From erotic to religious: Journey of dancers from pre-Independent times

  • Sudha G Tilak, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Oct 18, 2014 18:38 IST

Dance, in India, has never stood on its own feet alone. As India's foremost modern dancer Chandralekha once said "Along with dance" you are "talking about body and strong social complexes".

Anna Morcom's extensively researched book moves away from the world of classical Indian dances like Bharatanatyam, Kathak associated with religion and sanctioned as acceptable. It deals with those that remain popular in India but are deemed non-classical and whose traditions often do not meet the norms of culture, social, gender and sexual acceptance.

It is the transgressive space where men are free to enjoy the performances and even the dancer. Here, the female dancer is called upon for her erotic value but remains an outcast from the accepted conventions of middle class married life and domesticity.

The effeminate male dancer is again allowed to share the shadowy space of performing but denied the social acceptance that patriarchy assumes as its right. The nautch girl, the male dancer and the hijra inhabit this socially-segregated space.

Morcom's book begins by invoking the eponymous movie of Pakeezah, a cultural meme about courtesans, their social ostracisation and their heightened desirability. The 1971 Hindi film is on Sahib Jaan, the courtesan of Lucknow, whose virginal beauty transcends her dancing skills and makes her desirable to respectable men who visit kothas, the salons that doubled as brothels. She finds that Pakeezah's struggle remains a template for thousands of such dancers across India whose profession attracts audiences but whose engagement does not go beyond the physical or the voyeuristic.

The book brings into focus the journey of dancers from pre-Independent times, from temples to secular spaces. Victorian morality enjoined with middle class Hindu morality to enforce the anti-nautch movement and law.

This led to a loss of livelihood and spaces to perform, for the dancers. The popular forms of dances and performers, the hijras or the bar girls, however, suffer disrepute and marginalisation. The legitimacy that the performer deserves in the cultural forums of society is denied to them.

Morcom calls it the "dynamics of exclusion" whereby the "performer as prostitute" equation continues to make them vulnerable to harassment from modern forces of patriarchy like the police, male patrons or pimps. Caste structures played their part, making it difficult for further generations to break away.

Given its past struggles, Morcom finds an unlikely acceptance of the popular form of performance, "the Bollywood dance" which has gained entry into homes, thanks to televised shows that allow children, married women and men to perform and be awarded. Perhaps telly performers do not suffer discrimination whilst performing before the public eye as they are not professionals.

If the bargirl in a capitalist nation of the White World also doubles as a prostitute, she still can find a modicum of protection of her rights. Unlike her, the courtesans and transgender performers of India have no defined laws to protect them. Their rights are unspoken, their artistic merits never valued and their stories unrecorded.

Morcom's book focuses on the kothas of north and west India. In south India, the temple erotic dancer or the devadasi's dasi attam which was abolished, was revived and sanctioned Brahminical respectability as Bharatanatyam. Enshrined with domestic, religious and social acceptability, it enjoys the spotlight and remains an interesting twist in the world of dancing performers in India.

The irony that the dance itself underwent a change, from the erotic to the religious, to attain social sanction reaffirms Morcom's theory of not accepting erotic dancers into the social fold without transmuting their art and appropriating their hereditary performing skills.
Morcom rightly concludes that these performers - classified as prostitutes - suffer a lack of acknowledgement in the traditional social structure in India. The Indian middle class, which has money to spend, chooses to buy sex, endangering traditional and indigenous forms of dance and performers, she records.

The dancers' performances are relished, but they are denied legitimacy and respectability. This is a thoroughly-researched tome. But it also throws the challenge to produce the stories of many of these performers and their struggles from an intimate perspective. Much like Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars did.

Note: Sudha Tilak is an independent journalist. She lives in Delhi.

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Pick, hoard, read: Books for Rs. 25 at Harper Collins Faridabad sale
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