Nachnis and rasiks: an ethnographic study of an artistic community of Purulia district, west Bengal, India

A study of the artistic community of the Purulia district of the state of West Bengal, India. Accompaniment of musicians-accompanists in public. Women performing accompanied by musicians. Analysis of the system of traditional caste exchange of services.

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Nachnis and rasiks: an ethnographic study of an artistic community of Purulia district, west Bengal, India

Svetlana Ryzhakova, Sumahan Bandyopadhyay

This paper is based on the study of nachnis, a dancing community in Purulia district of West Bengal, India. The community is still performing albeit in a different form than that has so far been projected in the popular perception and is very different from its past composition and practices. Preserving to some extent the traditional features of jajmani system, danseuses are mostly involved in the local entertainment sphere. In spite of the profound changes in the attitude to dance and music in India in general, nachnis' social status is still very low. A nachni is always involved in a dynamic relationship with her rasik - a man who fulfills functions of her teacher, manager, patron, lover, and often her children's father. There is a tendency towards forming stable family-like connections between a nachni and a rasik today. Although there is certain activity to unite all nachnis and promote their rights, this initiative is still unsuccessful due to strong professional rivalry and a lack of community feeling. The content of nachnis' dance repertoire demonstrates a blend of various styles, traditions, arranged in local ways and fitted for the popular taste of the audience.

Keywords: Nachni (danseuses), rasik, artistic communities, performance, Purulia, India

С.И. Рыжакова, С. Бандйопадхьяй


Статья посвящена этнографическому исследованию начни - небольшому артистическому сообществу района Пурулиа штата Западная Бенгалия, Индия. Это женщины, выступающие в сопровождении музыкантов- аккомпаниаторов на публике: на сельских праздниках, по индивидуальным и коллективным приглашениям. Они были ранее включены в систему традиционного кастового обмена услугами, джаджмани, исполняли песни и танцы направления джумур, а в настоящее время в основном вовлечены в местную развлекательную сферу. Их социальный статус очень низок. Начни всегда находится в постоянных и динамических отношениях со своим расиком - человеком, выполняющим целый ряд функций: учителя, менеджера, покровителя, любовника, нередко и отца ее детей. Сегодня наблюдается тенденция к формированию устойчивых семейных связей между начни и расиком. Хотя с 2005 г. начала проводиться некоторая деятельность по объединению всех начни и продвижению их прав, эта инициатива не получила успеха из-за сильного профессионального соперничества и отсутствия между танцовщицами чувства общности. Содержание танцевального репертуара начни демонстрирует эклектичное смешение различных стилей, отвечающих популярным вкусам публики, но в редких случаях отдельные талантливые артистки добиваются определенного признания и образованной аудитории.

Ключевые слова: начни (танцоры), расик, художественные сообщества, представления, Пурулия, Индия

Dance today is undoubtedly a cultural brand of India to represent “Indianness”. At both arrival and departure halls of Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi, the very first and last things one can see are symbols of dance and music: huge bas-reliefs of hand positions (hasta-mudras), dancer's figures, musical instruments. No Indian official events - fromtiny local meetings to regional and national conferences could happen without dance and music programs at the end. Dancers and musicians win National awards.

Yet until quite recently, dance and dancers especially of traditional dancing communities were grossly marginal. In the middle of the 20th century, the social status of almost all of them was very low. A peculiar feature of Indian social set-up - prolonged coexistence of many types of communities and the caste system created conditions for reserving skills, crafts, and jobs including music, theatre, and dance to particular groups. Like any other job,dance used to be a socially inherited one, installed in the frame of exchange system (jajmani) between patrons and clients. Musicians and dancers - along with dhobi etc. sometimes - were not welcomed in some houses. At the same time, dancing - as well as shaving, for instance, and many more manipulations with the physical body - was and still is an important element for a number of Hindu rituals and festivities.

In a short period between the 1920s and 1950s dance went through a profound transformation: from predominantly low and dependent character, it got the status of high art, comparable to yoga and spiritual practice, sadhana. Dance became a part of secular society, a certain form of secularized Hinduism. Due to crucial changes in patronage and the emergence of the government institutions as main patrons, traditional artistic families were replaced by other forms of the social organization of art. As a result of important changes in the educational paradigm, the traditional system of guru-shishya parampara was replaced by college education; still an extremely disputable and problematic issue in cases of performing arts. art community india musician

Since 1950s, when the dichotomy of “classical” and “folk” dance emerged, Indian cultural politics has played a crucial role in the definition and classification of the dance heritage in almost all of the newly established states of the Indian Republic (Vatsyayan 1972). This policy aimed to promote social acknowledgment of performing arts as a noble, respected activity and at the same time to reform the content of certain dance styles to make them more suitable for a vast, even pan-Indian contemporary audience. It is well- known now that the initiatives of reformers and pioneers, such as Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986), looked quite controversial for some parts of society, particularly for the dancing communities, who apparently did not welcome all the changes in the performing arts. In a popularization and wide-scope teaching they suspected a certain competition; several books are written on those serious social and symbolic changes (Allen 1997; Me- duri 1996; Gaston 1996; O'Shea 2005; Soneji 2012: 222-225).

