A production like “Launda Badnaam Hua” can go much further in revitalising the regional form of Launda Naach as well as raising awareness about the damage inflicted by feudal forces

“Launda Badnaam Hua” presented by Sehar at India Habitat Centre this past week seeks to depict the agonised artistic journey of a young performer of a traditional art. A musical in the form of a solo, the production captures the atmosphere of a boy dancing as a woman — mostly performed in Bihar during marriage celebrations. The opening sequences reveal vigorous dance movements, earthy humour and double entendre which offer interesting moments. The gaudy female costume is visually dazzling. But gradually the pace becomes tediously slow and the tone sedate.

Written, conceptualised and performed by Pankaj Pawan, this traditional form of entertainment is a part of a rotten feudal culture. Thanks to Bhikhari Thakur, a legendary folk artiste of Bihar, the form, generally called Launda Naach, has been improvised upon, with skits between the dance sequences, making it a vehicle for social and political comment. Pankaj’s version attempts to make it a medium to convey the spiritually elevated philosophical message of Amir Khusrau and Kabir.

An experienced actor, Pankaj has worked with several groups in Delhi, including the theatre repertory company of Sahitya Kala Parishad. Currently he is working with Kingdom of Dreams. “Launda Badnaam Hua” is presented on a bare stage with a frame suggestive of an entry door. The accompanists and singers occupy a prominent space in full view of the audience. The novelty of Pankaj’s production is that on the one hand he directly interacts with the audience and on the other he frequently engages with the singers in a dialogue with the aim of evoking humour. His narrative shuttles back and forth between past and present, imparting a little intricacy to his narrative.

The past of the Launda dancer is full of agony, privations and humiliations. As a growing child, he displays his talent for singing and dancing, causing anxiety to his father to whom the very idea of a young boy becoming a singer-dancer is anathema. He would often wear the clothes of his sister and dance in ecstasy. His worried father decides to get him married to a little girl of nine years who even expresses her hatred to be the wife of a boy who indulges in dancing. She wants him end to his ‘unmanly acts’. But it all proves futile. His obsession with dancing is too strong to leave it. His little bride leaves him and his father throws him out of the house to protect himself from the stigma of being a Launda dancer’s father.

Wandering aimlessly, the boy lands in the house of a folk artiste who accepts him as a student and trains him as a Launda dancer, impersonating female characters. In love with the young daughter of his teacher and patron, he is determined to marry her and hopes his teacher would be only too glad to solemnise this marriage. To his shock, his dear guru rejects him disdainfully as his son-in-law.

Pankaj has chosen a powerful social theme which needs greater directorial insights into a milieu that attaches a social stigma to the practitioners of a fine art. Instead of seeking to transform this form to convey the message of saint poets, he should have concentrated on exposing contemporary social antagonism. He should have further explored the device of Bhikhari Thakur to make Launda Naach acceptable to discerning audiences and an instrument to attack inhuman feudal forces responsible for transforming this art into an entertainment of the rich degenerate exploiters. Towards the end Pankaj shifts his focus from Launda Naach to the brutal rape cases — this is a distracting element.

There is a brief reference in a causal manner to the deteriorating artistic quality of the productions of the National School of Drama without any context. Though the production captures the exuberance of the original form to some extent, it could not illustrate its contemporary relevance in a convincing way.

The best part of the production is Pankaj’s dance numbers characterised by earthy humour and verve. He also sings beautifully, establishing a lively rapport with the audience.