Rishi Majumder and Santosh Mishra visit Mumbai’s kothas and lament the loss of one of India’s finest dance forms – the mujra

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Bachchu Ki Wadi is one of the neighbourhoods where a form of mujra still flourishes - the Madhuri Dixit image is a newspaper copy superimposition

Bachchu Ki Wadi is one of the neighbourhoods where a form of mujra still flourishes - the Madhuri Dixit image is a newspaper copy superimposition

In a city where most self proclaimed mujrawaalis don’t know the difference between kathak’s tatkar and chakkar, Noor Jehan, in her 40s, is one of the remnant ‘Mehnati Mujrawaalis’. This means she has been trained in classical song and dance and the Tehzeeb (etiquette) and Adaa (charm) essential to this art since childhood. “My mother was a Tawaif, but my father a strict Sayyad (one of Islam’s most respected titles),” she declares proudly. “Choosing my mother’s profession was my own choice.” Noor Jehan converses in chaste Urdu and abuses in Bambaiya, and she holds forth on the intricacies of both kathak and law (she’s learned the latter from a relative who’s a lawyer). On the wall behind her hangs a framed license reading, “Rangbhoomi Prayog, Parinireekshan Mandlaache.” Since the prohibition of Mujra on May 3, 2007, it is these licences which allow it to be performed till 12:30 am. Noor Jehan’s kotha is located at Benares Ki Chawl, Faras Road. This, the adjoining Bachchu Ki Wadi, and nearby Congress House area, are the only places in Mumbai where Mujra, in a form resembling the original, persists. The number of practitioners has decreased, from around 1500 twenty years ago to a maximum of 200 today.
Mujra, evolved from classical kathak when the Mughals ruled India, is characterised by fast spinning, swift movement, hand gestures of Persian influence, and suggestive connotation. It planted itself in Mumbai’s hub of local entertainment (close to Pila Haus) over 150 years ago. The areas the mujrawaalis currently perform at were formally bequeathed to the Tawaif Sabha much later, in the presence of none other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, at August Kranti Maidan. These areas are renowned for spawning many a great Hindi film actress and classical singer of yore. But the lack of space (a perennial Mumbai malaise) led to the first change in the dance’s presen
tation. The traditional Pishwaach, eight metres in length, designed to whirl to the mujra dancer’s steps for effect, gave way to the sari, enabling them to perform in tiny hutments and rooms. “Then everything changed with the coming of the dance bars,” says Shabbo, a mujra dancer at Bachchu Ki Wadi. These bars, providing the liquor licence the kothas lacked, stole many a customer, much to the spite of the mujra community. Gradually however, the mujrawaalis themselves started performing at the bars, earning much more from their commercial setting. “But our elders– the community panchayat– would insist that each girl who goes into the bar line give at least one day in a week to the performance of pure mujra to
keep the art alive,” Shabbo insists. Yet the dance bar line represented more than a change in entertainment space. It mirrored a Bollywood opening to Western influence in music and dance. “The farmaishes (requests) of the kotha customers turned towards these new chalu gaane (current songs),” Ustad Abbas Khan, a 73-year-old tabla player at Benares Ki Chawl tells us, which neither the traditional ustaads (classical musicians) nor the kathak
trained danseuses could comply with.
Most of the elders who formed the panchayat of this community have either passed away or shifted and the current body remains in name only. This leaves a few older and informed women like Noor Jehan to voice the community’s concerns. “We have to pay musicians who come in from as far as Mira Road, maintain an air conditioner for guests, and then settle rent,” Shabbo lists. “Also, we can’t demand money for our performance but have to make do with the ‘baksheesh’ given to us.” The 12:30 am time limit on performances has made these expenses unviable. Adding to this list is pressure from builders eyeing the real estate the mujrawaalis occupy, and residents from nearby high rises, who see the kothas as a bad influence on the neighbourhood.
“The solution to this is to build theatres, where mujra may be performed and portrayed as the art it is,” says Varsha Kale, president of the Bar Girls’ Association, who has been documenting the Indian mujra for over a year now. She then talks about how the Bihar Government is planning initiatives along the same line. “Also similar initiatives have been undertaken by the Maharashtra Government for the preservation of the Maharashtrian folk dance form lavani,” she continues “which is no less ‘suggestive’ than mujra.” And far greater initiatives have been undertaken by governments in countries like Turkey for belly dancing, which is far more suggestive than either. Such initiatives would provide employment and dignity to true exponents of the art, as well as save it from further bastardisation.
But hindering any such initiative is prejudice. “Yesterday, two policemen came barging into my room at one thirty at night,” Noor Jehan recounts. “They said they just wanted to ‘look around’ without even a search warrant!” Other mujrawaalis list many more such instances, saying: “At one time noblemen would
send their children to a tawaif to learn tehzeeb. We have through the ages donated lakhs to the government for relief programmes like the Chief Minister’s fund for the Latur earthquake. Why are we still treated with such disrespect?”
A part of this prejudice arises from the fact that these areas, like Napier Road in Karachi and Hira Mandi in Lahore, merge with the red light district (like Kamathipura). So pimps and prostitutes spill over into the lanes, with the ramshackle doctor’s clinic, kebab joints and old Hindi songs playing from a paan stall forming a common ambience. The police are accused of slapping provisions of the Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act and Bombay Police Act, meant for preventing prostitution, on the mujrawaalis as well. Some old mujra exponents also blame the Shettys who owned most of the dance bars for this prejudice, claiming they “purposefully ruined the mujrawaali’s name to better their own business”.
But the downfall of this ancient art form goes back to the colonial era. The Anti Nautch Movement, launched by British officials and Indian social reformers in 1882, labelled every tawaif and even every kathak dancer a “whore”, later prompting even the Indian National Congress–inspite of vast donations from tawaifs — to dissociate with such to save image. The British had a political motive here: many kothas had served as focal centres for discussion and strategising leading to the revolt of 1857. The tawaifs, then ranking among Indian society’s most aware women, being active participants in this rebellion. The ‘reformers’ in their zest for constructing a new moral fabric, didn’t realise how many dancers they were actually converting into ‘whores’, the stigma imprinted on them leaving them no other livelihood option but to resort to the cliché itself. Kathak, preserved primarily by courtesans during this period was revived once sense prevailed, but the mujra was left to rot. What a pity.

madhuri dixit

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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