The ideas of the `national' and `classicism' in dance and the idea of the modern, or `contemporarity', all emerged and developed simultaneously in India. While certain segments of dance practice in each tradition were codified and even frozen, creating peculiar “museums of dance” or cultural heritage, other parts of dance practice continue to develop and are still under perpetual transformation. That creates phenomena of so to say “heritag- esation” and “exotisation”, wiping out the cultural and social contexts of art and alienating it (Vatsyan 1995; Shah 2002).

Fig. 1. Srimati Bimola Kumar. Purulia district, West Bengal, India (photo by Svetlana Ryzhakova, 2016).

During the late 19th century and the early 20th century, there was a revival of the traditional Indian dance forms attuned to the nationalist movement linked with identity. From the 1930s, there was a shift from temple patronized performance to the societal patronage led by the elites. State-sponsored dance festivals emerged in the early 1950s, but mostly after 1955 (Shah 2002). The study of dance in anthropology has also undergone significant development. The initial interest in the dance of the ethnic groups can be dated back to Franz Boas'study in the 1940s. The descriptive studies on the dance practices were later transformed through more focused anthropological engagement, which considered dance a cultural system reflecting the whole way of life (Kurath 1977; Kaep- pler 2000). Kurath (1977) has advanced a universalis- tic principle behind dance forms which, according to him, was a kind of transformation and transfiguration of the human body according to the animal and moving universe around it. Samson (2014: 14) writes that: “The polarity of `classical', `folk' and `tribal' derived from colonial discourse has resulted in the crystallization of the component of performing expression, purportedly of rural origin, and with its own political rationale, promotional mechanisms, marketing strategies, and managers, projecting a view of India consistent with the state's assertion of `unity in diversity.” Another line of argument was based on considering the dance in the backdrop of folk category. Buckland (1983) referring to Kennedy writes that “folk dance covers a variety of dance forms which survive as or are based on local or national tradition” (1983: 318). Kennedy linked it to pre-Christian religious and quasi-religious rites, maintained as country customs and more of a seasonal nature. Buckland presents a `popular-classical-folk' triangle adopted from Green. In this model, he writes about the folk dance as having the following features: no written body of criticism and performance legislates, no formal institutions of learning and teaching, composer and performer is the same individual, no “divorce” between performer and audience, no formal institution of performance, patronage of wealthy elite is not vital to its performance. On the other hand, popular dance forms are associated with popular music and tend to innovate.

Concerning the foregoing discussion, it can be said that assigning the nachni performance to any of these categories is problematic. The dance has a root in folk, though it took elements of classical styles and tried to emulate, and later moved towards popular form. Thus, it represented folk, classical and popular styles. The subsequent discussion based on the findings from the field also indicated this constructivist argument with regard to nachnis. Kaeppler says: “Dance is a multi-faceted phenomenon that includes, in addition to what we see and hear, the “invisible” underlying system, the processes that produce both the system and the product, and the socio-political context” (2000: 117). It is true even in the case of the nachnis. In this sense, the present study has followed more of the cultural studies genre of anthropological orientation that began in the mid-1990s (Morris 2009). This trend, rather than focusing on the universal approach to dance, is more relativistic in nature. It tries to ferret the multiple meanings that dance conveys (Samuel and David 2016).

Today the situation in various communities, social strata, ethnic groups etc. all over India, whose traditional job is connected with dance, music and theater, varies a lot. While some communities demonstrate some success and social mobility (some musical groups from Manganyar and Langa communities of Rajasthan, for instance, are engaged in national and international festivals), others decline or even vanish.

It is argued here that despite the “order” created in Indian dance space in the middle of the 20th century within cultural nationalism, the actual inner life of dancing reality has never completely fitted into this order. That creates many conflicts in the evaluation and interpretation of actual dance practices. Exploring this “inner-life” of dancing India would allow us to understand how dance is looked upon by the more common masses living in the obscure villages and towns in India and comprehending dance beyond the classical forms in India.

The case of West Bengal is a special one, as there is no consensus yet on what can be described as a “classical dance form” representing Bengal, its regional culture, and identity. Some of the dancers, critics, writers, philosophers, and social thinkers back up the Kathak dance (thus linking Bengali culture with that of other regions of North and partly Central India). Another group of enthusiasts has created a brand-new Gaudiya Nr- itya style, an interesting experiment of combining historical and art research with dancing practice (Gaudiya Dance 2005).

