On a hot September afternoon, sitting in the office of Northern Black Rose Society (NBR)—a Siliguri-based NGO—was Shiladitya Ghosh. He was training a few volunteers on how to educate gay men and transgender women to protect themselves in case of “emergency situations” during their stay in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP) as Launda dancers. “A seasonal migration starts from the beginning of October till the festival of Holi. Around 100 to 120 gay men and transgender women from various parts of north Bengal have been reported to travel to UP and Bihar to work as Launda dancers every year,” the 30-year-old LGBTQ activist tells me after the session. Launda Naach is a feature of traditional ceremonies such as weddings and other auspicious Hindu occasions in the feudal heartland of UP and Bihar, in which transgender women or young men impersonating women participate in dance performances.
The story doesn’t stop here, though. The performers take up this work to combat the poverty and unemployment that plagues their life. It comes with a chance to make quick money but it also comes with past stories of abuse meted out to the dancers by their hosts. “It’s a risky job,” says Ghosh. “These young performers are vulnerable to organised patterns of exploitation that include prostitution, violence, sexual assault and sexually transmitted infections.”
Which is why, on the day of the workshop, Ghosh has only one advice: stay protected from sexually transmitted infections. “I cannot stop them from going to Bihar as I am unable to give them any viable economic option locally. But I always suggest they carry enough condoms and lubricant tubes to have safe sex. Many of them have reported rape and sexual violence after returning to Siliguri.”
The Unsung Song
“I started performing as a Launda dancer when I was 18. Now I am 35 and I don’t do it anymore,” says Suman*, a transgender women from Siliguri, as she recounts the many challenges she faced as a Launda dancer. “One time for a wedding in Ballia (UP), I had to dance all night in pouring rain in an open porch, while a few drunken men where watching me and passing lewd comments on my body parts,” says Suman, as she braids her dark hair. “This long hair helped in the business,” she adds sheepishly.
Most times, dancers don’t get proper food or accommodation. “Even basic needs like toilet are not given,” says Suman. “Physical violence is very common. Drunken men often physically and sexually abuse the dancers if they don’t give in to their demands. During the wedding ceremony, Launda dancers are a focal point, leading the groom’s entourage to the bride’s home. These dancers are exposed to a large male-dominated audience, who are mostly in inebriated state and are often forced to perform late into the night.”
I later meet Jayanto*, a 23-year-old gay man from Siliguri who, despite an ITI diploma, is unemployed and wants to perform as a Launda this season. “People don’t want to hire men like me for office jobs because of our effeminate body language and shrill voice,” he says. “I have to survive, hence I am planning to go this year to perform. I have already contacted a few orchestra owners who hire Laundas to perform. I am young, fair and have a slim frame. I have been told that I will earn between ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 per night. Sounds like a good deal to me.”
So, what does it take to make it as a Launda dancer? Auditioning is the first step of the induction process. “It begins with a malik (master) of the orchestra of the dancing troupe coming to Siliguri from Bihar or UP, and choosing the men,” says Suman. “You have a better chance of being selected if you are fair, slim and young.” Your wage is equally proportionate to your looks. On some days, food is supplied by the band master, while on others, the dancers manage their meals from the wedding venue or the events where they are performing.
“We can earn extra tips if we are friendly to the men who are attending the event. Sometimes, if you give sexual favours, tips are doubled,” says Naina, a transgender woman also from Siliguri who has been living with a local hijra group for the last few years. Apart from travelling with the group to sing and dance on special occasions such as weddings and childbirth, Naina also gets calls to perform as a Launda dancer in Bihar and UP. “On my last trip, I had a close shave with being raped by two drunk man on gunpoint. I was lucky enough to have a few men from the neighbourhood rush to the spot after hearing my cries. Life is very difficult for Launda dancers. Sometimes, the orchestra owners leave us unpaid. Many deaths of Laundas go unreported too.”
The next phase in the induction is to learn how to dance. “You don’t need any formal dance training,” informs Naina. “All you need is some courage to shake your body day and night to the beats of heavy Hindi or Bhojpuri music, while impersonating a woman and being exposed to the decadence of a largely male audience,” says Naina. Steps are impromptu; swirls and booty-shaking moves are all you need to know.
Dance with the Devil
Why do these men and transgender women risk their lives as Launda dancers? Souvik Ghosh, another member of NBR, says, “We are not able to give them well-paying jobs. Firstly, they are school dropouts and hail from poor backgrounds. Effeminate men leave school after a point because they get tired of being bullied. We don’t have LGBTQ-friendly workplaces in our region. Most ttransgender women who come to our NGO tell us that a lack of social acceptance is the primary reason why they go for options such as sex work, hijra groups or Launda dancing.”
Reshma Prasad, a transgender rights activist from Patna, adds, “Launda dancers were once hired by poorer families who could not afford the higher fees for female dancers. Today, the employment of Launda dancers is popular across all strata of society. They comprise young men, mostly from the marginalised and poor sections of society in UP and Bihar, while some migrate from West Bengal and Odisha during the spring and winter wedding season. They are contacted by wedding orchestras to work for several months at a time.”
Launda and Launda Naach has a deep-rooted connection with the social fabric of these regions. They were socially accepted even before Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code decriminalised homosexuality. Some men have even been known to have lived as wives with rich and famous bisexual men. “For this pocket of India, Launda Naach is an age-old tradition. It was a part of our social event, which one could sit and watch with their family,” says Ramanauj Singh, a journalist who hails from Khagaria, Bihar. “In the 1980s, when I was a child, I remember watching men dressed up as women and acting in plays based on social evils like child marriage and unemployment. On festive occasions like Holi and Chhath Puja, plays used to be staged in our villages where Laundas had special roles to play as entertainers. They were like the item dancers.”
With the beginning of women performers coming on stage and the growth of satellite channels in the ’90s, Launda Naach slowly became a private affair replete with filth and abuse, adds Singh. Prasad is highly critical of Launda Naach being appropriated as an “art form” these days. “This is an organised crime conducted by our society, in which a person’s sexual vulnerability is misused. It is not art; it’s a crime and should be completely stopped,” she says. “Every year, several gay men or transgender women from Bengal come here with a hope to be themselves: wear pretty dresses, dance and, in return, earn some money to survive for the rest of the year. Some return home satisfied. A few unlucky ones come back diseased or traumatised. And some just never come home.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.