Anasuya, Shreya. “Chup Chup Aahein Bharna Kya: India Has Often Appropriated, Seldom Appreciated, Its Courtesan Culture.” The Swaddle, 2019.

This article draws attention to the pejorative treatment of “traditional female performers and courtesans” in the fabric of mainstream Indian cultural discourse. The article talks about how courtesans have been at the forefront of music, dance, poetry, theatre, and film in the country, yet have seldom been appreciated or even acknowledged,  and often conflated with  sex workers. Anasuya further discusses how this marginalization has seeped into public discourse: she discusses it in light of the Indian films that often portray the tawaif as a “tragic figure in need of rescue.”

From the article: “The complex history of the courtesan has great bearing on any of us today who want to understand how gender currently works in India, and even for those of us who live and love outside of the structures that are prescribed for us – queer people, single people, people fighting for the right to marry outside caste or religion, people fighting for the recognition of live-in relationships as legitimate ways of making a home with someone. This intricate history, still relatively unacknowledged in public conversations, is one deeply powerful place from which to have all of these conversations.”

Sharma, P. Muralidhar. “Poetry, Performance, and the Courtesan: Changing Contours of the Thumri in Kathak.” Caesuare: Poetics of Cultural Translation, Vol.2, Issue 1, 2017.

From the abstract: “The paper purports to study the changing contexts of the thumri, a form of light vocal music that was the mainstay of the tawaifs and other courtesan communities of nineteenth century North India. The paper, through a critique of the scholarship on the performing arts, calls for a more serious engagement with the cultural practices of hereditary women performers, one that acknowledges the impact of technological renovation and the emergence of music institutions on the performance practices of the courtesans. More importantly, it charts the evolution of the musical form of thumri as an indispensable part of the repertoire of Kathak in the decades following the independence, to show how it was significantly influenced by the New Media that altered both its content and structure. The emergence of identifiably distinct repertoires of performance embodied in the gharanas of dance in this period and their appropriation of thumri as part of their articulation of a distinct aesthetic are explored as parallel concerns in the paper.”

Putcha, Rumya. “Gender, Caste, and Feminist Praxis in Transnational South India.” South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 17, Issue 1, 2019. 61-79.

From the abstract: “In the past 70 years, certain kinds of Indian dance have been read as classical or aspirational, especially when performed by or associated with Hindu/high-caste people and in cosmopolitan spaces like Chennai or San Francisco. Inversely, certain dancers and dance techniques associated with those who stand apart from caste or religious status are dismissed as poor in quality, and not worthy of emulation. In this article, I examine how such logic operates through South Indian (Telugu) cinema, tourism, and transnational capitalist flows, and how it relies upon reductive and exclusionary notions of gender, caste, identity, and affect. In doing so, I consider how the same media, which validates and fetishizes certain gendered notions of the body, simultaneously offers new possibilities for challenging casteist and misogynistic hegemonies. Relying on queer and critical transnational feminist theory, in this article I explore how the fetishization of the low-caste courtesan dancer –a symbol for generations of South Indian expressive culture – has ultimately produced a site of resistance.”

Dwyer, Rachel. “Representing The Muslim: The ‘courtesan film’ in Indian popular cinema.” Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’, Routledge, 2019. 78-92.

This is a chapter from the edited collection Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’. In this chapter, Dwyer primarily examines the “view of the Indian Muslim as Other and not an authentic Indian citizen, by looking at India’s ‘other’ national cinema, the so-called ‘Hindi’ film.” Her essay centers on how the meaning of the words “Hindu” and “Hindustan” are manipulated by forms of nationalism, Hindutva in particular, to be conflated with the idea of the Hindu: “a person following certain beliefs and practices; and the othering of the Muslims: their treatment and representation in Hindi film over the decades. She spends the last section of her chapter discussing “the courtesan film”—how the prevalent courtesan figure found in all Indian cultural texts seeps into Hindi films, informing us of the “‘othering’ not only of the Muslim but of the Muslim women in particular.” Dwyer notes that the courtesan figure who “pours out her grief for the love she is denied in tears, poetry, and dance,” although a romantic, tragic figure, becomes an agential source of power spanning all films. Drawing parallels with the ghazal and other historical dimensions emerging from linear history, she discerns this genre of courtesan film as a space for nostalgia for a “lost Islamic world.”

