20 March 2017

Singing the Bawdy Electric

My Mirror column:

A lavani dance performance and a film about American burlesque offer sparkling, subversive ways to think about women’s sexual freedom.

The incomparable Shakuntala Nagarkar during a Sangeet Bari performance

Judith Stein, ex-burlesque dancer, dresses up for a return to the stage

Recently, Delhi's Studio Safdar, an unusual performance space that also includes a second-hand bookshop and a cafe, hosted something rarely seen outside of Maharashtra: a performance of (and about) lavani. The result of Bhushan Khorgaonkar and Savitri Medhatul's years of careful research and enthusiastic engagement with the folk dance form, the show draws its name, Sangeet Bari, from the traditional theatres in which lavani troupes perform turn by turn (thus ‘bari’). It is from the same tradition that Sangeet Bari draws its prize performers: the winsome Akanksha Kadam and the incomparable Shakuntalabai Nagarkar, affectionately known as Shakubai.

Lavani is known as an erotically charged dance form, but the songs make space for irreverent commentary on anything from marriage to the current hot-button topic of the day (think demonetisation, or elections). The lavani dancer embraces unapologetically the pleasures of the body, while never forgetting that what fires up those physical connections is often the mind. Watching Shakubai, in her nine-yard sari and jewellery, move effortlessly from the seductive to the comic and back again, is a treat and an education. Flirtatiousness – of both banter and gesture -- is raised to an art form. One marvels at how Shakubai's feet measure the ground in perfectly calculated strides; how not just her face and hands, but every quivering muscle in her back expresses the chosen emotion; and how expertly her eyes scan the room, selecting a man to cajole, challenge, or mock-disdainfully reject.

This seduction routine – and you can tell that it is in many ways a routine – is integral to the performance of lavani. And yet somehow Shakubai's practised ease is also full of improvisational energy, each eye caught in the audience an invitation to create a spontaneous new moment of intimacy. And although the songs are written by men to be performed for an audience of men, these women of lavani display a frank, joyful embrace of their own sexuality.

Women taking an open-faced pleasure in the erotics of their own selves was also the most delightful aspect of a documentary I saw last week, as it closed the 13th Asian Women's Film Festival, organised in Delhi by the indefatigable India chapter of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television. League of Exotique Dancers (2015), directed for Canadian television by Rama Rau, profiles eight ageing ex-burlesque dancers on the eve of their return to the stage – often after three decades or more – as part of Las Vegas' remarkable Burlesque Hall of Fame. Having worked for decades in what is considered (and perhaps was) – like lavani -- an industry created by men for the pleasure of men, you might be forgiven for imagining that these women would seem embittered, angry or at the very least, exploited. Instead, Toni Elling, Holiday O'Hara, Kitty Navidad, Judith Stein and the others all emerge as unbelievably badass women, with stunning clarity not just about the milieu they agreed to be part of, but also about what their work meant to them.

Each woman's journey was different. For Navidad and Elling, the move into burlesque was partially because of the frustratingly low-paid, boring assembly-line jobs their gender and class had equipped them for. Once on stage, though, they enjoyed themselves. “All those years I had worked as a waitress, a telephone operator, you know? But I found myself on stage, and I know who I am now,” says the Detroit-born Elling, among the first black women to be a burlesque dancer.

For O'Hara, who had spent her childhood as the nerdy 'ugly' girl damaged by self-doubt about her attractiveness, being publicly admired for her sexual, sensual identity was liberating. “With dance I got to recreate myself. It allowed me the opportunity to reclaim my body. And that healed my mind, too.” Meanwhile Judith Stein, whose feminist friends disapproved of her becoming an erotic dancer, has no doubt that her choice empowered her. “Feminism [for us] wasn't about not shaving your legs. Feminism was about shaving your legs and working in a bar and working as a 'sex object' and knowing that you were. And not trading your soul and your pussy for a wedding ring,” says Stein, unflinching.

The theme of financial independence comes up repeatedly. But equally significant is these women's aura of sexual confidence. “I refuse to believe the men were in charge here,” says O'Hara. “No-one's there to BS you. You're BS-ing them,” says another dancer. “Being a stripper, or being a sex trade worker, that has been the job... open to women through the ages. The belly dancer, the flamenco dancer... it was about being sexual, being able to be comfortably display their sexuality. And that's strong,” says Stein.

Sexuality, the film persuades us, is as legitimate a part of a woman's identity as her mathematical skills, or her talent for answering phone calls. And given that the world is what it is, why should using one's erotic skills – and indeed, developing them more fully to give pleasure to one’s self – not be something to celebrate? The body is not everything. But we have insisted for far too long that it ought to be nothing.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Mar 2017.

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