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When dance is not a good practice

June 8, 2019

In my last column I wrote about how dance is not allowed in certain contexts and nations, and I appealed for remembrance and inclusion. But it is true that while dance mostly has good things going for it, there are circumstances in which it is not desirable. Strange argument coming from someone who has passionately pushed for democratizing dance and increasing its access! But let me explain what I mean.

In my last column, I made an oblique reference to tearing up at the Asian Broadcasting Union's Television Dance Festival's inaugural showcase in Hyderabad in January 2017, on seeing the team from Afghanistan perform Attan. It was a wonderful moment to see this energetic dance from Afghanistan which had, till recently seen the banning of all forms of dance and anyone who defied the ban meeting with fatal consequences. Yet all forms of dance are not empowering. Some are demeaning, disempowering and plain painful. Here are some examples of such situations when dancing is anything but pleasure. If you are wondering, let me hastily tell you that I have in mind the forced dancing by children and young people with little or no agency where sexual abuse follows, the cruel training of dancing animals, and highly dangerous, thrill seeking dance videos that are trending on social media. So despite us just having celebrated World Dance Day, these examples convinced me that I must write on those sad occasions when dancing ceases to be a pleasure.

If the return of dance to Afghanistan is something to celebrate, the continuing of 'bachabazi' and the dance associated with it is demeaning, and should be treated as an example of child abuse. It would not be farfetched to say that it often leads to child sexual abuse. Bachabazi, literally "boy for play", is an old custom dating several centuries when young boys, often taken from abusive homes are virtually held in slavery and made to dance at private parties for men. The scene from the film "The Kite Runner" shows a beautiful Hazara boy dancing for the pleasure of a member of the Taliban. But that is where Khaled Hosseni got it wrong, for the Taliban were against this. This fact is upheld in a story carried by the Washington Post, that cites Child protection advisor working with the UN, Dee Brillenburgh Wurth, who claimed that the Taliban "saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it." In fact with the dances of Afghanistan becoming a casualty of the Afghan war, even bachabazi disappeared.

But, with the return of dance in Afghanistan, bachabazi seems to have reappeared, if we are to believe the report in the Guardian that says "Under Taliban rule, it was banned, but it has crept back and is now widespread, flourishing also in the cities, including the capital Kabul, and a common feature of weddings, especially in the north." Even as I say this, I do not uphold the regressive politics of the Taliban, but I do protest Child abuse. At the same time, I recognise that in times of war and weak governance, it is the weak, and children are the weakest of them all, that face the worst assaults. Given the vulnerability of the children in war traumatised Afghanistan, it does become hard to protect them. But all attempts to do so must be undertaken.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul is one of the few organisations that has attempted to address the bachabazi practice. In an article by BBC, its head, Musa Mahmudi, admitted that while it is common in many parts of Afghanistan, there have been no studies to determine how many children are abused thus, across the country. Yet the tremendous presence of foreign troops, the protective economic and aid network of global agencies and the fact that international media has its cameras and microphones trained on Afghanistan, provides the international community the necessary moral power and the raison de etre, to strengthen the hand of Afghan Child protection authorities in declaring this human rights abuse of children, as a non-negotiable deliverable.

The fate of the 'launda' dancers of India is often the same. Launda dance is regarded as a folk art form from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The art form dates back several centuries, when women were not allowed to perform in public ceremonies. This cloistered existence of women made men take up roles of traditional entertainers. Launda dancers are adolescent and pre-puberty men who dress in female garb to dance at weddings in front of a male only audience, often an audience that is sexually starved and considers inappropriate touch, molestation and even sexual abuse, all non-consensual, as par for the course that the Laundas have signed up for.

The laundas are older than the bachas of Afghanistan and I believe could have some agency. So the question to ask is not why do they do launda dance. The better question to ask is why do they have to do launda dance and put up with its atrocities. The answer is simple - livelihoods. In the hinterland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, unemployment hovers at an unparalleled high. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) the unemployment rate in the case of both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is much above the national rate of 6.8 percent. In such tenuous times, launda dancing provides seasonal employment, at least during the wedding season.