Putcha, Rumya. “Dancing in Place: Mythopoetics And The Production Of History In Kuchipudi”

From the abstract: “In the twenty-first century, the term “kuchipudi” refers to a style of dance, a South Indian classical genre which, to the untrained eye, is indistinguishable from its better known cousin, bharatanatyam. After India achieved Independence from the British in 1947, kuchipudi came to be known as a dance style synonymous with the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi’s metonymic status reveals a broader logic of linguistic, geographically grounded identitarianism; indeed, the dance known today as kuchipudi is said to hail from a physical place called Kuchipudi, an otherwise nondescript farming village located about fifty kilometres southeast of Vijayawada in central Andhra Pradesh.”

Putcha, Rumya. “The Mythical Courtesan: Womanhood and Dance in Transnational India”

From the abstract: “This article interrogates how and why courtesan identities are simultaneously embraced and disavowed by Brahman dancers. Using a combination of ethnographic and critical feminist methods, which allow the author to toggle between the past and the present, between India and the United States, and between film analysis and the dance studio, the author examines the cultural politics of the romanticized and historical Indian dancer— the mythical courtesan. The author argues that the mythical courtesan was called into existence through film cultures in the early twentieth century to provide a counterpoint against which a modern and national Brahmanical womanhood could be articulated. The author brings together a constellation of events that participated in the construction of Indian womanhood, especially the rise of sound film against the backdrop of growing anticolonial and nationalist sentiments in early twentieth-century South India. The author focuses on films that featured an early twentieth-century dancer-singer-actress, Sundaramma. In following her career through Telugu film and connecting it to broader conversations about Indian womanhood in the 1930s and 1940s, the author traces the contours of an affective triangle between three mutually constituting emotional points: pleasure, shame,

Minai, Cassidy. “Kalavantulu/Devadasi Dances in the Films Muddu Bidda and Periyar (an Ode to Davesh Soneji’s Latest Book.)” Cinema Nritya, cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.com/2012/08/ kalavantuludevadasi-dances-in-films.html#more. March 1, 2021.

Available free online.

            Description from website: This website works to bring light to classical and traditional Indian dances in the cinema of India; unearthing rare archival clips and academic research on South Asian dance.

Chakravorty, Pallabi. Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India. Seagull Books, 2008.

Publisher’s Description:

This is the first critical study of Kathak dance. The book traces two centuries of Kathak, from the colonial nautch dance to classical Kathak under nationalism and post-colonialism to transnationalism and globalization. Reorienting dance to focus on the lived experiences of dancers from a wide cross-section of society, the book narrates the history of Kathak from baijis and tawaifs to the global stage.

Walker, Margaret E. India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective. Routledge, 2014.

From the publisher’s website

Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples. The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history – it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theatre, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India. Through an analysis both broad and deep of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography and current performance practice, Margaret Walker undertakes a critical approach to the history of kathak dance and presents new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.

 

Notes

  • Our readers may be most interested in Chapter 7, “More Hereditary Performers: The Women,” which specifically discusses courtesans.
  • Check out Margaret E. Walker’s “The Nautch Reclaimed” article here!

Kugle, Scott. “Mah Laqa Bai: The Remains of a Courtesan’s Dance.” Dance Matters Too: Markets, Memories, Identities, edited by Pallabi Chakravorty and Nilanjana Gupta, Routledge India, 2018, pp.15-35

From the abstract:

“Mah Laqa Bai is one of Hyderabad’s most famous women. She was a poetess, singer and dancer, and political advisor during her time. She lived from 1768 until 1824 and was active during the era of the Second and Third Nizams (as rulers from the Asaf Jahi dynasty of Hyderabad state were known), and was one of the first women to author a full collection of Urdu ghazals (love poems).1 This chapter takes up the subject of Mah Laqa Bai and was originally written as a keynote address for the conference Dance Matters II. One of the questions this conference asked was, what remains of a dance when the performance is done? What are the traces of dance in the senses, memory, tradition or material objects?”

Nijhawan, Amita. “Excusing the Female Dancer: Tradition and Transgression in Bollywood Dancing.” South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2009, pp. 99-112.

Abstract

Item songs are big-budget dance sequences in Bollywood and arresting examples of how bodies of dancing women in Bollywood, with fusion of traditional and contemporary dance genres construct new sites of sexual desire and identity in India. While these spaces of articulation are not immune to the circulation of female bodies in a globalized Indian economy these dancers do have the opportunity to convey a different kind of femininity than what has been allowed in Indian popular culture. Milder censorship, the MTV-revolution, the political-economy of making dance videos, the granting of industry-status to Bollywood and the exponential growth of the cosmetics industry are all fundamental to the changes. This article is a mapping of Bollywood dancers with an eye to Indian myths about dancing women, apsaras and devadasis, and an analysis of trends that allow rupture and re-articulation of dances and the ideologies they produce. The article employs a combination of dance and film studies analysis.