One of the core issues that we should consider while discussing the social aspects of Indian dance is the dancer's identity from several points of view: social, gender, religion, and his/her motivation for the dance. In the case of women dancers, we face a situation that can be roughly described as “women on their own” (Khandelwal, Hausner, Gold 2006). Various aspects of this situation are represented in many texts, from ancient Indian literature and dharma-shastras to historical narratives. There are many lifestyles, professions, and social positions for single women in Indian society; however, they can be roughly grouped into three major types: religious, artistic, and sex-worker; one can also observe an overlapping of the roles. A single woman can be a sadhvi (ascetic woman) in some Hindu or Jain sub-sects, a Buddhist nun, a prostitute of various statuses, or be in a profession as one of a danseuse, providing for herself with her dance performances.

There are many types of traditional danseuses in India (Nevile 1996). A general typology defines them by the functions of the art itself: there are temple dances as a part of seva, puja, yatra and other rituals, festival dances as a part of various Utsavs, calendar or family and domestic festivities, court dances for the entertainment of the higher classes (on various local and regional levels of power), mela and popular dances for a wide-range audience, performed on market occasions or ordered for private parties such like patu- ani, pan-walli, khemta-walli or khemti and so on. Some common general names are widespread in many parts of India, like bai-jee, nautch, nachnis etc. Their functions extend from religious, ritualistic to purely entertaining, which sometimes overlap. These dancers can be booked, just as musicians, singers, acrobats, storytellers, barbers, priests (pujaris), etc., which means they can appear aspraja in the context of the traditional jajmani system. Norms and social practices related to both female dancer and her partner (whether he is a brother, a son, a lover, a bodyguard, or a manager) slightly vary in different regions and social strata of Indian society, but one can denote certain common patterns, for instance, a marginal and rather negative social perception of a single woman's dance performed in public, on an open-air stage in particular.

Nachnis' Dance

The dance tradition of nachnis that still survives in the most western part of West Bengal and some parts of Jharkhand (Singbhum, Ranchi, Seraikela-Kharsawan, earlier - also in Bokaro; according to Sunil Mahato in 2015, there are about 60 nachnis in Jharkhand) and Odisha (Mayurbhanj district) claims to be one of the core elements of all-Bengal dance heritage.

Dr. Urmimala Sarkar-Munshi, among the first academicians who wrote about nachnis, observes: “The tradition goes back to the days of local kings and big land-owners who used to patronize those artists. But now, with the disappearance of the traditional patronage of rich landlords and kings, the Nachni women perform at different fairs and rural festivals organized by the government and the local communities for a particular fee. There is no fixed dance movement in this form; the Nachni expresses the narratives of the songs in keeping with the requirements of the audience - that is, she performs sensuous, sometimes even lewd movements, which are appreciated by a crowd which is basically attracted by the female dances performing in public” (Sarkar-Munshi 2010: 35-36).

But what actually forms a social profile of a nachni and her patron/lover/bodyguard/ manager etc. called rasik, their attitudes and communications? How is the ethnic aspect (many of the nachnis are of Bhumij using surname Singh Sardar, Bhumij, or Sardar) involved? What kind of dance do we observe in a nachnis performance?

Since January-February 2012 both authors independently conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Purulia district of West Bengal, meeting from time to time in Kolkata and venues of the annual conference of the Indian Anthropological Society, discussing the subject, eager to find the answers to these questions. Svetlana Ryzhakova, who is also formally trained in Kathak dance apart from being an anthropologist, traveled to Purulia district four times from 2012 till 2018, doing an extensive observation in the remote villages, and enjoyed company of the wonderful people, very well informed in jhumur and nachnis matters, such as Pavitra Banerjee from Asansole and Sunul Kumar Mahato (who holds “Purulia Janabikash Manch, a registered organization for rural Development”) from Purulia; they helped a lot in moving around and meeting the informants. Sumahan Bandyopadhyay was working almost coeval to Ryzhakova and had visited Purulia in West Bengal and Seraikela in Jharkhand more than ten times up to 2019. His area of investigation was mainly confined to the south-western part of Purulia district in the administrative blocks like Jhalda, Baghmundi, Balarampur, Barabazar. The investigations were conducted in the villages like Hesahatu, Dubcharka, Namo Pirra, and Mathari where the nachnis and their rasiks were interviewed. The concerned people and social workers, namely Sunil Mahato, Gandhi Mahato, Prashanto Rakshit, who had been working among them, were also visited to inquire about the current state of the dance practice and their views on it. Our study identifies some aspects of the nachni performance tradition, which seem to be quite important.