Launda dance saw some respectability being ascribed to it thanks to Bhikhari Thakur, a legendary folk artiste of Bihar, hailed as the Shakespeare of the Bhojpuri language by Dr. Manoranjan Prasad Sinha. Born in 1887 in Kutubpur village of Saran district in Bihar, Bhikhari Thakur is credited with creating the twentieth century theatre form of Bidesia, named so after his most famous play of the same title. Bidesia uses folk idioms, music, and elements from folk forms like tamasha and nautanki. In this creative resurgence Thakur used elements of the subaltern art form of the launda dance between the acts of the play, making it simultaneously a vehicle for social and political comment and for feminist activism.

Another form of dance that is not desirable, is what is known as Kiki dance. With thousands of social media platforms bursting at the seams with uploads on YouTube, of millions of videos of the Kiki dance challenge, Kiki dance is a viral phenomenon. Inspired by Toronto born 32 year old Canadian rapper Drake's floor scorching track "Kiki do you love me?", it went viral when on June 30th last year, comedian Shiggy posted a video on Instagram. The video showed Shiggy shaking and shimmying to the song in the middle of the road with cars moving past him. Then when well-known footballer Odell Beckham, in the news one time for wearing a kilt to the Met Gala, did it, he jumped out of a parked car. Many other celebrities followed and even the normally restrained Hollywood actor, Will Smith, uploaded the video of his Kiki challenge on top of a bridge in Budapest. While he did not have cars whizzing past him at that height, he did have to use an aerial camera to get those amazing angles.

It eventually evolved into a globally popular movement of dancing on the road beside a moving car, similar to ghost riding, except that this involved jumping off and back on to the car. The numbers of video uploads were so many that there is actually a special section for just children's videos.

In India, the uploads are many in number, and varied too, given the creativity of the people. So there is actually a video of an autorickshaw version of the Kiki challenge in which both the passenger and the driver dance. On reading the comments below, it hits you that no one sees the danger in this practice. By far the most unique video from India is Kiki dance village style. In the video on the 'My Village Show' channel, which has become quite a sensation on YouTube, we see Anil Geela, and Pilli Tirupati dancing in much excitement while ploughing the fields. Anil Kumar is a budding actor, while Pilli Tirupati is a farmer, and it was on his land that the video was shot by director Sriram Srikanth, who runs the "My Village Show" channel on YouTube.

The idea for this video was Srikanth's. He came up with this idea, as he wanted to do something better using the Kiki challenge. The video was done in Lambadipalli village of Kondagattu in Karimnagar district of Telangana. This 'Kiki Challenge Dance with Bullock Cart' went viral overnight receiving upwards of one million views. Within the first three days it garnered nearly 1.6 lakh views while the official Facebook page of the 'My Village Show' had over three million views and about 55,000 shares in just four days, and on Instagram too it has been growing exponentially. It is actually quite a fun version and safe too. In fact, actor Vivek Oberoi carried it on his official Twitter page, describing it as "The only #kikichallenge that I approve of! Desi style, and completely safe."

So, while social media enthusiasts commented on how it takes one man to change things around, the world's police issue warning against this dangerous dance practice and reckless challenge, as many people attempting the act have received injuries - some serious ones as people crashed into poles, tripped on potholes or got hit by other cars on the road. From east to west the police have attempted to address this problem globally.

The Indian police took to social media itself to counter this trend and discourage this practice. Warning parents about the dance, the Uttar Pradesh police issued a tweet making a cheeky play on the words of the song, saying, "Dear Parents, whether Kiki loves your child or not, we are sure you do! So please stand by your kids in all the challenges in life except #kikichallenge." Similarly, in a post #DanceYourWayToSafety, the Mumbai police also advised people to "desist from public nuisance or face the music!" Chandigarh Traffic Police joined hands with Radio Mirchi to issue a traffic advisory to the dare. Meanwhile Hyderabad Police has been less oblique and warned that anyone indulging in #kikichallenge on the roads would be booked under Section 268 of IPC (public nuisance) and Section 70 (b) of Hyderabad City Police Act.

I would like to end this column by referring to another trend. This is the trend of selfies at lands end or videos of fearless dancing at the edge of high, rocky and unfortunately crumbling cliff faces. What thrill does dancing at the edge of risk bring, other than an adrenaline rush? But at such a high cost! This is a dancing that is not dirty but dangerous!

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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