Maciszewski, Amelia. “Texts, Tunes, and Talking Heads: Discourses about Socially Marginal North Indian Musicians.” Twentieth-Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 121-144.

Abstract

In this study, criss-crossing discourses – written, visual, and aural – are brought together in an effort to shed light on a section of the tawa’if (traditional courtesan) community in contemporary North India. As a kind of companion text to my point-of-view documentaries Guria, Gossip, and Globalization and Chandni’s Choice, I present an overview of the NGO Guria. This organization works to empower tawa’ifs to reclaim their liminality as artists, able to move back and forth between their own profoundly socially marginalized community and mainstream society, a privilege they enjoyed historically but have virtually lost in the present day. I have juxtaposed this with an exegesis of talk, including gossip, about and by these performers and their music. This includes issues of their gossip- and media-driven legacy that have led to their current position, often dangerously vulnerable, in the global marketplace. Finally, I examine the life of a teenage member of a musical matriarchy whose foremothers have been somewhat successful at continuing to traverse the borderlands between various levels of society.

McNeil, Adrian. “Tawai’f, Military Musicians, and Shi’a Ideology in Pre-Rebellion Lucknow.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 46-62.

From the Introduction

Memories of Lucknow’s pre-rebellion cultural heritage are nowadays often recalled through its tawa’if bazi or ‘courtesan culture’. This heritage has been carried into the present through a bevy of films, stories, anecdotes, social customs, linguistic idioms, images, and music and dance repertoires. A number of studies have also brought to life the culturally-complex and socially-hierarchical world of these courtesans and their significant contributions to the cultural heritage of North India. Generally the importance of the contribution made by women performers to the development of Hindustani music has been gaining interest, and long overdue recognition. Nevertheless, articulation of this recognition has been hampered by the marginal position assigned to the tawa’if in mainstream history….

This paper explores three aspects of Lucknow’s tawa’if bazi that are generally not a part of either musical or historical discussions. One of these concerns the disenfranchisement of the regional military labour market in, and around, Awadh in the late eighteenth century and how this might be connected to a subsequent, and significant, increase in tawa’if activity in Lucknow. Another deals with the nature of the social connections between the tawa’if and her musical accompanists. A further point involves the role of tawa’if as active agents in the promotion and spread of the Shi’a ideology promulgated by Awadh’s political administration. My aim in raising these considerations is to further understanding of the nuances of Lucknow’s tawa’if bazi—how it came about and the influence it had on the development of contemporary Hindustani music and dance.

 

Meduri, Avanthi. Nation, Woman, Representation: The Sutured History of the Devadasi and Her Dance. Dissertation, New York University, 1996.

Summary

From page xiii:

“‘Nation, Woman, Representation: the Sutured History of the devadasi and her Dance’ examines the complex interplay of national and international events, the impact of Western modernization on the life and artistic practices of a class of South Indian women known as devadasis or temple-dancers…the traditional practice was radically transformed in the late nineteenth and twentieth century practices of Indian nationalism when devadasis and their artistic practices began to be idealized and hailed as the quintessential signs, symbols and metaphors of the ancient Indian nation. If the devadasis were derided as temple prostitutes in the 1890s, their artistic practices were reclaimed in the 1920s, and described by A.K. Coomaraswamy and Annie Besant, as the immortal dance of Shiva. The artistic practices were subsequently aestheticized and renamed in the ideological metaphor and name of India, that is, as Bharatanatyam, the national dance of India. The transmogrification of many names into the one name of Bharatanatyam manifested itself as an unprecedented cultural phenomenon in the history of Indian nationalism because five master-discourses— colonialism, Orientalism, internationalism, Indian nationalism, plus another indigenous discourse, which I identify as the local, artistic history of the devadasi— came to be imbricated in the cultural reconfigurations effected first in the 1890s, repeated in the 1920s. I shall here… describe how selected traces from the artistic history of the nineteenth century were carefully reclaimed, reassembled, and sutured on to the visual bodies of living devadasis and middle-class women in the twentieth practices of cultural nationalism.”

Knight, Douglas M. Balasaraswati: Her Life and Art. Wesleyan UP, 2010.

From Judith Judson’s review in the Journal of Dance Education: “Douglas Knight has given us an exhaustive biography of the illustrious bharata natya dancer T. Balasaraswati. An American percussionist, Knight is also her son-in-law, and his is an insider account of a career that triumphed over formidable social and political difficulties.

