This article, authored by Parul Kapur and Saeed Haider, was published in ‘Bombay’ magazine. We have typed it from the print article (so, there might be typing error) are are publishing it in multi-part series.
In the days of maharajas, they performed in royal music rooms and were part of the entourage on wedding trips and hunt. Princes and nawabs paid them in silver coins and presented them jewels. mujra artists, in those days,were exponent of Kathak and classical music. Today, they wriggle about like film heroines before mafiosos and petty businessmen.
Close to 500 mujra singers and dancers live in a group of crumbling buildings near Kennedy Bridge, continuing an ancient tradition that has been vulgarized by the impact of Hindi cinema in recent decades. Full of shame, anger and hurt or their degradation, the women of Kennedy Bridge are trapped by tradition and necessity.
There is a row of dilapidated buildings at one end of Kennedy Bridge and a quarangle of tenements behind them, where women still sing and dance for money, continuing an age-old tradition of the princely courts. If you walk through the garbage-strewn compound at around eight in the evening, you can see young girls and women getting ready for the night in their small rooms. under the white glare of fluorescent lights. They powder their faces a few shades lighter than their skin tone, creating a slightly ghoulish effect. shadow their eyes heavily and paint on full lips in deep red or maroon.
Silk salwars and saris, glittering with gold thread, iridescent beads or sequins. replace housecoats and cotton churidars. Then they begin their vigil- three, four, five girls to a room- hoping to catch scmeone’s eye through the open doorway. But it is tawdry and pathetic, all this dressing up and making up, in a slum crawling with half dressed children, stinking of sewage and blaring with filmi music.
Some rooms do not receive a visitor the whole night-sometimes for two to three weeks at a time. And the women, trapped in a way of life that should have died rather than allowed to degenerate into the vulgar form it has, keep waiting and hoping.
Between 400 to 500 girls perform the mujra in the Kennedy Bridge area.They are organized under the banner of the Bombay Sangeet Kalakar Manoat (BSKM), whose sign hangs above the tenement gates opposite Congress House on V.P. Road. Uttam Singh, a short, curly-haired tabalchi and dance master, has been President of the organization for the last four years. Administered by a 22 member committee of men and women, the BSKM also regulates the mujra trade on Foras Road involving about 500 women.
Tawaifs, as the dancers are known, have remained separate from the organized flesh trade. although some engage in small-time prostitution. About forty per cent of the tawaifs are kept as mistresses, a desirable position because it guarantees them financial security for some measure of time.
Mujra is performed in 84 rooms of the tenement compound. But what used to be art forms, Kathak and classical songs, have deteriorated into the decadent dance of Hindi films and popular ghazals. “No one comes to see Kathak anymore,” says Farzana, an attractive dancer despite a weary look that prematurely ages her. “They only pay for ‘light’ dance.” ‘Light’ dance is the provocative hip-shaking, bust-jiggling stuff of the movie screen: it includes nagin, a sinuous, writhing movement meant to expose the body’s curves, and bhangra, the exuberant Punjabi folk dance.
(to be continued …)
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