COVID-19: How Lockdown has Pushed Rural Wedding Dancers in UP to Verge of Starvation

Sitting on a half damaged cot with a bidi in her hand, Mandakini watches the raindrops pouring from the sky. It appears that she is in some deep thought. She is an orchestra dancer belonging to the Nat tribe, a nomadic tribe which has been traditionally involved in dancing and sex work as their profession.She earned the name Mandakini as a moniker from the audience in the last five-six years and it has now become her identity. She refuses to tell her real name and reveal her age.

Taking a drag from her bidi, she said that the business in the last wedding season had turned out to be so bad that she had to take some money on loan from a local banker. She even curses the COVID-19 pandemic using the word ‘Chinese’ and said that she will never use any Chinese product as being appealed by the society in Gola Gokaran area of the Terai district in Uttar Pradesh.

“The lockdown took away our business. This wedding season we did not see the face of the stage, not even a single time. All our preparations have been wasted. I personally have lost more than Rs 50,000 due to this coronavirus disease and today I am under a debt of Rs 20,000 which I have borrowed from a local banker in our village at 3% interest and had to keep my gold pendant on mortgage,” she said, adding, “I had bought five dresses and two new pairs of sandals for this season but could not take them out of the trunk due to the sudden imposition of lockdown. We had to return all the money taken as advance from different parties, though some were good to not ask the money back thinking of our plight as we ran out of work.”

Showing her glittering dresses, sandals and make up, she said, “I have been in this profession since childhood because I have seen my mother and elders dance and we know nothing other than this.”

“But now I have started stitching masks which I sell for Rs 10 each. We had a lot of unused cotton cloth pieces at home and selling the masks is at least helping us with daily expenses. My husband, who is also a dancer (performs launda naach, where male dancers crossdress as women and dance) has also been helping me with this and he is the one who goes out to sell these masks,” she told NewsClick, explaining that they have had to resort to other means to earn their livelihood.

Mandakini’s husband, Lallu, a young man with long highlighted hair, said, “We had more than 20 bookings for this season but not even a single one could take place due to the lockdown. I understand that the government needed to do this, but they should have at least given a thought about our situation, so that we could keep our kitchen fire burning. Today, we are in such a situation that we have been forced to take loan from people and sell masks on the roadside.”

Virendra Sonkar, who worked as a broker for these rural wedding dancers, has also adopted a new profession. Instead booking deals for the dancers, he now plays in a brass band at small closed door events in the villages.

He said, “I sustained for 40 days on the savings we had from the commission I made through bookings. But soon it started to run out and I had to come back to play the brass drums which my forefathers did. For now I can hardly manage a meagre income for my family. However, if this situation continues, it will become really hard for all of us to sustain and we will be forced to beg. Everyone is actually running out of money and no one has it. The government should do something for us soon.”

Not only the government, there are hardly any NGOs who have been working to provide help to this community amid the pandemic, NewsClick has learnt.

Sonkar, a resident of Colonelganj in Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh, added,“We, dancers, have always been considered untouchable due to our work. We are not mainstream people like you and this adds to our woes. We have to stand at the back of the line when the ration is distributed, our villages are the last to receive anything when charity is being distributed and even accessing treatment is difficult for us.”

First published in Newsclick.