Knight has presented the story from the point of view of Bala and her adherents, because her loyalties were given to the principles that had shaped her upbringing. She came from a devadasi family, one of many south Indian families dedicated to temple service as musicians and dancers. These families handed down their art within their own clans, and Bala’s had a heritage of at least five generations of traditional Tamil musical and dance professionalism, closely associated with a royal court. Her mother and grandmother were almost legendary for musical skill. However, the matriarchal and matrilineal traditions of these families were alien to those outside their province, and the devadasis were often stigmatized by accusations of prostitution. Because of Western opposition to the concept of temple dancing, and because traditional royal patronage had almost vanished as the courts became impoverished, the devadasi families had lost most of their time-honored support, and many were forced to scramble for a living in any way they could. These conditions not only caused the loss of a great part of their long-established informed audiences, but aggravated the negative opinions of would-be reformers. Bala’s career therefore was opposed by those who were at first against the very idea of reviving a once vital south Indian dance form, and then, in the name of stamping out prostitution, in preventing its traditional families of practitioners from performing at all.”

Source: Judson, Judith. “Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life.” Journal of Dance Education 11.2 (2011): 68-9

Peterson, Indira and Devesh Soneji, eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. Oxford UP, 2007.

“Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India, edited by Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Davesh Soneji, explores the formation of classical traditions in the performing arts of South India. Through ten articles by leading scholars in the field, the volume describes the shifts involved in what reformers termed the “revival” of traditions: from temples to concert halls; from hereditary, lower-caste performers to upper-caste outsiders; from guru-shishya relationships to formal curricula; and from ritual practice to aesthetic experiences… it argues for new understandings of both agency and hegemony in classicization projects. In terms of agency, authors identify a broader set of actors as central to the process; instead of just Brahmin, middle-class reformers, the articles draw attention to the role of former devadasis (women who performed ritual temple dances) in creating, reforming, and preserving dance culture, and that of professional musicians in standardizing musical performance and notation.”

Source:  Abigail McGowan (2009) Performing Pasts: Reinventing the
Arts in Modern South India, History: Reviews of New Books, 37:4, 151-151

Soneji, Davesh, ed. Bharatanatyam: A Reader. Oxford UP, 2010.

From Amazon.com: “A dynamic, living cultural practice of modern South Asia, Bharatanatyam is widely recognized as one of the world’s fastest-growing dance forms. This reader brings together some of the most important essays on Bharatanatyam written over the last two hundred years. Drawing from history, dance studies, women’s studies, religious studies, and ethnomusicology, this reader shows how this dance form has generated complex social histories and varied aesthetic practices. The comprehensive Introduction provides a broad understanding of the historical, socio-political, and aesthetic issues in Bharatanatyam alongside a contextual mapping of the sources.”

Srinivasan, Priya. Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor. Temple UP, 2011.

From Temple University Press

A groundbreaking book that seeks to understand dance as labor, Sweating Saris examines dancers not just as aesthetic bodies but as transnational migrant workers and wage earners who negotiate citizenship and gender issues.

Srinivasan merges ethnography, history, critical race theory, performance and post-colonial studies among other disciplines to investigate the embodied experience of Indian dance. The dancers’ sweat stained and soaked sari, the aching limbs are emblematic of global circulations of labor, bodies, capital, and industrial goods. Thus the sweating sari of the dancer stands in for her unrecognized labor.

Srinivasan shifts away from the usual emphasis on Indian women dancers as culture bearers of the Indian nation. She asks us to reframe the movements of late nineteenth century transnational Nautch Indian dancers to the foremother of modern dance Ruth St. Denis in the early twentieth century to contemporary teenage dancers in Southern California, proposing a transformative theory of dance, gendered-labor, and citizenship that is far-reaching.

“3 October 2015 TALK – Heritage Series. The Courtesan – by Manjari Chaturvedi.” Youtube, uploaded by India Habitat Centre Lodhi Road, 4 October 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf9duzmktZY

This video depicts a talk by Manjari Chaturvedi discussing her life and experience with sufi kathak dancing and addressing some of the negative responses she has received due to kathak’s association with courtesans. Chaturvedi also recounts her partnership with Zareena Begum, sometimes referred to as India’s ‘last living courtesan,’ and the controversy she faced in working with a professed courtesan.

Kohli, Namita. “In the company of the tawaif: Recreating the magic with darbari kathak.” Hindustan Times, 27 Aug 2016.

This piece profiles Kathak performer Manjari Chaturvedi and her project to recreate kathak dances once performed by courtesans, as part of her show “The Courtesan – An Enigma.” Kohli discusses some of the negative stereotypes surrounding courtesans and their representation in Bollywood and wider media, contrasting them with Chaturvedi’s research and attempts to build a more accurate, nuanced and dignified portrayal of courtesans and their role in art and history. As Chaturvedi herself notes, “I had to do this for her, and for all the other tawaifs who deserve that dignity.”