First, it is the local aspect. There is a certain “borderline”, within which the distinct types of both dance presentation and social attitudes are being formed: it corresponds to the Man- bhum or Rarh-Bengal cultural area Manbhum was one of the districts of East India during the British Raj. After India gained independence, the district became a part of Bihar state, and upon re-organization of the Indian states in the mid- 1950s, it was turned into a part of the West Bengal. Present Purulia district was carved out of the Manbhum district. The Manbhum region has thick forests, is rich in mineral resources, and has a mixed demographic profile of people from different religious and social groups, including adivasis, particularly the Santals. Rarh (or Radh; according to Sri Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, the word originates from Proto-Austroasiatic *Rdrha or *Rarho which means “land of red soil” or “land of laterite”, see: (Sarkar 2004)) is a toponym for an area that lies between the Chota Nagpur Plateau on the West and the Ganges Delta on the East. Although the boundaries of this region have been defined differently according to the various sources throughout history, today, it is mainly coextensive with the state of West Bengal while also comprising some parts of the state of Jharkhand and Bihar in India. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Rarh is mainly the Murshidabad's surrounding region, a high, undulating continuation of the Chota Nagpur plateau to the West, and the Bagri, a fertile, low-lying alluvial tract, part of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, to the East. It is crucial here that both Manbhum and Rarh are considered to be a meeting place of Austro-Asiatic and Indo-Aryan groups, with the peculiar cultural amalgam in local social set-up as a result.. Secondly, the nachni performance tradition has been formed as a part of one distinct genre of local folklore called jhumur There are several versions regarding the etymology of the word “jhumur”. According to a Bengali folklorist professor Sunil Saha it may be related to the idea of shifting (compare jhum as a type of agricultural system, widespread in this area), of turning around (in Rajasthan, circular dance is known as ghumar), or the dance could get its name from the cluster of bells worn around the ankles, which make a clanging noise - “jhum-jhum” (Sunil Saha_10 PF 31.02.2013). Jhumur dances belong to two distinct types. In a tribal culture, these dances can be performed through-out the year to mark all happy occasions and festivities of the rural and tribal communities of Bhumij, Santal, and Oraon. There are many variations of jhumur; it incorporates song and dialogue depicting the joys and sorrows, yearnings and aspirations of the everyday life of these people. One form of jhumur is bhaduria, performed as a thanksgiving for a bountiful monsoon. Sometimes it is performed as the ritual worship of gods and goddesses, sometimes as part of courting and lovemaking, and it can also be performed at a prayer for rainfall. Today jhumur is mainly related to Radha-Krishna topic. However, there are also songs with a description of dehatattva - parts of a body, which is aimed at deep self-realization, and is similar to Baul and Fakir (Phokir) tradition of undivided Bengal (Sunil_Mahato_04 PF 02.03.2019). Jhumur songs also have authorship, and some poets (who are also supposed to be holy persons) are known, such as Ramakrishna Ganguli, Aku Karmakar, Poresh Karmakar, Sistidhar Sing Mahato.. Jhumur has two dimensions: a vocal genre (an oral tradition passed down through generations) and a traditional dance form with the jhumur song.

Fig. 2. Postubala and her rasik. Surulia, Purulia district, West Bengal, India (photo by Svetlana Ryzhakova, 2016).

The jhumur dance is performed by young girls, accompanied by male musicians, who maintain the rhythm with musical instruments and vocals. Men and women are singing and dancing together. The dance is performed by girls wearing make-up, jewelry, and traditional tribal costumes. Indigenous musical instruments such as madal (mardal), dhol, and flute are played at jhumur, to accompany songs. A drum usually plays rhythm based on three beats - takdhim-di-tan, or takadinna-takadinna, in a staccato-like mode. According to Sunil Saha, it corresponds to a poetic metaphor such as “after rain the road is wet, and the minds of women are shakmg” (Sunil Saha_10 PF 31.02.2013. Here and below: ethnographic materials from the personal archive collection of Dr. Svetlana Ryzhakova). The dance is mostly performed in open spaces. The male musicians wear the long traditional dresses and keep the rhythm with a few traditional instruments: usually, a drum, hung on shoulder, a flute and a pair of taals, metallic discs. Girls perform the dancing part, holding each other's waists and moving hands and feet forward and backward synchronously, or the girls dance upon a chariot driven by bulls, and the group of male musicians, drummers, in particular, follows the chariot. In this case, jhumur can be described as a “folk” (tribal) dance, or using Mohan Khokar's precise metaphor, “dancing for themselves” (Khokar 1987).

Jhumur dance can also be a part of a devotional performance, Radha-Krishna kir- tan, performed both in groups and individually. Probably, this theme was created quite late, at the end of the 18th century, which was related to the cultural influences of higher castes. Music of jhumur then became more complex (Sunil Saha_10 PF 31.02.2013). The lyrics of jhumur songs are composed in everyday language and mostly depict love, particularly the love and longing relationship of Krishna, who is depicted as a “Rasik”, and Radha as a dancer, “Nachni”. There is a legend that the kirtan tradition was spread here by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself during his journeys along with his disciples from Puri to Mathura through this tribal forest area of Manbhum. Thus it is undoubtedly a spiritual practice, “dancing for God”. However, nachni dances are first and foremost addressed to the very simple audience, and usually, it is not performed without men's support.

