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Dancing, but no longer queens

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NEXT STEP: Dancers from the Borwadi area (below left) are campaigning for mujra to be recognised as an art form

With the police patrol being lifted recently, mujra dancers of Burhanpur, MP are hopeful that their clients will return. But with changing times and taste, they anticipate a long wait ahead.

Till a few decades ago, the queue of men lining up to watch the mujra performances at Borwadi mohalla was unending. The 400-year-old tradition, nurtured by around 20 families in this mohalla in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, still survives but is no longer what it used to be.

In 2008, the struggling community received a big blow when a taxi driver claimed he had dropped two SIMI activists to the mohalla and heard them talk of 'explosions'. The police then made it mandatory for dancers to maintain a register of their visitors, many of whom are rich businessmen from the locality as well as neighbouring districts like Indore, Ujjain, Khandwa and Bhopal. The rule was scrapped this March after the community decided to do its own patrolling and report any suspicious activity to the police. Manoj Tarwala, a local corporator, says Borwadi is a peaceful mohalla. "We haven't seen any disputes here in recent times, " he claims.

Sadly, the mujra dancers haven't seen too many customers either. While relieved that their clients are no longer being registered by the police and hoping that business will pick up, performers of this age-old art dance form that times have been tough for a long time now. Crowds have been thining, and popular tastes in dance and music too have changed. Ghalib's ghazals have been replaced by popular Bollywood songs and today dancers wait for the customers to show up. "Woh din hawa hue jab mera paseena gulab tha/ Aaj itr bhi lagate hain to mohabbat ki khusboo nahi aati (Gone are the days when even my sweat smelled as sweet as rose, now even itr doesn't rise like the fragrance of love from my body), " says Shameem Bano, 50, who used to be one of the most popular mujra dancers in the city, speaking poetically about her plight.

Twenty years earlier, Bano stopped performing mujra;now she seldom sings. "My training began when I was just eight. My father was a tabla player and my grandfather played the sarangi. It took seven years of rigorous practice before I could give a performance. But the effort made me confident of my art, " she says. There was a time when the mohalla boasted 100 mujra families. The dancers often had to learn ghazals and master their meanings in an hour as they readied for the evening performance. But over the last two decades, Bano believes the tahzeeb has changed. "Disco music has replaced what we learnt. "

It is said that in 1616, emperor Jahangir's kafila (retinue) visited the city. With it came two tawaifs (dancers), Gulara Bano and Moti Kunwar. "We are the descendants of these two women, " claims Ameen Chaudhary, who heads the Deredar Sangeet Sangh, an association of traditional mujra families. Locals claim that Gulara Bano and Kunwar were held in such high esteem at the Mughal court that two palaces were built for them, one at Asirgarh and another at Daryapur, 20 km from Borwadi.

Today, there are barely 20 mujra families and 50 dancers left in Borwadi. The younger generation has moved away from the profession, opting for alternative livelihoods. (Only one daughter of a family has chosen to dance. ) The children are encouraged to attend school to aspire to a better life, and the community boasts of lawyers, gynaecologists, teachers and a few businessmen.

It is the older generation that has the most difficulty coping today. Bano, for instance, is entirely dependent on her son and complains that the government does nothing to help. Other ageing Borwadi dancers like Farad Bai, 65, and Hamida Bai, 70, live in near penury. Very few dancers like Farah Naaz, 32, manage to survive with dignity. Naaz is among the few from the mohalla to find a life partner and leave her Borwadi life behind. Says Chaudhary, "We don't get any form of government support though we are artistes. " The mohalla's 'badnam' status impacts the real estate value for those who own property.

The sajjinds (musicians) who accompany the dancers are having a tough time too. "Am I not entitled to state benefits like other artistes?" asks Jawar Hussain, 60, a tabla player. Sajid Hussain Chaudhary from the Deredar Sangeet Sangh says they have been writing to the chief minister's office since the '80s, asking for mujra to be recognised as a dance form and its practicioners given all benefits accorded to other artistes, but they have received no response. "Now we are working towards creating a better life for ourselves, " he says.

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