9 September 2014

Book Review: Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance

Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys:
The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance.
By Anna Morcom. 298 pp. Hachette, 2014.
In Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1971), a nobleman enters a train compartment and becomes entranced by the beauty of a sleeping woman’s uncovered feet. He leaves her a note that says: “Aapke pair dekhe, bahut haseen hain. Inhen zameen pe mat utaariyega, maile ho jayenge.” That poetic injunction, telling the beloved that she is too ethereal to descend to earth, has become cinematic shorthand for nazaakat, for the delicacy of old-world romance. But it is also a metaphorical message to the tawaif, whose very profession involves placing her feet on the ground. The dancing girl is being told that dancing defiles her.

The social history of Indian dance has been hugely defined by that idea of defilement, and Anna Morcom’s book, Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, is the first rigorous academic investigation into how this history informs our present. Morcom shows how dance and dancers in India are located in a grid of class, caste and gender, a grid whose traditional moorings have been realigned but not erased by modernity. 

The Indian performing arts, she argues, emerged in a patriarchal framework where the dynamics of power and sexuality were inseparable from those of social status — men never perform for women, nor high status women for lower status men. Those who performed were lower in status than their audience: in terms of gender (by being female, or being effeminate males) and often also caste. Dancing in public, particularly, has long been treated as a coded signifier of sexual availability — even if, as in most instances, the male audience’s sexual access to the performer’s body remained theoretical.

An ethnomusicologist by training, Morcom’s rich combination of archival research and ethnographic fieldwork is especially valuable in a field satiated with opinions but starved for real research. The book’s first chapter is historical, describing how the Indian performing arts were transformed by a combination of Victorian morality and nationalist reform. In what are known as the Anti-Nautch campaigns, colonial administrators and nationalists came together in their distaste for what they saw as feudal sexual mores. The discourse of social reform was used to stigmatise devadasis and tawaifs, their identity as skilled cultural practitioners subsumed by their perceived sexual dangerousness. 

In a remarkable double move, the marginalisation of these women paved the way for upper caste/upper class women to enter the “reformed” performing arts (from which the earlier dynamic of transgressive sexuality was now carefully erased). If women from tawaif/devadasi backgrounds wished to perform in public, they had to first perform respectability, by abandoning the mujra, moving out of the kotha and, ideally, marrying — thus converting themselves from “Bai” into “Begum”, or “Devi”.

This part of the story is perhaps familiar. But Morcom’s real revelation is that “nautch” did not disappear. “Rather" [she writes], "it went underground, involving far more prostitution, less ‘choice’ and a lower status for the women involved”. It is this process that ended up creating the “illicit worlds” of the book’s title.

The first such illicit milieu that Morcom explores is that of hereditary female performers, the majority of whom belong to a set of interrelated tribes or communities collectively identified by the term “Bhatu”. Drawing on colonial ethnographers like William Crooke and her own interviews in Tonk, Sultanpur and Pune, Morcom discusses some of the better-known Bhatu communities: Nats, Kanjars, Bedias, Kolhatis and Deredars/Gandharvas. Very briefly, she asks some crucial questions of each, such as whether the men were also performers, whether the community does other kinds of work too, and the extent to which dance as a livelihood has given way to sex work.

This is the background for what is one of the book’s most important arguments, laid out in a later chapter on dance bars: that the vast majority of Mumbai’s estimated 75,000 bar girls in 2005 were Bhatus of one sort or another, and that the campaign against Mumbai’s dance bars thus “represented a continuation of the history of exclusion of these hereditary performing communities from a livelihood and identity of dance.” Given the powerful discursive similarities — the appeal to rights and the “liberation” of women on one hand, and protection of “morality” and “Indian culture” on the other — as well as the actual continuity in the communities targeted, Morcom argues that the pro-ban movement needs to be examined as “Anti-Nautch II”.  

Further, for most of these women from communities such as Nat, where performing arts had ceased to be a livelihood since Independence, “dancing in bars had been a form of rehabilitation from sex work”. Crucially, Morcom points out that even English-language journalists and writers critical of the ban were content to produce narratives of women having been “driven to dance”, sometimes in conjunction with bargirls who, Morcom suggests, knew that a simplistic “majboori” narrative would get them more sympathy than the truth. In sum, even the well-intentioned continue to display a blindness to this complex, chequered history.

The other “illicit world of dance” Morcom addresses is even less acknowledged: that of dance performances by transgender males or female impersonators. Men dance as female in all sorts of non-elite traditional contexts — Nautanki, Ramlila, wedding shows and wedding processions, launda naach/Bidesiya in Bihar, and all-male Lavani performances called Binbaikacha Lavani. Some only perform femininity when dancing, but many others identify as kothis, and dance is an important part of this transgressive sexual identity. Morcom’s detailed accounts of kothis open up a new space for discussion of how performance and sexuality can be linked, though again, as with dancing women, cross-dressed male performers are not necessarily providers of sexual services.

The one “non-illicit” chapter is about the rise of Bollywood dance as a middle class activity that can even be proclaimed as a profession. Morcom persuasively contrasts this new public legitimacy with the continued illegitimacy and shame that haunts the bargirls. Yet, she sees some hope for wider attitudinal change in the middle class woman’s ability to perform Bollywood dances without stigma.

This is an ambitious book. The writing — especially the introduction — occasionally feels repetitive, clunky in an academic way. But thankfully Morcom rarely uses theory as a crutch. Her arguments are thoughtful and emerge organically from her fascinating material. Though the book’s vast and varied canvas can often make it feel like several separate books, Morcom has done an enormous service by bringing these worlds to notice. Most importantly, she has given us a lens through which we must begin to connect the highly visible forms of Indian public culture — whether the classical arts or Bollywood — with these profoundly invisibilised ones.

A truncated version of this review was published in the Asian Age.

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