This article is a part of a project “Possession, devotion, performance: borders and interconnections of personal self-possession, worship and artistic experience in Indian artistic traditions” supported by Russian Foundation for Fundamental researches, grant № 18-09-00389.
Dance today is undoubtedly a cultural brand of India and “Indianness”. At both arrival and departure halls of Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi the very first thing and the last thing 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 – from tiny local conferences to regional and national government meetings could happen without dance and music programs at the end. Dancers and musicians of all levels held National awards.
Yet until quite recently, dance and dancers were marginal: only about 70 or 80 years ago social status of almost all traditional dancing communities was very low. A peculiar feature of Indian social set-up – prolonged coexistence of many types of communities, which is been called generally “caste system”, created the condition for reserving skills, crafts and jobs – including music, theatre and dance – to particular communities. So as any other job – dance used to be an 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 body – was an important element for some Hindu rituals and festivities.
In a short time period between the 1920-s and 1950-s dance went trough transformation, and from predominantly low and dependant character it got the status of high art, comparable to yoga and religious sadhana. Dance became a part of secular society, a form of secularized Hinduism. Due to crucial changes in patronage and the emergence of the Government institutions as the main patrons, traditional dancing families were replaced by other forms of social organization of dance. As a result of important changes in the educational paradigm, the traditional system of guru-shishya parampara was replaced by college education; still it is an extremely disputable and problematic issue.
Since 1950s when the dichotomy of “classical” and “folk” dance emerged, Indian cultural politics has played a crucial role in definition and classification of the dance heritage in almost all of the newly established states of Indian Republic, see: (Vasyayan 1972). The aim of this policy was 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 very broad, even pan-Indian contemporary audience. It is well-known now that the initiatives of reformers and pioneers, for example Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986) were received with a controversial attitude by Indian society, and certain segments of dancing communities did not welcome crucial changes in the performing arts’ sphere, such as popularization and wide-scope teaching, suspecting certain competition.
The ideas of the “national”, of “classicism” in dance and the idea of modernism, or “contemporarity”, all emerged and developed simultaneously in India. While certain segments of dance practice in each tradition were codified and even became frozen, creating peculiar “museums of dance”, or cultural heritage, other parts of dance practice continue to develop and still are under perpetual transformation.
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 certain success and social mobility (some musical groups from Manganyar and Langa of Rajasthan, for instance, who are engaged in national and international festivals), others break up or even vanish.
I argue here, that despite the “order”, which was created in Indian dance space in middle of 20 century, in the frame of cultural nationalism, the actual inner life of dancing reality has never completely fitted into this order. That creates many conflicts in evaluation and interpretation of actual dance practices.
The case of West Bengal is a special one, as there is yet no general consensus 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 (in this case, connecting Bengali culture with that of other regions of North and partly Central India). Another group of enthusiasts has created a brand-new Gaudiya Nritya style, quite an interesting experiment of combining historical and art research with dancing practice, see: (Gaudiya Dance 2005).
One of the core issues that we should take into consideration while discussing the social aspects of Indian dance is the dancer’s identity from several points of view: social, gender, religious, and the motivation for the dance. In case of women dancers we face a situation which can be roughly described as “women on their own”, see: (Women’s Renunciation in South Asia 2006). Various aspects of this situation are represented in many texts, from ancient Indian literature and dharma-shastras to historical narratives. There are many life styles, 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 in some Hindu or Jain sub-sects, a Buddhist nun, a prostitute of varying status, or be in a profession like one of a danseuse, providing for herself with her dance performances.
There is a large number of traditional female dancers in India, see: (Nevile 1996). A general typology defines them by the functions of the dance itself: there are temple dances as a part of sewa, 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 and such like. Patuani, pan-walli, khemta-walli and so on – one can observe a fine specialization of the female dancers in almost all regions of India. There are some common general names widespread in almost all north and middle Indian states, like Bai-jee, Nautch, Nachnis etc. Their functions extend from religious-ritualistic up to purely entertaining, and these sometimes overlap. These dancers can be booked, just as musicians, singers, acrobats, story-tellers, barbers, pujaris etc., which means they can appear as praja 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.
The dance tradition of Nachni, that still survives in the most Westerly part of West Bengal and in some parts of Jharkhand claims to be one of the core elements of all-Bengal dance heritage. But what actually forms a social profile of a Nachni and her patron/lover/bodyguard/manager etc. – Rasik, their attitudes and communications? How is the ethnic aspect (many of the Nachnis are of Bhumij origin) involved? What kind of dance do we observe in a Nachni’s performance?
In January-February 2012, in 2013 and 2015 I have conducted fieldwork in the Purulia district of West Bengal, eager to find the answers to these questions. I enjoyed company of the wonderful persons, very well informed in Jhumur and Nachnis’ matters – Pavitra Banerjee from Asansole and Sunul Kumar Mahatoo from Purulia; they helped me a lot in moving around and meeting the informants. My deep respect and thanks to all of them, who shared with me their life-stories.