“Manjari Chaturvedi, Darbari Kathak – Lost Songs of the Courtsans.” Youtube, uploaded by Joy Sangeetam, 21 May 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=illUrj46HuA

This video shows clips of a performance of the show “The Courtesan – An Enigma,” featuring Manjari Chaturvedi performing Darbari Kathak, billed as the “dance of the Courtesan.” In addition to the performance of the dance itself, the show includes several narrated stories about courtesans, and the video concludes with Chaturvedi discussing the history and representation of the courtesan, arguing that courtesans have been pushed aside in historical narratives and twisted into a negative concept, and that we must reexamine history and the role courtesans have played throughout.

Hubel, Teresa. “Devadasi Defiance and The Man-eater of Malgudi.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1994, pp. 15-28.

Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she is pleased to offer this and many of her other scholarly works at her SelectedWorks page. 

 

In 1947, after over 50 years of agitation and political pressure on the part of a committed group of Hindu reformers, the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional female temple dancers of South India. It was called the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act. Despite having the wholehearted support of the Indian women’s movement of the time, the Act represented the imposition of androcentric values on a matrifocal and matrilineal tradition, a tradition which had for centuries managed to withstand the compulsions of Hindu patriarchy. The devadasis were eventually forced to give up their profession and their unusual way of life. But the dance itself was not lost. It was, instead, reconstructed as a national treasure. One of the consequences of the 1947 Act is that, today in India and all over the world, the temple dance, once exclusively performed by devadasis, is dominated by women of the upper castes. What I intend to do in the following pages is to explore the much suppressed history of the devadasis through a reading of R.K. Narayan’s novel The Man-Eater of Malgudi. It might seem strange to readers that I should press this wonderfully funny book into the service of my historical rescue because it is generally interpreted as a story about two male characters, Nataraj and Vasu. These characters are frequently understood as antagonists, with Nataraj symbolizing the harmony that Narayan is supposed to prefer and Vasu the chaos he apparently dislikes. There are alternative explanations.

Dattani, Mahesh. Dance Like a Man: A Stage Play in Two Acts. Penguin, 2006.

Jairaj Parekh and his wife Ratna, aging Bharatnatyam dancers, live together in the home of Jairaj’s father, Amritlal. Having retired from an unfulfilling career, Jairaj and Ratna project their hopes for higher achievement onto their daughter, Lata, also a dancer. Generational conflicts abound: Lata attempts to balance her parents’ ambitions with her desire to marry her boyfriend, Viswas; meanwhile, Jairaj and Ratna struggle to work through their longstanding conflict with Amritlal, once a nationalist activist and now a conservative reactionary, who views dancing as the work of prostitutes and whose rigid views of manhood are constantly challenged by his artistic, expressive son. A movie based on the play was released in 2014.

While devadasis are not protagonists in this play, they are nevertheless thematically central: pre-Indian independence, Bharatanatyam was largely performed by devadasis, but the devadasi practice was shamed and outlawed during the Indian nationalist movement as an effort to appeal to colonial conceptions of gender and civility.  (Indeed, Amritlal forbids Jairaj from learning dance from a local Devadasi.) This careful exclusion and suppression of female public performers and their associated traits informs much of Amritlal’s character, and by extension, much of the play’s conflict.

 

Consider the following questions:

  • Amritlal, once an activist for the cause of freeing India from British occupation, nevertheless enforces strict binary gender roles. Do these seemingly-contradictory political stances mean Amritlal used to be progressive and is now conservative? Can he be both at one time?
  • To what degree can Amritlal be forgiven for his sexism if sexism helped to achieve India’s independence? Similarly, to what degree should women and other marginalized groups be expected to bear oppression in the name of progress? Can progress ever be simple, linear, and teleological?
  • In presenting Bharatanatyam as a worthy art form for all genders and non-devadasi dancers, does the narrative appear to validate the devadasi practice, devadasis themselves, and/or devadasis’ artistic skills? Alternatively, is the dance form separated from the devadasis? What assumptions are made about devadasis, if any?

 

Pakeezah. Directed by Amrohi Kamal, Mahal Pictures Pvt. Ltd., 1972.

