GB Road struggles to keep a dying history alive

Romanticised in reel and reviled in real, mujra dancers in the capital`s red-light area are fighting a losing battle to keep a once celebrated art alive.

Last Updated: Feb 07, 2011, 10:38 AM IST

New Delhi: Romanticised in reel and reviled in real, mujra dancers in the capital`s red-light area
are fighting a losing battle to keep a once celebrated art
alive.

"I still remember those days when the `kotha` was
filled with people. Today, there are hardly a handful," says
45-year-old Shenaaz, as she dabs rouge on her cheeks,
preparing for the routine mujra dance session that takes place
on GB Road every night after nine.

"There were times we were called to dance at parties
and weddings, now few call us. Everyone wants foreign women to
dance at their parties; it`s a matter of status. We`ll
probably embarrass them with our cheap saris," says Shenaaz
who hails from Rajasthan.

Of the estimated 1000 odd sex workers on GB Road, only
a few know and practice mujra now. While some train under
artistes, for others the art has been passed down through
generations.

"My mother was a mujra dancer and so was my
grandmother. Under them I learnt the classical form of the
dance, but now people want to see us dancing to Bollywood
numbers. It kills the purity of the art, but do we have a
choice!

"Previously dancers did it because they enjoyed it;
today it has become a matter of survival as those who dance
are paid more," smiles 26-year-old Shanti from Lucknow,
revealing her paan-stained teeth.

Mujra, which incorporates elements of Kathak dance,
was patronised during the Mughal era. But over the centuries
the term `tawaif` (courtesans) became synonymous with sex
workers and `kothas` came to be associated with brothels.

"We saw a demure Rekha in the movie `Umrao Jaan` and
Meena Kumari in `Pakeezah`. They won acclaim for these roles,
but reel life doesn`t come close to reality," says historian
Nazaf Haider, Associate Professor in Jawaharlal Nehru
University.

People`s perception of the art form has changed over
the years, says Haider, adding that today these dancers are associated with prostitution more than the hundreds of years of
culture that they represent.

"When once Mujra was performed to `thumris`, ghazals
or popular poems of Ghalib, today it is performed to Bollywood
numbers. In the original dance the emphasis was more on
footwork. The art has lost its patronage. It is dead now," he
says.

"No, the art is not dead," counters Vineet Hans who
runs an events management company in Delhi.

"A lot of parties these days want mujra dancers. The
only difference is that the demand for blonde European women
has gone up; white women up the glamour quotient," says Hans.

PTI