The object of this research was to make a general survey of the contemporary ethnographical situation at one of the dancing communities there. The community is still alive and functions in rural India. Preserving to some extent the traditional features of jajmani system, its members are mostly involved with the local entertainment sphere, but also perform occasionally at family ceremonies and festivals, and play a distinct role in the religious life of a community or can be used as a representation of a patron’s status.
Dr. Urmimala Sarkar-Munshi, among the first academicians who addressed Nachni’s case, 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).
Some aspects of the Nachni performance tradition seem to be quite important. First, it is the local aspect. There is a certain “border line”, within which the distinct types of both dance presentation and social attitudes are being formed: it corresponds with the Manbhum, or Rarh-Bengal cultural area. Manbhum was one of the districts of the East India during the British Raj. After India has 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 and the Mundas. Rard (according to Sri Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, the word originates from Proto-Austroasiatic *Rāŗhā or *Rāŗho 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 various sources throughout history, today it is mainly coextensive with the state of West Bengal, while also comprising some parts of the state of Jharkand and Bihar in India. According to the “Encyclopædia 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. The most important issue here is that both Manbhum and Rarh are considered to be a meeting place of Austoasiatic and Indo-Aryan ethnic 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, namely Jhumur. Jhumur has two dimensions: it is a vocal genre (Jhumur songs are an oral tradition that are passed down through generations) and a traditional dance form. The dance probably gets its name from the cluster of bells worn round the ankles, which make a clanging noise. Jhumur dances belong to two distinct types. In a tribal collective activity this dances can be performed throughout the year by professional artists to mark all happy occasions and festivities of the rural and tribal communities of Mundas, Santhals 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 a ritual worship of gods and goddesses, sometimes as part of courting and lovemaking, and it can also be performed at a prayer for rainfall. The dance is performed by young girls. They are also accompanied by some male musicians, who maintain the rhythm with musical instruments and vocals. Men and women sing and dance together. The dance is performed by girls wearing make-up, ornate jewelry and traditional tribal costumes. Indigenous musical instruments such as madal, dhol (typical beating drums) and flute are played at Jhumur, to accompany the fast-paced and cheerful Jhumur songs. 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: generally a drum, hung on shoulder; a flute and a pair of "taal" 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 appear as a part of Radha-Krishna kirtan, done both in groups and individually. The lyrics of Jhumur songs are composed in everyday language and mostly depict love, in particular love and longing relationship of Krishna, who is depicted here as a “Rasik”, and Radha as a dancer, “Nachni”. There is a legend that the kirtan tradition was spread here by Sri Caitanya himself, while he was travelling along with his disciples from Puri to Mathura through this tribal forest area of Manbhum. In this case it is a religious, or spiritual dance, “dancing for God”. But Nachnis dances are first and foremost for the audience of very simple origin, and it can not be done without men’s support.
The Rasik is known as a “bad boy from a good family”, but is a connoisseur of arts; according to general virtue standards, his is considered to be very low, but he expresses certain spirituality. As Urmimala Sarkar-Munshi states, “his keeping a Nachni is regarded as an expression of an overt irrepressible artistic interest. But the Nachni, of course, 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 bread winner 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 in 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 relations of a Nachni and her Rasik have many dimensions, so they can be classified in the following way. First, these are inter-cast and quite often also inter-ethnic relations. Very often Nachnis are of Bhumij origin, have tribal (Munda, Santal) or mixed origin, but a Rasik can be of different, often higher cast and status, sometimes they even claim themselves to be Brahmans. 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 even 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 Rasiks way of life, and quite often he leaves his family and joins the community of the Nachni, where he gets the musical education. If a girl is young and shy, she is being taught (sometimes with the help of alcohol, smoking etc.) to be more relaxed, free, not to be afraid of the audience and to resist the vulgar behavior. Forth, 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 quite often wears the red vermillion mangal-sutra on her forehead and hair, or red, white and golden bangles and some other symbols of the married woman, and considers herself to be tied to her Rasik as to a husband. All children of a Nachni belong to her and normally they never take the name of their father and can never inherit his property. Fifth, there is a fine social and ritualistic connection: a Nachni performs her sewa, 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.
One can observe different attitude 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 “to keep a Nachni means cash flow”, for the properly organized performances can be a good source of income. Usually the performances take place 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.
In all cases the Nachnis with whom I have discussed their personal life stories told me that it was only the extreme poverty, loss of their parents or husbands, 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 Rasik by her parents or step-parents. A daughter of a Nachni quite often become a Nachni as well, however, mothers normally do not wish such a future for their daughters. 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 a sense of social hierarchy, they do not enjoy the normal funeral rites (their corpses are transported by the buffalo cart to a distant forest place which serves as a dustbin).