In this famed courtesan movie, the protagonist Sahibjaan is born to a tawaif, Nargis, who was desperate to escape courtesan life but who was spurned by her lover’s family. Nargis dies in childbirth, and Sahibjaan’s aunt, Nawabjaan, raises Sahibjaan as a tawaif, where she learns to be an excellent and alluring singer and dancer. One night, an unknown poet leaves a poem at Sahibjaan’s feet while she sleeps. She does, eventually, meet him, and, stunned by her beauty and innocence, he renames her “Pakeezah”—meaning “pure”—and proposes to elope with her to take her away from courtesan life. But many painful trials await.

Questions to think about:

  • What does Pakeezah’s purity indicate about the film’s “idea” of tawaifs? Can any tawaif be pure, or is Pakeezah exceptional?
  • Can a tawaif be “forgiven” from the film’s perspective? Can a tawaif escape?
  • What dimensions of sympathy does the film create for Pakeezah? Is the sympathy respectful? Paternalistic?
  • Does the film imply tragedy is in store for all courtesans, or just Pakeezah? How culpable are courtesans in their fate?

Cushman, Ellen and Shreelina Ghosh. “The Mediation of Cultural Memory: Digital Preservation in the Cases of Classical Indian Dance and Cherokee Stomp Dance.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 45, no. 2, 2012, pp. 264-283.

Cushman and Ghosh explore the practice of digital preservation of cultural practices and memories, using the examples of classical Indian dance and Cherokee stomp dance to examine the potential complexities and risks of digitally preserving such practices. Cushman and Ghosh outline how digital preservation can distort and decontextualize the very practices it intends to preserve, emphasizing the importance of recognizing these risks and developing best practices for digital preservation.

Hurlstone, Lise Danielle. “Performing Marginal Identities: Understanding the Cultural Significance of Tawa’if and Rudali Through the Language of the Body in South Asian Cinema.” MA thesis, Portland State University, 2011. UMI, 2012.

Available for free download here.

Abstract

“This thesis examines the representation of the lives and performances of tawa’if and rudali in South Asian cinema to understand their marginalization as performers, and their significance in the collective consciousness of the producers and consumers of Indian cultural artifacts. The critical textual analysis of six South Asian films reveals these women as caste-amorphous within the system of social stratification in India, and therefore captivating in the potential they present to achieve a complex and multi-faceted definition of culture. Qualitative interviews with 4 Indian classical dance instructors in Portland, Oregon and performative observations of dance events indicate the importance of these performers in perpetuating and developing Indian cultural artifacts, and illustrate the value of a multi layered, performative methodological approach. These findings suggest that marginality in performance is a useful and dynamic site from which to investigate the processes of cultural communication, producing findings that augment sole textual analysis.”

 

Notes

This is an excellent text for the beginning scholar of Tawa’ifs because there is extensive contextualization: just some of the many sections of the thesis include definitions and contextual information; thematization of films including classism, gender, fatalism, ambivalence, and mysticism; and detailed summaries of major tawa’if films, including Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan (1981 and 2006), Rudaali, and Devdas (1955 and 2002).

Maciszewski, Amelia. “Tawa’if, Tourism, and Tales: The Problematics of Twenty-First Century Musical Patronage for North India’s Courtesans.” The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Martha Feldman, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 332-352.

Cover image from oupcanada.com

From the introduction: “In [this essay], I examine how a group of North India’s tawa’if (courtesans-low-status professional women musicians and dancers) are adapting to changing musical patronage in the twenty-first century, using their music and dance as a tool for empowerment. Juxtaposing ethnographic accounts with qualitative analysis of performance practices and oral narratives of several professional women musicians and a few men who hail from provincial cities and towns in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, I open up exploration of a number of issues….

The English word ‘courtesan’ fails to capture the diversity of this community in South Asia, which runs the gamut from highly trained and refined court musicians/dancers/poets to street performers who entertain at festivals and weddings, instead creating a discursive stereotyping or ‘totalizing’…. One of the aims of this essay is to unpack the terms ‘courtesan’ and ‘prostitute’ and notions about them through an ethnography of the performance process and event as well as narratives about (and by) the performance, the performers, and the patrons. Another is to examine the relations of production among the performers and the Guria administration, in particular Ajeet Singh. In doing so, I open up the question, albeit in a preliminary way, of how the cultural integrity of the ‘courtesan tradition,’ identified through its continued cultivation and renewal of a body of repertory and performance practices consisting of a variety of genres that originate from several historical points (feudal, colonial, post-feudal, and postcolonial), may be challenged in the Guria frame by expectations of authenticity and/or respectability informed by dominant Indian middle-class values.”

 

Notes

  • Guria refers to NGO Guria Sewi Sansthan (“Doll help/service collective”), which dedicates itself to the upliftment of tawa’ifs and sex workers through the preservation and “festivalization” of tawa’if performance traditions.