Fig. 3. Shanti, young nachni. Purulia district, West Bengal, India (photo by Svetlana Ryzhakova, 2016).

The rasik (literary means “one who is related to rasa”, an aesthetics essence of art) is known in Purulia district as a “bad boy from a good family”, but a connoisseur of arts; according to general virtue standards, his is considered to be low, but economically he can be relatively rich (not always, however). Engagement in art makes him seen as a spiritual person sometimes. As Urmimala Sarkar-Munshi states, “his keeping a nachni is regarded as an expression of an overt irrepressible artistic interest. The nachni, however, is seen as a fallen woman. The audience, which loves her performance, is afraid to cross her shadow for fear of becoming polluted. Her income as an entertainer makes her the principal breadwinner during lean seasons, her contribution as a working hand in the agricultural work of the rasik's family is a must, her position in her own family of origin is non-existent, and her status in the rasik's family and the society in general is that of a concubine. Thus, at the end of their lives, nachnis become economically ruined outcasts who live in the shadows of the society they have served for their whole lives” (Sarkar-Munshi 2010: 26-39).

The nachni used to stay with her rasik in his home, though separately if the rasik had his own legally married wife. If the rasik himself happened to be an expert music and dance teacher, he would train his nachni. Together with hired musicians, they formed a troupe that staged professional performances on different occasions in exchange for payments. The nachni was the center of attraction in such dancing troupes, and her earnings contributed to the income of rasik, who in this case was the master, partner, lover, consort, and team manager. So, in essence, nachni" s income was rasik"s income in exchange for which nachni would get shelter and support in this more or less stable relationship until and unless any untoward incidence such as death, separation, or desertion took place. Desertion of nachni by her rasik was not mpossible; however not common since bringing up a nachni with proper training was not an easy or short-time task. It took a long period of training and hard work to become a nachni. In addition to this, joining the nachni profession by a girl or woman was not very frequent.

Fig. 4. Nachni Lila: a typical posture of Nachni. Purulia district, West Bengal, India (photo by Svetlana Ryzhakova, 2016

The relations of a nachni and her rasik have many dimensions; they can be classified in the following way. First, these are inter-caste and quite often also inter-ethnic relations. Very often, nachnis are of Bhumij origin, have tribal or mixed origin, but a rasik can be of different, often of higher caste and status; sometimes, they even claim to be Brahmins. Secondly, these are professional ties: both rasik and nachni must be trained in music, vocals and dance (gana-bajana), they can perform together, very often the rasik plays various musical instruments and sings while the nachni dances. Third, there are educational aspects: a rasik can be a teacher (and is even supposed to be a Guru) for a nachni if he is older and more experienced, but it can also be quite otherwise when a young boy enters the rasik way of life, and quite often he leaves his family and joins the community of nachni, where he gets the musical education. If a girl is young and shy, she is taught (sometimes with the help of alcohol, smoking, etc.) to be more relaxed, natural, not afraid of the audience, and resist improper behavior. Fourth, usually, there is a sexual aspect of the nachni-rasik relations - they are lovers, she is his concubine, and this connection is described using Radha-Krishna's love model, which means that they are not husband and wife. At the same time, a nachni often wears the red vermillion dot on her parting of the hair, mangal-sutra, toe rings, and/or a set of red, white, and golden bangles - all are symbols of a married woman. At the same time, she considers herself just a Radha (hidden lover) tied to her rasik as a husband. All children of a nachni belong to her, and they usually never take the name of their father and can never inherit his property. Fifth, there is a delicate social and ritualistic connection: a nachni performs her seva, serving her rasik in many ways: he is both her patron and manager, he uses her body and her work, and he is supposed to protect her. According to one of the interpretations, rasik is a person who is doing a particular sadhana along with his female partner, a nachni, which means there is a certain tantric “flavor” in this tradition (Sunil_Mahato_04 PF 02.03.2019).

One can observe the different attitudes of rasiks' families towards them “keeping a nachni”. Sometimes it is regarded as anti-social behavior, which breaks the family, but people also say that “keeping a nachni means cash flow”, for the properly organized performances can be a good source of income. Usually, the performances occur in winter, between agricultural works, after harvest, during the melas, and on the weekly organized markets in the jhandi-mundi (games places) or near wine shops.

