Anna Morcom should have our thanks for introducing us to a neglected, buried, and forgotten landscape of dance and dancers of the Hindi belt. They belong to a conceptually illegitimate ring of performance in terms of India’s socio-cultural norms and, unlike those that the classical and folk dancers adorn as they proudly cross the stage, their anklets are not objects of reverence.

She is referring to performers of courtesan and court performing heritage, recognised today as bar girls, sex workers and cross-dressing dancers. The possible glory, financial stability, and status that the courtesans and performers of the pre-colonial royal courts and the elite enjoyed is all but lost. She feels the trajectory of those cultural lineages changing into occupational groups of purely sexual transaction and/or connotation has resulted in a tragic loss of identity, livelihood, and inherent cultural value.

These roles in the contemporary world and the processes of their inclusion or exclusion from society are among the main topics of Courtesans, Bar Girls, & Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance. The author attempts to illuminate the injustice of using the term “prostitute” for all the performers of erotic or seductive dance, and urges their rights to their livelihood.

Anna Morcom is an ethnomusicologist at Royal Holloway, University of London. She holds a PhD in Hindi film songs, published as Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema (2007) and specialises in the music and dance forms of north India and Tibet. She has 20 publications, seven of which are books; all works of ethnomusicology including one on the Sundanese people of Indonesia. As an ethnographer, she delves into the history, politics, and ideologies of the respective region and subjects. Her book Unity and Discord: Music and Politics in Contemporary Tibet (2004) examines the consequences of politics in Tibet since the 1950s on musical culture.

Morcom has been learning and speaking Hindi since 1993, and the undertaking of this book involved 16 months of fieldwork across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Delhi.

The book examines—in divided yet overlapping chapters—performing arts during the colonial and post-colonial era, female hereditary performers of north India, kothis and transgender erotic dancers, the bar girls of Mumbai, and the Bollywood dance phenomenon.

The time frame in which performing arts are discussed is roughly late 19th century to the present day; the consequences of the colonialists’ and reformists’ ideologies during the pre- and post-Independence period on the arts, and of cultural globalisation and a liberalised economy in contemporary music and dance are explored.

As the title of the book tells us, it is the hidden and disesteemed locus of performance that is scrutinised, but it goes beyond that to formulate an argument propagating the hereditary legitimacy of a culture through the voices of a section of performers today.

Morcom sets forth the fallacy of universal ideologies in respect to the classification of erotic performers as victims or perpetrators in need of a saviour. She particularly aims in the book to substantiate their line of work as skilled labour, entitling them as professionals both to a livelihood and to social acceptance.

Performance in both the temples and the courts in the pre-colonial era involved erotic songs and movement in dance, and the performers were prized and patronised by upper class/caste men and royalty. The anti-nautch campaign which eventually legally banned the devadasi system resulted mainly from a conflation of colonialists and nationalist reformist characterisation of these women as unchaste, prostitutes, and victims of an enforced profession. It is true that they were either born into or dedicated at a young age to the system.

The elite courtesans of north India, the tawaifs, were similarly born into such a lineage or were adopted/sold into it, but belonged to the royal courts of the Mughals earlier and the nawabs later. Although these courtesans were not legally obstructed from their line of work, the repercussions of the Devadasi Abolition Act rippled across the country through stigmatisation of the profession. Also, the simultaneous dissolution of princely courts resulted in the demise of the courtesan and the arts she upheld.

What once was recognised as high culture became corruption of society through the flesh of indecent women dancing indecently. Unfortunately the loss of patronage and livelihood increasingly led these performers into exactly what they were supposedly being protected from—prostitution.

Morcom parallels those circumstances to the bar girls of Mumbai and the dancing boys, the kothis. Dancers of both groups hail from a lineage of performing arts, and their predecessors enjoyed artistic recognition which is inconceivable for the contemporary dancers.

The book proceeds to historically describe in detail the performances of female hereditary dancers, hijras and kothis according to region and community. There remained until even the 1990s a culturally respected space for these dancers, but with decreasing popularity due to increased income and other entertainment options, film and foreign influence, the dancers have taken to eroticising performances extensively to attract paying audiences, “debasing” the art according to senior performers, and have turned to sex work to sustain themselves.