Burckhardt Qureshi, Regula. “Female Agency and Patrilineal Constraints: Situating Courtesans in Twentieth-Century India.” The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Martha Feldman, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 312-331.

Cover image from oupcanada.com

From the Introduction: “Given their well-established socioeconomic as well as musical moorings, why did the courtesan’s art and agency disappear [after India’s purity/anti-nautch movement] rather than metamorphose into a different practice, just as the salons themselves had emerged from court performances? In other words, how viable was these women’s agency? Did Indian courtesans need courts for their art to survive? True, the salon successfully replaced the court. But did its courtly ritual require the validating presence of courts and aristocratic patronage? Could the courtesans’ art not be transplanted onto the concert stage, like the classical art of the male singers who were their masters? Or was the barrier to bourgeois respectability insurmountable for these women? Was it the official condemnation of courtesans’ morals and their banishment from government patronage at All India Radio that erased their art? Or did their music not measure up to the reformist canon of classical music? Under what conditions did a very few exceptional courtesans continue to perform on the public concert stage, and to what musical effect? ”
Burckhardt Qureshi asks many other insightful questions in her introduction. Put as succinctly as possible (at the risk of obscuring the chapter’s complexity), Burckhardt Qureshi aims to identify which social and musical conditions courtesans were able to transcence before the practice as outlawed, to question the viability of courtesans’ agency and independence within patrilineal/patriarchal Indian society but without feudal (and male) patronage, and to explore whether courtesans could and can produce and reproduce themselves as professional musical performers.

Khubchandani, Lata. “Song Picturization and Choreography.” Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema. Eds. Gulzar, Govind Nihalani, and Saibal Chatterjee. Encyclopaedia Britannica (India), 2003, pp. 197-208

Lata’s piece describes the history and evolution of music and of dance choreography in Hindi cinema, from the earliest silent films to modern works, exploring influential figures and the evolution of various trends and artistic innovations, their effects on how choreography was conceived and treated, and how these different approaches to choreography affect works of Hindi cinema as an artistic whole.

Shah, Purnima. “State Patronage in India: Appropriation of the ‘Regional’ and ‘National’. Dance Chronicle, vol. 25, no. 1, 2002, pp. 125-141

This article explores the state-sponsored dance festivals that emerged in 1950s India and their role in ‘elevating’ certain regional dances and performances to the status of ‘classical.’ Shah explores how this designation of ‘classical’ status acted as a form of appropriation, claiming regional traditions as part of a national identity and shifting ownership of dance traditions away from temples and devadasis to the social elite, altering the dances to fit more ‘classical’ ideals in the process. Shah describes several dances, in both their traditional and classical forms, to illustrate this process of decontextualization and appropriation.

Srinivasan, Priya. “The Nautch women dancers of the 1880s: Corporeality, US Orientalism, and anti-Asian immigration laws.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, vol. 19, no. 1, 2009, pp. 3–22

In this essay, Srinivasan suggests that paying attention to nineteenth century transnational Indian women performers as temporary, cultural laborers in the US reveals the ambiguities of immigration law and citizenship. Srinivasan takes the crucial performances and experiences of the 1881 Indian Nautch Dancers who arrived on New York Stages to perform in Augustin Daly’s show ‘‘Zanina’’ to examine discrimination, anti-Asian sentiment, and exclusion laws long before the oft-cited 1923 court case that de-naturalized Indians from US citizenship. Srinivasan argues that attending to Indian women’s performances in the nineteenth century offers gendered insight into exclusion laws and demonstrates their ambiguity in ways that focusing on Asian male laborers (as has been the predominant focus of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century research on Asian labor) alone occludes.

O’Shea, Janet. “”Traditional” Indian Dance and the Making of Interpretive Communities.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, 1998, pp. 45-63.

Janet O’Shea explores the differences between the main styles of South India’s bharata natyam dance form and explains the rivalries within this artistic world. Her article compares the kalakshetra style associated with Rukmini Devi and the Tanjore court style of Balasaraswati, examining the differences and similarities between these legendary artists as well. Of special interest is the discussion of how Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati viewed the place of eroticism (sringara) in bharata natyam. O’Shea proceeds to explain the contributions of the devadasis to the development of bharata natyam, moves along to a treatment of the problems of authority and authenticity, and covers other important topics, including the search for a historical origin for bharata natyam.

