India

Meet the dancing girls of India's 'folk opera'

Nautanki

Nautanki is one of India's oldest folk theatres, and it's hugely popular in small towns and rural areas. Photographer Udit Kulshreshtha explains how this art form is surviving in the age of easily available entertainment on smart phones.

The travelling theatre used to be the cheapest and often the only source of performance-based entertainment in northern India until TV became popular in the 1980s.

But some groups and performers are trying hard to keep the tradition alive.

Nautanki

Nautanki, also known as folk opera, is still a crowd puller in traditional cattle fairs. At least eight different theatres performed during one such recent fair in the northern state of Bihar's Sonepur town.

Tickets

Tickets are usually priced between 100 ($1.55; £1.22) to 500 rupees, and they sell out fast.

Nautanki performance

Nautanki performances usually follow storylines derived from folk and mythological tales. The stories are punctuated with dance performances, musical compositions and skits. The atmosphere is usually casual and audiences are allowed to ask performers to repeat a skit or a dance of their choice.

The mainstay of Nautanki are female dancers who perform to folk songs often composed by their colleagues.

Nautanki artists getting ready

Artists often get ready for their performances in dingy backrooms before appearing on stage in all their finery.

Nautanki

Sangeeta, who only uses one name, says she started dancing in Nautanki because of poverty. "I had nothing to eat and that is why I started dancing. But now I love to dance, my feet can't stop," she says.

She adds that she learned her dance moves from her colleagues and from watching Bollywood films.

She adds that "this trade gets dirty at times". Performances start at 5pm but sometimes continue until the early hours of the following day.

I witnessed men in various stages of drunken stupor trying to get closer to Sangeeta during one of her performances in Sonepur.

Nautanki

Mousumi Sarkar, 34, has been performing in Nautanki for more than a decade. She says her career has taken her to places like Dubai and Nairobi.

"I like travelling with the group. I have even performed at government functions," she says.

But the dancer adds that the money she earns is not enough to provide for her family.

"I earn around 2,000 rupees (£25; $31) every day. We need help from the government in the form of jobs for our children and a pension for me when I retire."

Nautanki dancer CHandani with her husband Amit Kumar

Dancers often don't get respect as artists and face discrimination.

Amit Kumar Singh married Nautanki dancer Chandni three years ago, and lost his family inheritance.

Now he does minor jobs at the theatre.

Chairs broken after a performance

Nautanki performances don't always end well. Excited men watching performances often indulge in drunken brawls and damage chairs.

All photos by Udit Kulshreshtha

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