The performing communities of south India are not mentioned, other than the few referrals to the anti-nautch movement, which collides with the title of the book significantly, as a plethora of dance forms were and are deeply rooted in the southern cultural heritage. The devadasi system is the epitome of a highly structured courtesan institution of India, and led to the anti-nautch movement. Sadir Attam, now known as Bharatanatyam, was their forte and it is the most widely performed classical dance performed both within and outside India.

The Sangam texts contain several references to courtesans and hereditary dancers (Kanikaiyar, Parataiyar, Dasi) who were autonomous in regard to their lives, bodies, and artistic skill. They were not structurally connected to a temple/brahminical or royal institution, and they married men within their artistic circle. It was infamously known that it was not permissible even for a king to lay a hand on such a performer unless they themselves accepted. If the purpose is to showcase the freedom and respect a public performer retained then a historical investigation into the performers of the south is mandatory.

However in terms of the performers mentioned in the book, regardless of region and system of patronage, the common denominator is that these women could not marry or belong to mainstream society. They could never become a wife, nor did their offspring hold any claim on their father’s income or property. They did not befriend or socialise with non-performing women. Although regarded as “keepers of culture”, they were excluded from the core of what Morcom describes as the middle class acceptance of Indian culture.

This would imply that the middle class of India hegemonises social norms. A brief insertion regarding the recurrent term of “middle class” throughout the book is required here. The film industry through its inception and development is referred to as a middle class institution although it evidently was an upper class- and caste-controlled domain. The definition in the book of the contemporary middle class as a group “who watch foreign TV shows, shop at malls, and travel increasingly” is askew in the Indian context. This class is not readily defined as it is a vertically vast group which includes a lower-middle and an upper-middle class section.

Returning to the female performers of the present, the same rule applies: dancing girls or those in “hereditary” sex work do not marry, but provide for the rest of their families through their earnings.

The bar girls of Mumbai are a peculiar phenomenon. They have a worker’s union, earn a decent, stable income, and are officially not involved in sexual transactions. Their dance is somewhat of a modernised mujra to Bollywood music. A ban on bar dancing was lifted in 2013 following massive civil and legal action against it. During the ban, the girls resorted to prostitution and were exposed to far more physical and sexual abuse, and harassment than as dancers.

The kothis are men who most often are married to women but dress and dance as women for money. The difference between them and hijras are elaborated in the book. Transgender and boy dancers in precolonial history were also treasured possessions of the royal courts and elite, and many men of high standing with homosexual predilections found them creatures of exquisite beauty and talent. They and female impersonators in theatre and dance were held in high regard and a desired entity at festive and cultural occasions. Their transformation into a highly excluded and abused section of society and their gender identity is described extensively in the book.

All in all, the book is highly informative in terms of historical and ethnographic facts, and written in powerful and accessible language. Though academic, a comprehensive and engaging introduction, and a thorough approach throughout is taken to describe the various contexts of the author’s perspective. Some of the points made are unduly repetitive, especially since topics of the chapters overlap. But there is very little discussion of the actual art of the dancers, which seems lacking in a book concerning just that.

Thematically a red line is wanting, with, for example, excessive elaboration on the gender identity of transgenders and a long list of regional communities and corresponding occupations steering one off route rather than fortifying Morcom’s review. The interjection on personal growth in incorporating Bollywood dancing as a hobby serves a similar purpose, and in general Bollywood’s role as a milestone in cultural progress is debatable.

The ideological line about the right to a line of work and “free choice” of the performers that Morcom underlines is an issue requiring the circumstantial entirety of a society, while this book is clearly selective in the portrayal of the conditions and development of the existence of the courtesan and public/erotic performer.

The author states that it is necessary to critique modernity, liberalism, and its effectuation on public/erotic arts rather than only colonialist categorisation and caste/class/gender power relations. This cannot be refuted, but to compose an entire work which, in essence, romanticises these performers’ lives and neglects to inscribe into the analysis any perspective on unequal power relations renders the argument ambivalent. Morcom’s pursuit of the performers’ voices is academically essential and incisive, but there are a few points to be made.

Tawaifs offered their services to the royalty and the elite, whose luxuries were reaped off the backs of peasants and other subjects of feudal rule. The high courtesans themselves were (conditionally) casteist and a significant part of their self-acknowledged downfall was that they were forced to cater to lower caste men.

