Anna Morcom; Legitimate and illicit zones of Indian performing arts modernity

‘Legitimate and illicit zones of Indian performing arts modernity: From cultural nationalism to development’

Dr. Anna Morcom, Department of Music, Royal Holloway, University of London

Wednesday 27th June, 5.30pm, at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London.

Anna began her talk by mapping and conceptualizing the performing arts in India. She argued that a critique of forms such as classical, folk, popular, high/low brow was still useful, but that there was a contour across forms, especially between classical (and legitimate) and ex-classical (illicit).  Specific questions about dance forms could be raised in relation to development, value to the nation, the relationship between groups and individuals, identity and belonging.

Considering the performing arts in the light of this discourse is important. Performing arts are a marker of identity, and a means of labour, of making a living. Types of traditional performances in which there were professionalised performers included courtesans, devadasis and males who performed as women, but these zones were considered illicit. This is found across the world in courtesan cultures, devadasi, female impersonators and transgendered males (e.g. eunuchs), the latter two finding a public space for an expression of femininity in a sphere that otherwise demanded a male gender role.

Illicit zones, if performed in public, raise important issues for women. The restriction of women in the public zone, keeping them reputable through institutions such as marriage, automatically creates disreputable women  (e.g. those who do not marry, or males who identify as females). Gendered performing arts, in some contexts, are actively seductive, making them dangerous, transgressive zones. But it remains that the performers in these art forms are also skilled. 

Anna noted similarities between contemporary discourses around illicit performances and colonial discourses. Colonial practices from the nineteenth century argued that these female performers were like prostitutes. Actually they were not prostitutes, nor were they married; they were professional performers. This latter aspect was, however, neglected. A discourse emerged around how to “save them”, or a discussion of their “evilness” which needed to be removed to protect society. Both positions sought to stop performances from taking place.

Focussing on female impersonators specifically, Anna outlined how they have become sidelined as unrealistic, unmodern, and unnatural “women”. “Respectable women” sought higher-class performance forms. Indeed, if women stopped performing, they could enter the upper classes. As a result, the world of the female impersonator went underground. Genres have become more sexualised, with less status.  Anna thus identified a vicious circle: the more the genre was discussed as low class and dangerous, the more low class and sexualised it became.

Anna focussed on mujra performances, noting how they have become increasingly sexualised. Performers are respected less and less, and are subject to increasing sexual harassment.  In the underground mujra scene, dancers are regarded more as sex workers who are seen as, in theory, being ‘available’.  In these instances, the only attention that a performer gets is as a ‘problem’. They are not regarded as a ‘professional practitioner’.

Clips of mujra dances were shown. The first was a classical mujra from a wedding party in Pakistan showed an eroticised performance for an all-male audience. The second was a boy performing as female for a private mujra in Pakistan, which was feminine in character, but also more muscular and energised as the performer was male. Anna pointed out that the fact that male performers were dancing as females was not discussed, and many lived double lives as married men. Anna argued that whilst it was not seen as a great profession, it was dance, not the issue of transgender, that was regarded as the problem.

These mujra dances are legitimate zones. They are low status, but legitimate spaces for expression. Relationships can be made (secretly), and improvised performances (e.g. by kathak trained dancers) can facilitate new expression.

Anna then turned to contemporary discourses about performers, pointing out that the desire to ban these dances utilised the same colonial language of the nineteenth century. An advertisement from 2005 in support of the ban suggested that these dancers were home-wreckers, and that they hypnotised men. However, arguments that sought to ‘save women’ from the entrapment of these dance forms made the situation worse. A female dancer has an arsenal of weapons at her disposal. This gives her power and agency. This, in turn, gets her more money, and if she is well paid she can earn a good living. However, when avenues for performance are restricted, the economic choices become more difficult, and prostitution can follow.

Anna further argued that the discourse of human rights was tautological. Espousing free choice and dignity, human rights discourses state that a dancer should not be (socially or economically) forced to dance, and if these dancers are not being forced, then repression is so ingrained that they do not know their own minds. This creates the notion of dancers as victims, denying them power and agency.

Suggesting that history was repeating itself, Anna argued that it was not accurate to say that dancers were “forced to dance”, though did suggest that their options might be limited. In discussing bar dancers, Anna pointed out how the banning of bar dancers meant that dancers became waitresses, often wearing significantly less as a waitress than they did as a dancer! With lodges situated down the road from the bars, these venues have become little more than pick up joints. The banning of the bar dances is discussed, but the resulting push into prostitution is ignored.

In response to the ban, bar girls became unionised and held rallies. They worked against their stereotyping as a sexualised class, and argued instead in terms of labour and professionalization. As workers, they wanted to work; they were not forced to work. The ban introduced in 2005, was repealed at the High Court in Bombay in 2006, because it was considered that the ban was unconstitutional, denying women a livelihood and for being discriminatory.

Anna concluded by pointing out that the ban is still in force and that the appeal against it is still lodged at the Supreme Court, with the government seeming to delay its hearing. The acceptance of Bollywood dance into the mainstream (indeed, as a middle class exercise regime) demonstrates the importance of class in discussion of legitimate and illegitimate dance. Yet, arguments about labour are never raised.

Summary by Ashley Thorpe.

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