Thoban, Sitara. “Locating the Tawa’if Courtesan-Dancer: Cinematic Constructions of Religion and Nation.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 2021.

From the article: “The development of the Hindi/Urdu cinema is intimately connected to the history of artistic performance in India in two important ways. Not only did hereditary music and dance practitioners play key roles in building this cinema, representations of these performers and their practices have been, and continue to be, the subject of Indian film narratives, genres, and tropes. I begin with this history in order to explore the Muslim religio-cultural and artistic inheritance that informs Hindi/Urdu cinema, as well as examine how this heritage has been incorporated into the cinematic narratives that help construct distinct gendered, religious, and national identities. My specific focus is on the figure of the tawaif dancer, often equated with North Indian culture and nautch dance performance. Analyzing the ways in which traces of the tawa’if appear in two recent films, Dedh Ishqiya and Begum Jaan, I show how this figure is placed in a larger representational regime that sustains nationalist formations of contemporary Indian identity. As I demonstrate, even in the most blatant attempts to define the Indian nation as “Hindu,” the “Muslimness” of the tawaiif—and by extension the cinema she informed in ways both real and representational—is far from relinquished. The figure of the “Indian” dancer—manifested variously in the image of the devadasi, the tawa’if, and the bayadère—has long captured imaginations on both sides of the colonial divide. Although often conflated under the catch-all category of nautch, these different incarnations also encode notions of religio-cultural difference, particularly in the wake of the calcification of religious boundaries in modern South Asia. I explore the homogenization of the figure of the nautch dancer in other forms of cultural production elsewhere, but in this paper, I wish to focus specifically on representations of the tawaif in “Indian” cinema, and their relation to the construction of specific national subjectivities. While the question remains as to how such a “national” cinema should be defined given the history of British imperialism in India, the subsequent Partition of the subcontinent, the postcolonial resurgence of Hindu nationalism, and the contemporary globalization of the Hindi film industry, I show below how the very instability of the “national” is assuaged by this cinema’s contribution to the ongoing process of nation formation. Focusing attention on the role the tawaif is made to play in this project of stabilization, the outlines of the “nation” are brought into sharp relief.”

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