Tawaifs offered their services to the royalty and the elite, whose luxuries were reaped off the backs of peasants and other subjects of feudal rule. The high courtesans themselves were (conditionally) casteist and a significant part of their self-acknowledged downfall was that they were forced to cater to lower caste men. The common kothewali had meagre earnings in comparison, and neither possessed status nor could create her own family.

Despite the tawaifs’ training and talent, they were not permitted to play musical instruments or teach students, which limited them artistically. Shramana Das Purkayastha elaborates on this in her article “Thumri: A Tawaif’s Quest for Artistic Autonomy within a Limited Space” (2013). She points out, “…the fact remains that these tawaifs were nonetheless marginalised in India’s patriarchal society. Concepts of honour, chastity and occupational propriety, with which patriarchy regulated a woman’s individual choices, constrained the tawaif to inhabit a limited space—isolated and solitary, alluring, yet infamous.”

This concept was applicable for all forms of courtesans—tawaif, rajadasi, devadasi, and the lower status public performers, and it is prevalent till this day. The fact remains that—whether she belongs to a gharana or a union—as long as a woman must be coveted by men to earn a living and is prevented by her profession from choosing a man from her own community as the receiver of what “she has to offer” and from entering into marital or family life, her freedom is deprived.

If the options for bar girls are between bar dancing and prostitution, it is self-evident that any ban would and should be vehemently fought. However as the author claims, context is paramount. Bar dancing was introduced “to support liquor sales and encourage alcohol consumption”. Does this form of professional responsibility warrant legitimacy through khandandhandha (a term used in the book)?

The importance of performers advocating their own identity is an admirable objective of the author, but setting aside social structures in a bid to battle liberalist, modernist ideologies and isolating performing arts and its bearers as historically sacred demands further consideration.

S. Anandhi in her article “Representing Devadasis” (1991) discusses a novel by Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, a devadasi who chose to break away from the system, got married of her own accord, and entered politics.

She states “… Given my talent in music and dance ... my parents forced me into this custom. It was during this time I deeply thought about this custom as evil ... I felt that men have forced certain women into this degrading profession to pursue their indiscreet pleasures for selfish reasons”.

This is a voice that would resonate far and wide across the courtesan world, and brings to question the legitimacy of romanticising these women as esteemed custodians of the arts. Anandhi pertinently enunciates the fact that “… ritual status, however, did not translate itself into any definite social status”, which is a significant aspect Morcom seems to ignore.

Ramamirtham’s novel also elucidates the core of the courtesan system which is finance; the sustenance of a lucrative business shouldered on the artistic and sexual prowess of young females. Security was a prerogative then, as it is now, and in both instances the sanctity of the arts are utilised to propagate the institutionalisation of male pleasure.

Morcom describes Bollywood dancing as a gateway for social acceptance, e.g., bar girl dancing through normalising skimpy clothing and sexy moves, has de-eroticised a certain form of dance. She also claims Bollywood dancing has gained respect (among the middle class) akin to classical performing arts. Does the glorification of Bollywood and the replacement of most forms of traditional regional music and dance with film music and choreography equalise securing the status that classical arts possess?

Background dancers are quoted as “demi-heroines”, but the far larger majority of any class in India hesitates to expose their females to the film industry based primarily on fear of sexual exploitation, and secondly on the lasting premise that actresses/dancers regardless of their celebrity and staggering income remain “indecent”. The fact that most actresses end their illustrious careers after marriage even now is testimony to that norm.

Regarding film music and dance, the sole mention of Bollywood portrays it as pan-Indian, even though Tollywood and Kollywood are major cultural influences in their respective states and diaspora.

The kothis’ right to dance, and to dance what broadly was described as a combination of classical, folk, and erotic elements as it once was appreciated and respected rather than the highly sexually objectified form of today, is undeniable. However when their identity as females becomes visceral through erotic dance, prostitution and even physical and sexual violence from their male partners (stated in the book), the very fundament of female identity in contemporary society must be deconstructed.

If the terms “victim”, “exploitation” and “human rights” are made redundant in the name of empowering female and transgender performers in a patriarchal, classist, and casteist society which has tragically endured millennia, the denial of their actual free choice is simply reproduced. Performing arts flourishing or continuing to at the cost of a female’s liberty of life, delegitimises the beauty of an art, not vice versa. First came humans, then came art.

Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance
Anna Morcom
Hachette India