No ground beneath her feet
The nachnis of Purulia are dying unsung, and so is an art form. Sharmistha Ghosal reports
FADE-OUT: A nachni performing at Victoria Memorial
Postobala Debi is dancing. The 50-somethingnachni, or stage performer, is dressed in a cheap nylon sari, loud pink, and rippling with glitter and zari work. She is wearing giant plastic dahlias in her hair. And as she raises the microphone to her mouth, her imitation bangles jangle.
She sings: Ami ki roop herilam go. Behind her, on stage, a group of musicians play the tabla, harmonium and flute.
Postobala's voice flutters like an ancient bird that wants to fly, knows how to, but cannot anymore. The instruments drown it out. The garish make-up and attire seem incongruous with her person. And the entire act seems like a parody of itself. Not unsurprisingly, the urban audience seems stolid, unresponsive.
Nachnis are performing artistes once found across rural Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, but now restricted to Purulia. In pre-cable, pre-Internet days, they used to be constants at weddings and festivals - Holi, Diwali, Saraswati Puja. The performance was really a duet of sorts between a nachni and her rasik.
Rasik is a derivative of the Sanskrit word "ras", which among many things, means taste. Rasik, by that logic, refers to a connoisseur. Typically, therasik would groom the nachni, compose the songs she would dance to and liaise with clients. A show would last anything between three to four hours.
Dr Smarajit Jana is chief advisor at Durbar Mahila Samanway Samiti (DMSS), which has been working for the rehabilitation of nachnis since 2006. He says, "Nachnis have not changed and improvised with time... The chhau artistes from the region [Purulia] have upgraded themselves. But the nachnis and their rasiks refuse to change and experiment."
Today, the rare show, usually at a wedding or a heritage do, fetches between Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000. Divide that by one nachni, 5-6 musicians and one rasik, and you have Rs 800-Rs 1,000 per head. And mind you, it is not a regular income or an equal splitting of proceeds.
Poor returns ensure there is next to no young talent. And that means no retirement for seniors like Postobala. But when the knee hurts and one gets out of breath easily, retire one must. And that is when an even more stark reality awaits them.
In her heyday, the rasik provides the nachni with a home, usually his own. He has his wife and family and the nachni is the bonus nectar or ras to be enjoyed and cast away in time.
That's exactly what happened to Sukurmoni Sekawat. The 72-year-old lives off the occasional alms she gets. In her youth she lit up many a show to sustain her rasik and his family. But now he is dead and she has been thrown out of his house.
Postobala's case is different. As a toddler she was abandoned by her mother, a nachni. At 12, she was married off to a 55-year-old with two grown-up sons. But what should have been a road to respectability, turned out to be just a U-turn.
Postobala's husband forced her into becoming anachni. She didn't like it and ran away. She was 19 and working as a domestic help when she met Bijoy Karmakar, a strapping young man from Purulia's Dumari village. Says Postobala, "I thought, why live like a beggar. It's better to become a nachni and earn some money." Bijoy and Postobala hooked up; he became her rasik.
Today, Postobala is the secretary of the Manbhum Loksanskriti O Nachni Unnayan Samiti, an organisation formed at the behest of DMSS for the welfare of nachnis. She and Bijoy continue to be together.
The nachni tradition in all likelihood will die a natural death. The fate of its exponents might not be as easy or natural. "Puruliar nachni ki jhamp dibek jaley, budhdhijibi, samajshebi, dao na keno bole? (O intellectuals and social workers, tell us, what should the nachnis of Purulia do. Drown themselves in the river?) goes one of Bijoy's compositions.