All the nachnis who told us their personal life stories confessed that it was only the extreme poverty, loss of their parents, widowhood without any other financial and social support that made them enter the profession of a nachni. In some cases, they were even forced to become a nachni: a girl can be sold to a rasik by her parents or step-parents. A daughter of a nachni often becomes a nachni as well; however, mothers normally do not wish such a future for their daughters. They try to protect them from this path, and their ultimate wish is to marry them off successfully to a good husband. The huts of nachnis are usually situated at some distance from the village: nachnis are considered by the majority of villagers to be very low in the social hierarchy and ritualistic purity, they do not enjoy the customary funeral rites; even in the second part of the 20th century their corpses usually was transported by the buffalo cart to a distant forest place, which serves as a dustbin.

Development of Nachni Dance

It is very difficult to pinpoint precisely the time of the origin of the nachni dance and what provoked it. Today, the nachnis' dance repertoire demonstrates a blend of various styles and traditions, arranged locally and to please the popular taste. It is safe to say that the dance form retains some preliminary movements of dancing evinced still among the primitive tribal communities in the region.

Another argument suggests that the nachni dance was rooted in the court entertainment of the local feudal lords. A clear devolution from that court culture to the present day nachni has been postulated by cultural experts such as Sunil Mahato of Purulia. For them, the nachni dance in the early stage was much more refined, `classicist'. The local landlords or big zamindars, known as rajas, used to organize the nachnis performances in their courts. They would employ expert musicians and dance teachers (ostads) to train the female dancers or nachnis. Dance of nachnis, along with the tradition of Chhau and some other performances, was a matter of patronage; Bagmundi was a famous village where many dancers emerged. In Purulia, the Kashipur royal family was the center of authority and encouraged dance as such. There is a memory about a local queen (or, maybe rather a chieftain) Begunkudor, sometime in the 18th century, who is supposed to initiate the nachni tradition. According to Sunil Mahato's story, Borjuren Das was a jhumur poet in the 18th century. Being a devotee of Krishna, he conducted a pilgrimage to Vrindavan, where he saw a raslila. Coming back, he stayed for a few days in the court of Begunkudor, and described it to her; soon, a queen organized a raslila with the participation of some local girls. Nachnis of today believe they are descendants of the danseuses of the first raslila in Purulia (Sunil_Mahato_04 PF 02.03.2019).

The songs were mainly composed on the themes of Radha-Krishna, the epitome eternal love as per Hindu mythology. They were mainly jhumur but set in classical that and come to be known as Darbari Jhumur. The nachni emulated the dance forms practiced in the court of the ruler of the princely state. They used to wear ghagra-like dancing attire in the fashion of a Kathak dancer. There is a distinction between Dhumri Nachni - a za- mindari dance, where a danseuse wears a long skirt, lehenga, and a blouse, choli, similar to Rajasthani attire, sometimes a belt with mirrors komor, and musical instruments such as dhor, dhumsa, nagri and shehnai are used; and Bai Nach - a form, created according to Sunil Mahato by Sindubala, where a danseuse wears a sari and a blouse, and the orchestra contains a madal, a flute, a harmonium, a jhuri-nagara and a kartal.

Despite its light and entertaining character, a dance of nachni has certain rules. It is performed at the place called akhra - a round arena, and a performer is doing akhra van- dana - greeting to the audience, as well as to Ganesha, Durga, Saraswati. Performance usually starts around 10 pm and ends at about 6 am. In the end, there is always something special represented. Anyone can book Nachni's performance, but there for certain occasions, such as Saraswati-puja, Lokhi [Lakshmi]-puja or marriage, the dance is mandatory.

Bitter criticism towards the dancing manner today was expressed by Mihil Lal Singh Deo (75 years old in 2013) of Rajput and the royal family of Kashipur. He received professional music training in Hindustani vocal from Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad, and other musical institutes. Jhumur is his main specialization. He does not enjoy the dance of nachnis today; it was much better earlier - both body movements and steps. The main problem of today's danseuses, according to him, is the lack of training and intention to learn. The nachni dance spread to the public arena and became a part of the regional popular culture. It turned into a common form of entertainment for the masses in any festival or fair-gathering.

There are some high-quality nachni dancers (late Malavati, Buton Devi, or Bun- dutamar in Singbhum, around 50 years old). For some observers, this might signify the emergence of an original style (Nachni Nach) at a preliminary stage - the issue is still controversial because one cannot depict a set of distinct features that could account for a distinct dance grammar.

Case studies on the nachnis

The case of Balika Mahato, Nachni of yesteryears

Balika Mahata approaching seventy was nachni of Late Suchand Mahato of Dubcharka village of Purulia. She was Kumbhakar by caste. Her father worked in the Indian Railways. She was married off at the tender age of twelve to a man who was revealed to have mental defects. Then, her father took her to his home from her in-laws' house. Unfortunately, her father died in an accident. Then Suchand took her to his house almost forcefully. Suchand was known for his interest in nachni dance as he earlier had two nachnis who fled with a better offer with new rasiks. Suchand had his own family with a son and a daughter. The man became Balika's rasik, who trained her to sing and dance. She learned the craft, and they started performing together. In Suchand's house, she looked after his elder son Nilka- mal whom she loved very much. Their nachni performance was stopped after the marriage of Suchand's daughter since his son-in-law imposed the condition that Suchand would have to stop this. In 1992, after Suchand's death, the hard days for Balika began. She was turned out of the house. Now she lived in a lone hut thatched and fenced with local plants and creepers away from the original house of her rasik with whom she had lived so many happy moments in that house.

