I was walking along the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Strains of music wafted in the air, drumbeats resonated like a human heart. I saw the lit up stage from a distance as I went down the steep stone steps, picking my way around the women and men who sat with empty bowls along the edges.
When I drew close, I saw that it was a floating stage - a platform mounted on two large boats. Garlands of marigold and Ashoka leaves were strung along the sides and twisted around the masts and the deck. People were seated all along the stone steps watching the kaleidoscopic colors of the dancers' swirling 'lehngas' (long skirts). At 6 p.m. when devotees set afloat 'diyas' (traditional lamps) in its waters, the Ganga looked resplendent. The dirty residues of the dead and the living became invisible in its dark surface with its reflected lights.
The banner on the boat read: 'Pearls of Love: Concert of the Marginalized and Traditional Artistes'. Below the main heading were two lines: 'Manav Vyapar ke Khilaf Abhiyan' (Campaign against Human Trafficking); and 'Traditional Music and Dance-Finding Viable Economic Options'.
Gudiya, a Varanasi-based organization working with sex workers, was the brain behind this initiative. I have had a long association with Gudiya and its founder, Ajit Singh. It was 10 years ago when they had invited me to a performance at Bhopal's Bharat Bhavan. Their objective, Ajit had explained, was to help the women find a means of living by perfecting and presenting their art to audiences in formal settings. He had observed that these women were artistes, who had to sell their talent for a pittance at street corners, during weddings and births; sometimes even having to impose themselves on others for small returns. So Gudiya was created to help them perfect their performing skills, after which they could present themselves to society as artistes in their own right. I was mesmerized by the quality of the singing and dancing I witnessed at Bharat Bhavan that evening, an event to which Bhopal's high society had turned out in good numbers.
I had kept in touch with Ajit. He would call me up if he had a problem with the police who in their traditional mode considered themselves the moral guides of these 'misguided' women. I had visited the school he ran for their children in the heart of Varanasi's red-light area. I had gone there when the police decided to wield their 'danda' (baton) on the women on some pretext or other, which would have been laughable had it not been brutal. Gudiya was running a bridge school, which enabled children of sex workers to join mainstream city schools. What I saw were a bunch of noisy, playful, healthy children crowded into two small rooms on the top floor of an old inner city building.
But this time the stage swayed gently on the water to the sound of drums and the snake charmer's 'been' (pipe). The first to appear were the Kalbelia dancers from the 'sapera' community of Rajasthan. There were two women in splendid black 'ghagras' - snake women whose whirling movements covered the entire stage. "This is our campaign against human trafficking," said Manju, Ajit's wife who in his absence was managing the stage and show. "These are dying arts. We are trying to give oxygen to the artistes and their art forms. Not many know or care for the Raieen dance, the Chhari dance, the Gero and Lenhgi dances, Sapera and Fire dances. These people will never pass on their art to their children unless we can create a market for them. This is what we are trying to do in our small way," she said as she pointed to the audience, many among them foreign tourists. Two volunteers moved among the audience for a collection. Small amounts were tossed into the cloth bag that went around. More than a hundred artistes had come for this recent two-week festival on the banks of the Ganga.
Besides the dance performers, there was a team of musicians from Bihar. The team consisted of Muradan Begum and Aruna, who sang compositions in the musical forms of the poetic Ghazal, Dadri and Thumri. From Madhya Pradesh came the Bedia dancers - whose Raieen I had seen earlier. Rajasthan artistes performed the Chhari Sapera. People watch enthralled as the leaping flame was thrust into the dancer's mouth in a fire dance. The Bundelkhand team from Uttar Pradesh (UP) showcased the Ghat and Mayur dances.
From Gorakhpur came the Faruyahi dance. From UP again, came the 'qawwals' and 'sufi kalam', with Meena Tabassum and Raza Lakhnawi doing the honors. Listening to the words of the 'qawwali', I thought of the traditional role of Varanasi in promoting our syncretic culture. They sang, 'Kar ke salaam unko jawab-e-salaam le/ Ai lene waley pyaar se Khwaja ke naam le.' ('The name of the Khwaja, take only with love, Receive his response to your respectful salaam.') My mind flashed back to my meeting with Bismillah Khan, the sarod maestro, a few months before his death. With smiling eyes he told me about the thrill of playing the Saraswati Vandana while he sat on the banks of the holy river. (Saraswati Vandana is a Hindu mantra invoking Saraswati, the Goddess of higher learning and the arts.)
"Gudiya abhiyan ka prayas hai, insaan bikta na ho," (Gudiya is striving to stop human trafficking) said Manju, explaining the soul of their mission. Her little daughter, Baarish, was asleep in her arms. Dancers from Chhapra, Muzaffarpur, Mahoba, Raisen were taking their turns on the stage. People were coming and going. A banner fluttered in the river breeze. It read: 'Dhai akshar prem ka' ('two-and-a-half letters of love'). This is ultimately what matters most I thought.
I left with hope for the preservation of traditional arts everywhere. A small 'abhiyan' (effort) with a meager budget, which can collect a hundred artistes against so many odds, made me want to salute these dauntless workers. They offer dignity and livelihoods to our poor, forgotten artistes who have skills to enthrall and enthuse.