How the kothas fell silent

Tragic elegance Meena Kumari in a still from the Hindi classic film Pakeezah
Tragic elegance Meena Kumari in a still from the Hindi classic film Pakeezah

Aaj hum apni duaon ka asar dekhenge
Teer-e-nazar dekhenge,
zakhm-e-jigar dekhenege
Dressed in pristine white, Sahib Jan (Meena Kumari) sings in anger and despair at the wedding of her lover Salim (Raj Kumar) to another woman, a marital salvation a tawaif (courtesan) like herself could never attain. However, towards the end of this sequence Sahib Jan dances on shattered glass, injuring the very feet Salim fell in love with. The scene marks her final transition from a courtesan to a bride, which she achieves by mutilating her feet (i.e, her dance).
In defence of dance Anna Morcom lends sharp perspective to the story of India’s nautch girls
In defence of dance Anna Morcom lends sharp perspective to the story of India’s nautch girls, Photo: Arun  Sehrawat

“Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 cult classic Pakeezah was an exquisite melodrama that encapsulates the world of professional hereditary female performers in South Asia prior to modern reforms,’’ Anna Morcom writes in her latest book Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys — The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance. A senior lecturer in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, Morcom explains the reluctance in embracing female hereditary performers in the late 19th and early 20th century in the social, economic and cultural spheres, which added to the topography of Indian performing arts. “The trajectory of this process has continued into postcolonial India. This ‘reform’ of classical performing arts was a project of construction, of nation building. But it was also a process of exclusion,” she adds.
At its core, the book is a reflection of the conflict that female public performers have presented to patriarchy over the centuries and how modern India has chosen to respond to these conflicts. Morcom provides a critical understanding of the same:
“As a performing art, dance is an embodied form. A dancer who performs in public or male space is on display and gives pleasure to the male or mixed audience through a living, bodily art form. However, under traditional forms of patriarchy, a woman must be controlled by her father, male relatives and eventually by her husband. Associating with or even being seen by men outside this circle can bring dishonour to her and the family. Dancing in public or for the entertainment of men is, therefore, incompatible with marriage and ‘respectability’.”
Living in matrilineal societies and away from the mainstream, the communities of courtesans not only harboured hereditary dancers but also the girls who were adopted or bought as slaves. Women who ‘fell’ from marriage, or were unable to marry, and widows shunned by their families were also appropriated in the category of courtesans.
Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys – The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance Anna Morcom Hachette India 320 pp; Rs 599
Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys – The Illicit
Worlds of Indian Dance Anna Morcom Hachette India 320 pp; Rs 599

The book explains in greater detail the plight of the widows who performed in public spaces (dance and theatre) and then subsequently engaged in commercial sex. Says Morcom: “The term randi pejoratively means prostitute, but etymologically means ‘widow’. Widows could act in Marathi theatre and many of the early commercial sex workers in Calcutta were Brahmin widows.’’
The contradictions of the life of a courtesan have previously been captured by many — whether it is the aesthetic power they enjoyed through music, dance and poetry while the domesticated wives often remained illiterate, or the close ties they forged with the nawabs, but were still unable to enter into any kind of matrimonial alliance themselves.
However, Morcom’s book stands apart because it not only traces the glory of the tawaifs back in time but it also completes this trail by establishing credible links to key players and major factors that shaped the history of performing arts in the subcontinent. Colonial ethnography and censuses classified female performers in negative ways, often identifying them as prostitutes, giving birth to a rigid trend. A major example of this is that by 1891, the tawaifs in Awadh came to be listed as a caste, which they weren’t but gradually transformed into, once in official records. Although little distinctions were made to distinguish them from low ranking prostitutes, by the early 20th century, these distinctions had completely been erased by census reports, and they were all clubbed into one class — prostitutes. The irony, according to Morcom is that by calling them prostitutes, we have actually reduced them to prostitutes.
The book highlights how the elite classical performers of the 18th century and flag-bearers of rich heritage had almost strategically been reduced to the margins under the British. “Further deterioration occurred when with the dissolution of princely states, the courtesans and other court musicians lost patronage.’’
A series of colonial policies and nationwide purity campaigns that were anti-nautch, pushed the propaganda of presenting nautch as ‘social evil’ and employed tools to present it as a degenerative influence. “In contemporary India, such warnings continue with stories being told of ruin at the hands of bar girls,’’ adds Morcom, who is fluent in Hindi and has spent 24 years researching music and dance in India, during which she published Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema.
The dynamics of this heavy moral stigmatisation and loss of livelihood targeting the dancing communities (including transgender males or female impersonators) saw the emergence of dance bars in the 1980s. The nuances of the courtesan culture gradually infused into bar culture with the common man replacing the nawabs and ghazals, thumris and Kathak being replaced by Bollywood music. This flourishing culture of dance bars however turned problematic due to lack of consensus between government, police and bar owners on the issue of license fees. Meanwhile, moral pressure on dance bars also increased, with a committee being set up in 2002 to stipulate rules that would help check ‘obscenity’ and ‘vulgarity’ in them. Finally in 2004, at the initiative of Varsha Kale, an activist, the Bhartiya Bar girls Union (BBU) organised a massive rally to protest constant harassment in the form of raids and girls being arrested and abused by policemen.
BBU continued to assert that bar dancing is a profession and, therefore, began to steer the debate away from subjective ideas of exploitation and immorality onto questions of labour and livelihood. Several attempts over the years have been made by politicians to ban the bars.
“Although exclusionary pressures on public/erotic female performers have been continuous through postcolonial India, the scale of this episode makes it large enough to be called the second anti-nautch movement,’’ says Morcom.
Specific chapters from the book have been devoted to the tradition and contemporary world of kotha performers, which include transgender men or female impersonators. Like the hereditary female dancers, they have witnessed an ‘undeniable trajectory of exclusion’, which along with destroying their livelihood, saw the disappearance of erotic male dancers and female impersonators from high status performing arts.
While analysing the historical genesis, Morcom uncovers the illicit zones of performing arts alongside the legitimate ones in contemporary Indian society.
Female hereditary performers like bar girls face the possibility of dramatic improvement in their status and a chance of gaining an identity through recognition of their labour. But this seems unlikely for the kothas. However, alongside these processes of exclusion, new spaces are being negotiated and fought for through political activism and identity politics, as in the case of bar girls.
“During my visit to Muzaffarpur, I met these women who used to be baijis and then there were those belonging to the Nat community. They spoke perfect Urdu and taught me about ragas in music. But most of them denied their identities. It’s sad that women whose families have played such important cultural roles are ashamed to admit it. What would thumri be without the baijis and Bharatanatyam without the devdasis?’’
Stigmatising hereditary dancers and female impersonators from ‘reformed’ performing arts opened the way for the entry of upper class/ caste women into performing arts, with a new sociological configuration that removed the transgressive dynamics of class and gender of traditional female public performers. This group then successfully took over the ‘legacy’ of legitimate performing arts while the hereditary performers were forced to seek refuge in the ‘other’ illicit world.