Parbati Bai and Faguni: Performing together

Middle-aged nachni Parbati lived in Mathari village in Purulia district with her rasik Fal- guni Mahato, who is almost sixty. Parbati prefers to call herself Parbati Bai as she considers Bai a more respectable term than nachni. Bai is a shortened form of Baizi, a term reserved for the court-dancers of high repute. Parbati was born in a Kalindi caste (a low caste among the Hindus). Falguni's father was a kirtan singer, so he learned singing from him. Parbati belonged to the village of her in-laws, and she stayed in the same house with the family of Falguni Mahato. She came to this profession by choice as she loved it. She has a son with Falguni. They still go to stage shows together, mainly in Jharkhand, a neighboring state of West Bengal. Falguni has divided his property between his wife and Parbati.

Never give up: Wife and Husband

Nachni Lilabati and her husband Ramesh Bauri lived in Namo Pirra (or Pindra) village. She was born in a Brahmin family. Her father was a truck driver. When she was 2-3 years old, she lost her mother. Her father married again. The stepmother began torturing her. Then, her father left her in an Ashram in Ayadhya hills. The head of the Ashram, whom she called baba married her to Ramesh; they went through a ceremony of “social mass marriage'. Ramesh was in Chhau dance troupe. Moreover, he could also sing jhumur playing a harmonium. One year after her marriage, Lilabati began to learn singing and dancing to stay in the same line with her husband and earn by performing together. Their Nachni troupe is called “Lila Devi Nachni Dal”. They have nine accompanists. When they get a booking, they inform the accompanists who stay in the nearby villages. September to March is the main season. It is now more popular in Jharkhand since they get more bookings in this area than Purulia or other parts of Bengal.

Matter of devotion: Saraswati Devi

Saraswati Devi lives in a house in Purulia town. In 2012 she was 42 years old. Saraswati is doing all domestic chores with the minor help of occasional servants. She has three children. Her elder daughter is married off successfully and lives separately as a housewife, not dancing: the matter of pride for Saraswati. Another two live with the mother. Her rasik, some ten years older than her, hails from Bagmundi village - a known hub for Purulia Chhau tradition; his surname is Chakrabarti, i.e., Brahmin by caste. His wife stays in the village, but he spends his time mainly with Saraswati: “there, in the village, the life is ordinary”, he says, “but here is the art! I am a devotee of art”. Saraswati performs together with her rasik; this job is not very regular, yet it is a source of income for both.

Art and passions: Pastubala

Pastubala (she was forty years old in 2013) comes from Bhumij community in the village Kormatal (Puncha police station): her father's name was Manohar Singh Sardar; her mother was Bimola from Mudi community, which is - according to Sunil Mahato - similar to Oraon. Her mother was a danseuse, had many partners (Pastubala's father was her second husband, died when the girl was ten years old), and eventually left her daughter. Pastubala became a pupil of a famous nachni of Purulia, Late Sindubala. It is a breathtaking story of a love triangle between her, her partner, Bijoy Karmakar (he does not like to call himself “rasik”, however, he was trained in music and doing a job as a musician), and his wife. Having discovered her husband's love affair, the wife unsuccessfully wanted him back and then managed to put him to prison for a couple of years with a false accusation of robbery. When released, he left her completely and attached himself to Pastubala openly. They never had a proper marriage ceremony, yet Pastubala wears the symbols of a married woman and a godna - a tattoo of rasik's name, just as a husband's, on her hand. Eventually, Bijoy's wife became old and approached the couple to take her to live together, but they refused. Now both the nachni and the rasik stay in a half-built house in Surulia, which was initially constructed as a shared space for artists. There are certain arguments and nonsatisfaction among acting nachnis about this house's status and future.

Shanti Devi: a shy beauty

This couple of a young nachni, Shanti Devi of 21 years old in 2013 and a man, Bharat Kalindi, 35, is married in the court only - as they say; no temple ceremony was done. They reside in a small house in the outskirts of village Chakirbon (block Purulia I), with predominantly schedule castes inhabitants (Dom, Kalindi, Vaidyakar, Kumbhakar, Chutar etc.). The love marriage was quite unwelcome for society. Her husband's status is quite unclear: a manager? A companion? Despite her performing as a danseuse, her social status in the caste hierarchy is higher than his, which is another reason for discomfort for the locals, however, eventually approved by local society. Shanti Devi comes from the Rai family, supposed to be Rajput, in a village Bogradi (p/s Muri). Her parents died when she was a baby, and her uncle brought her up. According to her, she had been voluntarily dancing since she was 14 years old. But it was Bharat who persuaded her to dance for a living; still, she does not look happy and definitely is not much interested in dance.

