By Maya Palit
Does it surprise you to hear that Raj Thackeray’s party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has made what looks like a random attack on performers who were dancing on a stage at a chhath puja in Mumbai?
On 6 November, four women were booked for dancing in a 'vulgar' fashion to Bhojpuri songs at a chhath puja celebration in Nalasopara East after a police complaint was lodged by MNS party members. Bhojpuri dancing and music has always been sexually-charged, witty, full of suggestive innuendo and contemporary references, and there was nothing unusual about the dancing this year. But the organisers, the Hindi Bashik Vikas Mandal, were charged under Sections 294 (obscene acts and songs) and 34 (common intention). The MNS also claimed that the organisers had insulted Chhatrapati Shivaji and various goddesses because their portraits were on the stage behind the dancers.
The videos of the dancing on this particular occasion were uploaded to YouTube and went viral soon after — they are pretty mild-mannered and would hardly offend anyone who has ever watched a Bollywood film. It is highly probable, though, that a lot of the animosity stemmed from a deep-set prejudice against the migrant Bihari community, for whom the chhath puja is the biggest social event of the year, a fact that the ruling party this year has clearly recognised.
The MNS, though, has created trouble around the festival for years now, but agreed to hold off on protesting against it this year. Thackeray, whose aversion to the Bihari community has never been too subtly disguised, once even insisted that only Maharashtrian festivals should be celebrated in Mumbai. Perhaps the MNS were not too thrilled as well that some of the dancers in question were transgender.
A few years ago, filmmaker Surabhi Sharma’s documentary Bidesia in Bambai (2013) recorded how Bhojpuri migrants from UP and Bihar use music and dance to celebrate festivals in a city that demands their labour, but otherwise makes them feel deeply unwelcome. Sharma agreed that this particular attack has more to do with politics than the apparently lewd dancing, particularly because Nalasopara East is an area where MNS hardly has a presence and the majority Bhojpuri working class population is represented by smaller parties like Bahujan Vikas Aghadi. “This is an attack to put the Bhojpuri community in place. The performances of the transgender persons, which is common elsewhere but not often seen on big Mumbai stages, are testament to the political confidence of the Bhojpuri community in the area and this probably threatened the MNS. There was nothing unusual about the dancing. People might argue that at chhath puja events you won’t witness sexualised dancing — which in itself is no different from Bollywood item numbers — and it is true that Chhath celebrations typically do have devi geet and devotional songs, but on any stage that is sponsored by a political party would have this kind of dancing.” said Sharma.
In fact, a scene in Sharma’s film, which captured performances put together by the same organisers, the Hindi Bashik Vikas Mandal, had dancers doing item numbers to Bollywood songs on a stage that was funded by the Bahujan Vikas Aaghadi party, and there was no trouble. Abandoning the pious songs was a strategic move to captivate audiences with dances to 'Sheila ki Jawani', says one of the organisers, half-apologetically, half-amused, in the film: “The devotional spirit is over here, now it’s only politicking. If we get into devotional song mode, the public won’t come to us.” The message he gives off very clearly is that an item number is just the most obvious way to engage your audience, the same idea that an unidentified BJP leader echoed when he organised for a bar dancer to perform at the massive parivartan yatra in Bagpat, Uttar Pradesh on 7 November. Party leaders were running late and the entertainment, he said, was intended to mollify the crowd and prevent it from getting restless. Unsurprisingly, he has not been subject to the same kind of police procedure or public backlash.
“Obscenity is a vital cultural component of several traditions, from Bidesia songs sung by labourers to marriage ceremonies in Maharashtra to performances in the intervals during Ram Lila or even Kali Puja, to rituals in Tamil Nadu,” said Brahma Prakash, an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has worked extensively on the Bidesiya tradition. “This introduction of a sacred-profane divide is just getting way too Victorian. Class hatred is a big part of the attack on such performances too, which explains why the folk song 'Launda Badnaam Hua' is considered vulgar, but not its Bollywood remake ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’. The traditionally Bihari launda naach, which is characterised by male impersonation of females, sensual body movement and loud music and often performed by transvestites, is looked down upon,” he added.
The MNS is certainly not the only organisation to create an uproar about chhath pujas, and last year the Bombay High Court sighed over the song and dance involved in the festival and wondered what happened to the “sanctity and solemnity” associated with the event. The MNS' convenient display of public morality continues to be po-faced and farcical.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is an online women’s magazine