- Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion by Anna Morcom
In her ambitious new monograph, Anna Morcom examines the mechanisms of cultural exclusion in colonial and postcolonial India that have eroded the livelihood, identity, and status of erotic dancers. While the South Asian reader may be familiar with the nineteenth-century anti-nautch campaigns against female hereditary performers (A. Srinivasan 1985; D. Srinavasan 2006; Soneji 2012), Morcom opens new territory in exploring how similar marginalzations continue to be played out in contemporary India. With a focus on present-day Mumbai bar dance girls and transgender female (kothi) performers, she brings ethnographic and archival research to trace out these communities’ artistic and hereditary lineages and current struggles against stigma, decline of traditional patronage, and direct bans. Like the historical tawa’if and devadasi courtesan dancers, these individuals are often branded as prostitutes, problems, or at best victims, and isolated from their performer identities. Pitched as external to culture, they operate in the shadow of legitimate classical performing arts and now a middle-class Bollywood dance craze. Morcom offers an insightful reading of the colonial knowledge and categorization, nationalist bourgeois morality, and contemporary development rescue narratives that have produced these cultural exclusions, while also considering challenges to the binary topography of legitimate and illegitimate dance worlds.
Morcom’s discussion highlights over a decade of marginalization through three loosely interrelated narratives concerning female hereditary performers, transgender women, and legitimate Bollywood. Her strongest material is on female hereditary performers, who take the focus of the book over three chapters. Chapter 1 provides a rich overview of the factors that have pushed female hereditary performers out of legitimate courtesan-type roles (tawa’if, nautch, baijis), Parsi and nautanki theatre, and early cinema, and into an illicit realm of sexualized performance and increasing prostitution. Through the colonial caste and tribe classifications, venereal disease regulation, and Criminal Tribes Act to the anti-nautch campaigns, she demonstrates the moral imperatives that went into defining these artists as prostitutes, which, on the whole, isolated them from the reformed, de-eroticized, and respectable classical performing arts. She shows that their identity as performers continues to be undermined, in twenty-first-century laws, academia, literature, development discourse, and the broader public sphere. Chapter 2 draws upon colonial ethnography and contemporary fieldwork to illustrate [End Page 689] the impact of these categorizations upon contemporary performers’ lives, whereby, for many, prostitution has become reality. In this rather technical chapter, targeted toward the specialist reader, Morcom traces out the history of underresearched and interconnected professional castes, such as the Nat, Bedia, Kanjar, Ganharva, and Kolhati. She traces out the lineages of these groups, from their fluid social mobility in the Mughal Empire and classification as prostitutes in the colonial period, and explores their contemporary struggles for livelihood in professions ranging from bar dancers to sex workers. We return to these performers in chapter 5, through North Indian female dancers who had congregated in Mumbai bars from the 1980s, recreating Nawabi culture for a Maharashtrian middle-class male audience in erotic dance to Bollywood tunes, until 2005 when a ban was levied upon these dancers. Interpreting this ban as anti-nautch II, Morcom eloquently argues that discourse around the ban illustrated a progression of the nineteenth-century purity campaigns. On the one hand were universalistic rights-based arguments of saving women from exploitation, and on the other arguments of protecting society from moral ruin. Both negated the history, agency, and livelihood of the performers themselves. While these acts cemented old prejudices and pushed dancers further into illicit terrains of sex work, performers offered their own legal challenge, appropriating rights discourses to defend performance in terms of labor and livelihood.
Chapters 3 and 6 enter seemingly different territory, by introducing kothis (zennanas), men who see themselves as females in gender and sexuality, for whom dance has constituted a traditional occupation. Like female hereditary artists, she argues that kothis are often discussed as problems and victims, and relegated to frameworks of HIV/AIDS, gender, sexuality, marginality, and prostitution, and...