In today’s India, classical performers are counted amongst the respectable middle classes, and usually belong to upper castes. However, before modern reforms, being married and performing in public or in front of men were entirely mutually exclusive social roles for women. Thus India’s professional female performers did not marry and thus were not in this sense ‘respectable’. Like all patronage-based traditional performers, their communities were of low social status, though many courtesans were admired and adulated for their art and skill and they performed important, public social functions. They were attached to courts and some had their own establishments; they had relationships with patrons, often long-term, and their daughters generally followed them into a life of performing. They were comparable to the devadasis of South India, who differed in being based in temple establishments.
In the climate of Victorian morality and purity campaigns, courtesans, devadasis and dancing girls in India had been targeted by a virulent anti nautch (literally: ‘anti-dance’) campaign from the early 19th century, which reached critical mass around the 1890s. They were declared to be just prostitutes, and their performances were gradually boycotted by the British and Indian patrons. At the same time, courts were being undermined by British rule, and the courtesans, dancing girls and other court performers too gradually lost patronage. Courtesans and nautch girls started to enter into new forms of livelihood, in particular, the cinema. However, they were intensely stigmatized, and replaced as soon as possible by ‘respectable’ women. Meanwhile, classical performing arts were being re-invented as bourgeois, concert arts, away from courtly patronage. However, the traditional, hereditary performers were explicitly excluded form this new world, apart from a few who were able to marry and live according to the norms of respectable bourgeois society. All India Radio, for example, stated it would not record any woman ‘whose private life was a public scandal’ . In 195?, the remaining princely courts were abolished, and large numbers of courtesans and male court performers abruptly lost their livelihood. With the combination of stigma and inability to enter into the world of classical performing arts, these women became involved in increasingly illicit, sexualized forms of performing arts that existed beneath the radar of the re-constructed official ‘Indian Culture’, and many became involved in prostitution, including in some cases entire communities. The situation was the same with devadasis in South India, though they were restricted by an actual ban that made it illegal to dedicate a girl to a temple, i.e., to make her a devadasi (see Soneji 2012 for an exploration of the colonial and postcolonial history of devadasis).
Extraordinarily, not only were the bargirls from the same non-marrying lineages as nautch girls and courtesans, but they had been banned in 2005 using exactly the same arguments that had devastated the livelihoods, status and social space of their foremothers over a century ago. In the broad public sphere, courtesans are portrayed as a romanticized figment of India’s feudal past, usually presented as beautiful, bejeweled objects of pity. However, in fact, they were very a part of India’s present. Rather than saving them from ‘indignity’ or ‘exploitation’, or saving India from the social evil of prostitution, the purity campaigns and reforms of the later colonial period had created an entire realm of illicit performing arts and vast economies of sex work.
This time, however, things have taken a slightly different turn. In one sense, the post-independence history of disenfranchised nautch girls and courtesans illustrates an intensification of the same dynamics of exclusion that began in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, there is evidence of real change. The High Court of Bombay declared the dance bar ban to be unconstitutional on two counts. It was declared discriminatory, since it had exempted dancing in three star restaurants and above from the ban. It was also judged to violate the right to practice a profession. Significantly, bar dancing was declared a profession. This is a remarkable change, since the essence of anti-nautch and the pro-ban lobby of 21st century Mumbai was that when nautch girls, courtesans and bargirls dance, it is not dance, but prostitution. For the first time, the very valuable difference that the skill of being able to perform and a context in which to perform makes to such women has been acknowledged. The State of Maharashtra appealed the High Court’s decision, and the ban remained in place. In July 2013, however, the case reached the Supreme Court, and the High Court’s judgment was upheld. Remarkably, the judge stated: ‘The expression “The cure is worse than the disease” comes to mind immediately’. However, with a look into the larger modern history of performing arts in India, it is clear that this statement has far vaster import.
In addition to courtesans and bar girls, India’s illicit world of performing arts also includes a transgender dimension of males dancing as females who receive the erotic attention of males. Female impersonators (not all of whom are transgender or ‘homosexual’) are also a factor of the patriarchal rules that make respectability and public performance incompatiable and thus necessitate ‘disreputable’ women. However, at the same time, they have been an important liminal space for male to male sex in India. The modern history of transgender erotic performers is parallel to that of courtesans and dancing girls, and in many contexts they perform interchangeably with girls, and in increasingly sexualized ways and with increasing involvement in sexual transaction. However, they were not targeted by purity campaigns like the female performers, but rather marginalized from around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by a more insidious form of heteronormativity and the growing preference for ‘real’ women performers in the interests of realism and modernity in culture. They seek new social spaces through the LGBT movement. But LGBT movement also has problems, in making explicit practices and identities that existed precisely because they were opaque, conveniently unseen.
Anna Morcom (c) February 2014
Harvey, David (2006) Spaces of global capitalism: Towards a theory of uneven geographical development. London and New York: Verso.
Soneji, Davesh (2012) Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, memory, and modernity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Anna Morcom specializes in music and dance in India and Tibet from diverse perspectives that seek to understand the contemporary world. Her ethnographically based research focuses on phases of modernity ranging from nation building to globalization and neoliberalism, and spans issues of politics, ideology, gender and inequality as well as media and marketisation. She is the author of three books, Unity and discord: Music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004, Tibet Information Network); Hindi film songs and the cinema (2007, Ashgate); and Illicit worlds of Indian dance: Cultures of exclusion (2013, C. Hurst and Co; OUP New York). She is a Senior Lecturer in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.