Walker, Margaret E. “The ‘Nautch’ Reclaimed: Women’s Performance Practice in Nineteenth-Century North India.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 37, no. 4, 2014, pp. 551-567

Abstract

The hereditary women performers of north India, called ‘nautch girls’ by the colonial British, and courtesans or tawa’ifs by today’s scholars, played a central role in the performance of music and dance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Substantial recent scholarship has focused on their songs, poems and cultural history; consequently, this article addresses choreography, the missing part of their performance practice. Through a detailed examination of dance descriptions in nineteenth-century treatises and comparison of this material with colonial iconography and travel writings, Walker offers new research about nineteenth-century female performance, placing its practice in historical context and speculating about its evolution and change.

Notes

  • Check out Walker’s book on kathak dance here!

Srinivasan, Amrit. “Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 20, no. 44, 1985, pp. 1869-1876

This paper describes the changes that affected an artist community of Tamil Nadu in the wake of the reform agitation concerning the idiosyncratic life style of a section of its women-the devadasis. The first part reconstructs the devadasi system as it prevailed prior to the 1947 Madras Devadasis Act. The second half describes the effect of these reforms on the social, religious and domestic status of the devadasis. The anti-nautch campaign led to the suppression of the regional dance tradition which had been sustained by the devadasi, while simultaneously the art was being revived in its ‘pure form’ as Bharat Natyam. Srinivasan argues that the paradox of the emergence of two parallel equally vociferous reform and revival movements can only be understood by examining the colonial context and native political activity. While the reformers presented the Hindu temple dancer as a ‘prostitute’ in order to do away with her, the revivalists presented her as a ‘nun’ in order to incarnate her afresh.

Mitra, Royona. “Living a Body Myth, Performing a Body Reality: Reclaiming the Corporeality and Sexuality of the Indian Female Dancer.” Feminist Review, no. 84, 2006, pp. 67-83

From the introduction: “This paper investigates the dilemma that has been projected upon Indian female dancers’ bodies by contemporary Indian audiences when female desire occupies the centrality of a performance and projects the female body as sexual, articulate and independent of the discipline and propriety of classicism. Locating this dilemma in the nationalist construction of Indian womanhood and femininity as ‘chaste’, this paper adopts Victor Turner’s notions of liminal and liminoid phenomenon and Brechtian defamiliarization technique as a feminist strategy to construct a framework within which the contemporary Indian dancer can reclaim her sexuality in performance. To investigate the complex nationalist trope of chaste Indian womanhood, and to analyse the subversion of this trope by placing agency on the female body as sexual, I locate my argument in the discussion of The Silk Route: Memory of a Journey by Kinaetma Theatre, UK, which was performed in Kolkata in August 2004.”

Hubel, Teresa. “Dancing in the Diaspora: Remembering the Devadasis.” Muse India, vol. 58, 2015.

From the introduction: “In our multicultural society, anything tagged as ethnic is caught in an intricate web of exaltation and denigration: by the very act of its celebration, which is frequently state-sponsored and state-endorsed, ethnicity is cast outside and so kept from seriously invading the mainstream. My task in this essay is to suggest the complicity of nationalist India in this ethnicizing of Bharatanatyam in Canada, to explain how it is that girls and women learn this dance as part of a process of acquiring Indian femininity and then perform it in various venues… as a sort of massive group hug that affirms the wonder that is eternal India. Finally, I want to point to what is lost and what is damaged in this celebration of a national ethnicity so determined to be timeless and unchanging.”

Chakravorty, Pallabi. “From Interculturalism to Historicism: Reflections on Classical Indian Dance.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp.108-119.

In this article, Chakravorty argues that “the term ‘interculturalism’ needs reformulation in contemporary dance and theatre studies” and that, more often than not, Western depictions of classical Indian dances are less “cultural sharing” and more cultural appropriations that reduce or ignore the perspectives of marginalized voices (the Indian dancers themselves). Soneji also “discusses and reviews several arguments concerning how Indian womanhood became synonymous with Indian tradition.” Her central argument analyzes how “the discourse of ‘East’ and ‘West’ fused to form both the dominant ideology of classical Indian dance and a nationalist reconstruction of a linear progressive history for the incipient Indian nation-state.”

Meduri, Avanthi. “Bharatanatyam as a Global Dance: Some Issues in Research, Teaching, and Practice.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004.

From the introduction: “The Promise of critical liberation that postcolonial and transnational perspecties offer by urging us to think the complex imbrication of the global in the local remains an unfulfilled promise in South Asian dance scholarship. I will elaborate this point by describing the global thrust of Rukmini Devi’s art and education movement, which could not be recuperated within the territorializing intellectual framework of Indian nationalism, and explain why she, in fact, manifests herself as a discursive failure in standard scholarly accounts of Bharatanatyam in the United States.”