difficult customers. Soni also tells young dancers how to improvise.
The waiting hours exceed the time Soni spends in performing, except the nights when a regular customer drops by.
She dances stoic-faced, periodically breaking into a plastic smile, her body moving mechanically to tunes which have almost become part of her being after years of experience.
Salaam-e-Ishq (from the Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha starrer Muqaddar Ka Sikandar/1987) and Dil cheez kya hai (from Umrao Jaan, featuring Rekha and Farooque Sheikh/1981) are the two most popular songs among customers.
Soni gets ₹200 per song apart from nazraana (tip).
All-nighters have become a thing of the past. Her clientele now comprises primarily of first-timers, local tourists, labourers, and men from neighbouring towns who are in Delhi on a trade visit or to participate in political rallies.
Like everyone in her community and beyond, Soni too wishes to have her own house and a decent life. She yearns to adopt a girl child; one who does not become a dancing girl. “That will be my second birth.”