At Bihar’s Sonepur Mela, thousands of villagers trade in cattle, and scores of urban “nautch girls” peddle desire. Udit Kulshrestha documents the negotiations
Sonepur is a small village outside Patna. In record books, it finds unremarkable mention for having the eighth-longest railway platform in the world. But it’s more immediately recalled as the place where Asia’s largest cattle fair takes place every November. The Mela packs in spirituality with elephant, cattle and horse trading. It gets underway on the Hindu holy occasion of Kartik Purnima. At 5am on this day, thousands of pilgrims line up on the banks of the Gandak river to take a holy dip. At 5pm, most of the male pilgrims, some of whom have come to trade cattle, prep for their evening at the “theatre” where entertainment is in the form of nautanki.
For 26 days, the Sonepur Mela sees the trade of cattle; for 26 nights, it sees trade of a different kind. On make shift stages, women of varying ages, agility and attractiveness gyrate to the latest Bollywood “item” songs, often driving their all-male, very appreciative audience into a frenzy. The barbed wire separating the performers from the spectators is a necessary precaution.
Most of the nautch girls are brought in from cities like Kolkata, Muzaffarpur, Varanasi and even Delhi to perform at these shows. Most of the women are junior dancers in Bhojpuri films or employed as makeup artists or masseurs and make the annual trip since nautanki is an easy way to earn some cash. They make anything between Rs 15,000 and Rs 50,000, depending on their pedigree and how much attention they can attain and retain. Some have even performed for politicians; “VIP” visitors from Patna are a common occurrence. They dance wearing sequin-studded clothes and garish makeup. They have to tease and titillate—that’s what the men have come for.
It wasn’t always so. For nearly a century, nautanki reigned as northern India’s most popular form of entertainment fusing dance and dialogue, romance, humour and melodrama; it was filmy before Bollywood films. And one of its brightest stars was Gulab Bai, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990. Ruhi Batra
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.