In the Bollywood blockbuster Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 2 (2012), the song Taar Bijli Se Patle seamlessly transitions from the wedding celebrations in a courtyard of a respectable household into the chiaroscuro of an improvised dance floor within the house itself, where a man dressed in ghagra-choli cavorts sensuously with a group of lustful men, often at the verge of getting molested. The song succinctly captures the life of the cross-dressed dancer as integral to familial celebrations, yet perpetually outside it.
This man in drag is a Launda, an entertainer, who embodies an ‘open secret’ of many Bhojpuri men’s homoerotic lust, within an overtly hetero-patriarchal, hyper-masculine society, which allows for such sexual adventures, as long as those exploits do not shake the edifice of the heteronormative family. Even that is accepted, particularly within the household of the married ‘master’ – the Launda’s employer – for the Launda, the primary contributor to the family’s economy, is the reason why the master’s family sustains itself round the year.
Unlike queer lives in more metropolitan centres of India, nothing is fiercely hidden about these liaisons and arrangements; in fact, the Launda who is indispensible in several Lagans (auspicious occasions like weddings, house warming and child birth), and is known to have sexual relationships with apparently straight, even married, men of all classes, is an integral part of the everydayness of the Bhojpur region, albeit occupying unwarranted zones of insecurity, vulnerability and shame.
Laundas have been the subject of documentaries and academic articles, but, a monograph on them – social researcher Niloy Basu’s Launda Dancer: Anyo Hijrer Bhinna Bhuban – published by Kolkata’s Anustup last summer (pages 379, Rs.500, 2020) is the first of its kind of such immensely layered and complex queer biographies from non-metropolitan India. The book is an intimate ethnography of the precarious lives of the Laundas, with the author travelling and living with them over a period of time in the remotest corners of the Bhojpur region, which is largely rural in nature.
The positionality of the author with respect to the text is extremely interesting – he is within the text, yet outside it, engaging in a deep affective relationship with the Laundas, while often detaching himself from them to delineate an event and its social and cultural implications as a dispassionate observer. The ethnography, far more than a knowledge-dissemination project, becomes an empathetic journey with the Laundas who often share their deepest of secrets with the author. Each story is unique, while read together they reveal a pattern of a shared life.
It would not be a digression to pause awhile and recall that Niloy Basu, along with his colleague, Ajay Majumder, has played a significant role in writing about queer lives in Bengali. Be it their elaborate account of the Hijras (Bharater Hijre Samaj, 1997), an encyclopaedic exposition of the concept of same-sex love (Samaprem, 2005), or an insight into the lives of male sex workers (Purush Jokhon Jounokormi, 1999), Basu and Majumder produced valuable documents of queer lives and world-views at a time when there was barely any noteworthy research on the subject in Bengali, though these books have their own flaws and fissures, when read in connection with global queer discourses generated through activism and academic enquiries today. In fact, these books barely ever deploy the term ‘queer’, which even till the mid-2000s, was not a frequently used term within academic or activist circuits in India.
However, these books, along with such little magazines and newsletters as Pravartak (1991-2000), Swikriti (2004 till date) and Swakanthe (In Our Own Voice) (2004 till date), were instrumental in welding academia with activism in Bengal, at a time when books, magazines, pamphlets and journals were still the primary sources of knowledge, though certain privileged sections of the country were being gradually ushered into the worldwide web.
Launda Dancer: Anyo Hijrer Bhinna Bhuban is the latest addition to this oeuvre, a much-needed addition at that, given that the worldwide web is still incapable of generating sufficient knowledge about these underprivileged feminine men and transgender women of a particular region in India. They dress in drag, erotically dance under the licentious, often, destructive gaze of drunken men at Lagans, fall in love and suffer in betrayal, and provide for an often unthinkably penurious family back home, while, always in apprehension of losing their relevance, as age catches up and other younger competitors ceaselessly arrive to supplant them.
The book arrived at a time when the nation was deeply disturbed by the plight of migrant workers, perhaps the worst victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. The media, despite reporting every move of the migrant workers walking for miles on end, remained oblivious of the plight of the Laundas – a huge mass of seasonal migrant workers from Bengal, who relocate to different regions of Bhojpur to dance at Lagans, get violated and raped, and even murdered, in order to earn a precarious livelihood.
Basu begins his book, identifying the Laundas as mostly destitute migrant workers – a sexual commodity with a waning market value – who risk their lives to make both ends meet. Basu’s book reveals the complex economy of the sex commerce involving the Laundas, masters, agents, pimps, contracts and consumers – a business network that enthralls by its intricacies with only one target to achieve – sexually titillating entertainment particularly for men.
On another level, the book devotes considerable space to understand this queer paradox in how men lust after the Laundas, fall in love with them, without identifying as queer, gay, or homosexual. Basu tries to explain this intriguing psychological complexity of these men, interpellated in hetero-patriarchal, masculinist discourses, within which embodying and enjoying power entails sexual control not only over women but also feminine men and transgender women – dominating the latter sexually guarantees a more fulfilling sense of masculinity.
Basu speaks to these men too, endlessly enamoured with the Laundas – men, generation after generation of whom are acculturated into deriving sexual pleasure by voyeuristically gazing at Laundas performing on stage or engaging with them sexually. As if, there is nothing unusual about falling for them, nor is it wrong to exploit them. In other words, the attraction towards the Launda is not understood as queer – something non-normative, or out of the ordinary – but, as an integral part of a sexual life, which is not always compulsively alert to the ‘hetero-homo’ divide.
In terms of form and performance, the Launda Nach has undergone a remarkable transition from what it used be in the olden days. It was more aesthetic than it is today. As the 95 years old Ramchandra Majhi, carrying forward the legacy of the legendary Launda Nach artist Bhikhari Thakur, recalls in a short news feature in October 2019 by The Lallantop, a YouTube channel, not a single vulgar word escaped his mouth as a dancer and singer, while lamenting the crudeness Launda Nach has sunk to today.
Basu, drawing the history of the Launda dance from the tradition of Nautanki, shows how Bollywood films and Bhojpuri cinema of recent years have colonized the Launda dance, for instance, the song in Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 2. Also, on many occasions, the Laundas are physically abused if they stop dancing for a while in order to draw in a quick breath. One may recall that iconic scene from the 1975 film Sholay where the female lead is coerced into dancing on broken pieces of glass without a break by the villain, as he held her lover hostage. This may sound far-fetched to an urban reader who has never witnessed a real Launda dance. But, as Basu’s book has shown, there are some everyday events in the life of the Laundas which are no less dramatic than Bollywood or Bhojpuri masala movies.
The book fascinates by the range of issues involving the lives of Laundas – as performers, as lovers, as sex workers, as abandoned ‘sons’, as vilified queers. However, one may take issue with the sub-title of the book, in which the Laundas are categorized as Hijras, where the term Hijra, as it seems, is used loosely as a gender non-conforming generic category, and not so much in the traditional sense. But it is indubitable that naming has always been a challenge within queer communities, where identity categories are so fluid and overlapping, that self-identification appears to be the only acceptable way out, if naming or labelling is at all necessary. Nonetheless, Basu could have done away with the sub-title which after all seems superfluous.
Main photo credit: Dr. Kaustav Bakshi