Jogi family: Nachni dance as a business

Sila Singh (about 30 years old in 2013) comes from Rajput community from Jharkhand. She was a nachni, and used to perform. She met her husband, Radheshyam Jogi, from a much lower social group, categorized by the government as OBC (Jogi here are artisans, making various items from sola grass, masks, and various decorations, yet wear a sacred thread -paita). He was interested in music and used to sing Hindi film songs and Tusu and Karma festival songs. Now they are married and live in a joint family of Radheshyam, in village Beliapatar (Pichasi p/o). Other male family members are engaged in performances, which are usually booked in advance. They have printed a list with the description of artistic offerings. This case can be described as a certain family business. A family replied generally and positively: everything is good in their household, there are no problems and nothing special to talk about. They also hire some musicians occasionally. Apart from art, the family does agricultural works. However, all-night performances - in January- February as these happen quite often - give an excellent additional income to the family.

Frustrated and alienated: Tabooed from the common source of water

This couple seemed to be the most pitiful among all we observed; both look very frustrated and sad about their current life and future. They reside in a tiny hut on the outskirts of the village and face a negative attitude towards them from the other residents. Young and beautiful nachni, whose name we could not extract during the conversation, held a baby boy of one year; she did not want to talk much. Her partner sat nearby and lamented, revealing the misbehavior of several other nachnis and their teammates and various problems of day-to-day life in this surrounding: still, there are several taboos for nachnis, such as a restriction to use the public well.

Bimala Kumar: a Nachni or a second wife

Bimola Kumar is an elderly nachni (68 years old in 2015) of Satra village. She still exudes a certain charisma of a former danseuse: her gestures are refined, her facial expressions are artistic, and there is a natural shyness mixed with a flavor of strong stamina in her movements. When she was 17 years old, she was brought by her lover/ patron, Raghunandan Kumar of Haribolo caste, from her parental village near Khatra railway station in Bankura district to this house in Purulia, where his wife, Horidasi Kumar, resided with their children. It was an unusual and rare step, keeping both the wife and the nachni in the same house for years. Bimola gave birth to two sons, who became family members just as the elder ones. Now their husband is no more alive, and both Bimola and Horidasi, who is some ten years older than Bimola, and all their sons live together in the house. While describing the past years, Bimola sounds very polite and positive; she says she had not witnessed many problems in her life; all relations were just fine.

The case studies presented here portray the multiple layers of realities surrounding the nachni. It is not that the nachnis are always despised in the home that owed much of its running to her earnings. The nachnis leading a voiceless life in poverty are not always the case. In fact, the nachni invokes a number of meanings that are clear only with reference to the context. As a dance practice, it appears to convey a dance style, the dancer herself, and the characteristic jhumur songs sung in the accompaniment of rasik and musicians at the time of performance. The identity of a nachni is never complete without the rasik. It is shown that the dancer stayed with the rasik who trained her in the art and shared a relationship with her as a not legally married wife. They often used to have children. So, rasik was her husband, trainer, connoisseur, protector, and manager. Both the nachni and legally married wife could stay under the same roof. Polygamy was not debarred in the area; despite that, they would not marry formally. There are two versions of this phenomenon. One is that the nachni and rasik relationship is modeled after the eternal bond of love between Krishna and Radha of the Vaisnava tradition, who were not married. On the other hand, it is said that this relationship reflects the downgraded status of a nachni woman who cannot be equal with the social position of a married wife and has more or less a concubine status. Society also attested this since it practiced the disposal of the dead body of a nachni in a most inhuman manner. The rasik who kept nachni was regarded as a male idol who could maintain more women like the kings or zamindars used to keep harem. It was a local exposition of the manly power which the society admitted.

The induction into the nachni life generally followed some events that left a young girl helpless. The dancer usually would come from a lower caste than her rasik, for whom the nachni provided sustenance, art, love, and passion. The rasik spent most of his active hours with the nachni, and their venture was joint. The nachni performance had a special appeal to people representing the so-called `low culture' until the dance caught the sophisticated urban imagination with state patronage. It was appropriated for the common public taste for the stage, while a more mundane epicurean version was still performed beyond government support. It gave rise to multiple versions of the dance practice. The drive for universal and uniform style as attempted by various volunteer bodies caused frustration because the dance and dancers are internally segmented to serve different sections of society. It is also why the dancers are still frowned upon and feel alienated or tabooed. It also explains why the plight of the nachnis, in the end, remains to be a saga of tragic penurious existence.


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