To sum up just a few points of my research one should take into consideration the highly marginal aspects of both the status and actual professional activity of this community (that includes around 105 Nachnis in both West Bengal and Jharkhand). Anthropological studies and films about the Nachnis from 1970’s (“The Nachni” by Ladly Mukhopadhyaya, for instance) show a certain evolution of this institution of Nachni-Rasik relations and performance during the XX century. The loss of a constant local patronage caused a decline of the number of Nachnis, however, there are still around 100 Nachni dancers who live in the Purulia district of West Bengal and in part of Jharkhand. All my interviews show that in spite the vast changes in the attitude to dance in India in general and the fact that many Nachnis today have received Indian National awards their social status in villages is still very low. It appears that quite a few young girls continue to be involved into Nachni profession. Sometimes a Nachni marries her Rasik and has a proper family; this seems to be a quite recent development. There is also a tendency towards forming stable family-like connections between a Nachni and a Rasik today.
Although there is certain activity (conferences, seminars) aimed at consolidation of all Nachnis and promoting their rights, to highlight the social problems of Nachnis, this initiative is still not very successful due to strong professional rivalry and a lack of community feeling.
The content of the Nachnis’ dance repertoire demonstrates a blend of various styles, traditions, arranged in a local way and to please the popular taste. But there are also some high-quality Nachni dancers, and for some observers this might signify an emergence of an original style (“Nachni Nach”) at a preliminary stage – still the issue is rather controversial, because one can not depict a set of distinct features that could be a foundation for a distinct dance grammar.
But the dramatic aspect of the social role of Nachni has been shown in a successful brand-new Bengali theatrical production, 2013, “Naachni” by Parthpratim Deb. This strongly corresponds with the interest to a figure of Lawani danseuse of Maharashtra in contemporary Marathi theatre – from the both artistic and social / gender perspectives, connecting dance with life context of rural India at large.
Gaudiya Dance. A collection of seminar papers. 2005. Ed. by P. Sengupta, M. Banerjee, M. Mukherjee. Kolkata: The Asiatic Society.
Khokar Mohan. 1987. Dancing for Themselves. Folk, Tribal and Ritual Dance of India. New Delhi: Himalayan Books.
Nevile, Pran. 1996. Nautch Girls of India. Dancers, singers, playmates. Paris-New York-New Delhi: Ravi Kumar Publisher and New Delhi: Prakriti India.
Sarkar, Shri Prabhat Ranjan. 2004. Ráŕh – The Cradle of Civilization. Ananda Marga Publications.
Sarkar-Munshi U. 2010. Another Time, Another Space – Does the Dance Remain the Same? // Dance Matters. Performing India. Ed. P. Chakravorty, N. Gupta. L., New-York, New-Delhi: Routledge, 2010. P. 26-39.
Vasyayan Kapila Malik. 1972. Some aspects of cultural policies in India. Paris: UNESCO.
Women’s Renunciation in South Asia. Nuns, Yoginis, Saints, and Singers. 2006. Ed. By Meena Khandelwal, Sondra L. Hausner, Ann G. Gold. New-York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ill_0001 – Decoration of the Hall of Arrival. Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. 2016.
Ill_0002 – A Nachni of Purulia district. Photo from a private family collection. 1970-s.
Ill_0003 – Bimola Kumar. Photo from a private family collection. 1980-s.
Ill_0004 - Bimola Kumar. Photo from a private family collection. 1980-s.
Ill_0005 - A Nachni of Purulia district. Photo from a private family collection. 1990-s.
Ill_0006 - Bimola Kumar. February 2015.
Ill_0007 – Song for Krishna: Bimola Kumar singing and enacting. February 2015.
Ill_0008 – “Dancing Girl”. Around 2400 BC. Indian National Museum, New Delhi.
Ill_0009 – Saraswati Devi. Purulia, 2012.
Ill_0010 – Chakraborty, Saraswati’s rasik. Purulia, 2012.
Ill_0011 – Dance of Saraswati Devi. Purulia, 2012.
Ill_0012 - Dance of Saraswati Devi. Purulia, 2012.
Ill_0013 – Dance of Nachni and her Rasik. Purulia, 2012.
Ill_0014 – Postubala. Surulia, 2013.
Ill_0015 – Postubala and her rasik, in dance. Surulia, 2013.
Ill_0016 - Postubala and her musical group, in dance. Surulia, 2013.
Ill_0017 - Postubala and her rasik, in dance. Surulia, 2013.
Ill_0018 – Dance for Krishna. Postubala. Surulia, 2013.
Ill_0019 - Postubala and her rasik, in dance. Surulia, 2013.
Ill_0020 – Young singing lady from Purulia district, and Sunil Kumar Mahatoo. 2013.
Ill_0021 – Jogi family of Purulia district. 2013.
Ill_0022 – Lila of Purulia district: a typical posture of Nachni. 2013.
Ill_0023 – While thinking about future…. A young Nachni of Purulia district. 2013.
All photos courtesy (except ill_0008): Svetlana Ryzhakova.