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The illicit world of Indian dance

Updated Thursday 9th April 2015

Although Bollywood has brought social change, the history of dancers in India is a story of shaming. Anna Morcom visited Thinking Allowed to explain why.

Laurie Taylor:
A close up shot of an Indian dancer's hands Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Vonora | Dreamstime.com My career as a dancer is – well it really is littered with failures. I mean there was the – there was the bronze medal in ballroom dancing that I failed to gain at the age of 15 because my crepe soled shoes stuck to the dance floor and there was the very nasty accident years later at the Yorkshire country club where I pogoed so vigorously that I concussed myself on a low-hanging Tudor beam. (‘Stay still, the doctor’s on his way’, my partner hissed as the other dancers fox trotted around my body.)

But there was one glorious exception. At my teacher’s training college we had occasional lessons in what was called ‘free dance’ and these were given by a truly wonderful woman called Jane Winearls, who went on I believe to become the first full-time university lecturer in dance. Well Miss Winearls, as we had to call her, challenged the dependence of dance on technique and vigorously encouraged improvisation, creativity. Well suddenly my gawkiness was no impediment, I no longer needed to regiment my body, restrict my arms and legs, and in the test I got a B- and I realised for the very first time that dancing could be – well it could be a form of personal expression rather than a disciplinary exercise.

I thought of that expressive side of dancing as I read a new book called Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance which shows how dancing in clubs and bars in India has for many, many years been an important expressive dimension of Indian culture but one that has also been the subject of stigmatisation, derision and official condemnation.

Well the author of that book isAnna Morcom, who’s senior lecturer in the Department of Music at Royal Holloway University of London and she’s now with me in the studio.

I think you really it’s rather accidental that you stumbled into this world in a way, isn’t it, because you were studying, I think, Bollywood dance – Bollywood, the Hindi language film industry based in Mumbai – tell me what changed your focus.

Anna Morcom:
Yes well I went to Mumbai to explore Bollywood dance, in the industry and also amongst middle classes, it had become a big craze in the 1990s, everybody joining dance classes, getting fit and the same with Bollywood dance and I was curious because I thought what are the gender issues going on here because I knew in India it’s not so simple to be a female dancer.

So I was doing that in Mumbai and I came to hear about these bar girls, these girls who danced in dance bars, and they also dance to Bollywood songs. So I thought okay let’s check this out. I met the bar girl union leader, I didn’t know the significance of that at that stage, but anyway I met the bar girl union leader and she told me that a large proportion of the bar girls were actually hereditary dancers – it’s the family profession, the family business to dance.

And this meant that, actually, from the kind of lineages of the courtesans – the former courtesans - of India.

Laurie Taylor:
So it goes back a long time?

Anna Morcom:
So it goes back – so suddenly I was absolutely amazed to hear this, I was absolutely stunned. And it suddenly put the whole project into a much longer history and a much more complex sociology.

Laurie Taylor:
So these hereditary female dancers, as you say they’ve been performing in the pre-modern era, and have some sort of status then but I think their status had been diminished since that time or been diminishing.

Anna Morcom:
That’s right, over the course of the 19th Century they came from – they passed from being seen as – well as performers they were not high status, they were not a part of the elite society who were their patrons, the patrons and the performers were very different, but at the same time they weren’t nothing. So over the course of the 19th Century various colonial policies, social change, categorised them as prostitutes, they were prostitutes they weren’t dancers, they were wrecking Indian society, they were subject to colonial policies like the Contagious Diseases Act, sectioning off of prostitutes, so on and so forth.

And one of the biggest parts of their stigmatisation was a thing called the anti-Norch campaign, Norch is the British pronunciation of Nautch which means dance, so it was an anti-dance campaign which was initiated on the back of the purity campaigns, the sexual morality campaigns of Victorian England.

Laurie Taylor:
You can imagine, I suppose, that Indian women dancing in front of men is a bit of – is a problem, is something which has to be handled extremely carefully?

Anna Morcom:
This is it. So in – before the reforms of the modern world no woman who was married or who was going to go on and get married could be performing as a professional in front of men, that was absolutely and completely incompatible with marriage.

So the women who did perform had to be women who didn’t marry, so you have courtesan kind of women. And then you also have men performing in women’s roles.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes I was going to ask you about that because you also interviewed transvestite, transgender men who perform as women, I mean in a way they’re almost interchangeable, are they, with the female dancers, I mean how were they regarded – is an exception made in their case, is it alright for them?

Anna Morcom:
Well it is, it is alright for them. Again it’s not a high status thing to do, in traditional India to dance is not a high status thing at all, it’s very low status thing to do. But it was alright because if your body is male and you’re ostensibly male then the same rules don’t apply to you about your honour and shame and the honour of the family, those rules don’t apply.

And you’re also not subject to – you’re not married to a man, even if you have a man who considers himself to be transgender and really female he still won’t be officially married to a man and subject to that patriarchal control of the husband.

Laurie Taylor:
Now it’s interesting; in earlier societies we were talking about the ways in which they were able to perform at some of the courts which existed, aren’t we, but after the end of colonialism you get the abolition of those so those people who did perform, I suppose, for the Maharajahs or something like that in particular courts, that work was no longer available. But you also want to say that when you get the colonial regime, far from it being a modernising thing which allows them some freedom, not at all - they’re clamped down upon even more.

Anna Morcom:
Yes so freedom wasn’t seen in those terms….

Laurie Taylor:
No.

Anna Morcom:
…not for those people. So they were seen strictly as either they were ruining Indian society, 'prostitutes got to get rid of them', or they were 'poor exploited victim women' who, to help them, you would stop them from dancing. So there were boycotts of performances, the British elite, the Indian elite were all put pressure on to not patronise these nautch girls, norch girls.

Laurie Taylor:
Without any recognition of how long back in history they went and how they had been, in many cases, known and even honoured in Indian society.

Anna Morcom:
Absolutely, I mean they had what you could most accurately describe as a liminal status, so in some contexts they were very important, very prestigious; in other contexts they simply didn’t belong. So it was a very complex status.

Laurie Taylor:
But if we’re talking about Indian dancing - there’s a great deal of dance in a Bollywood film. Didn’t this do something to raise the status of these people who danced in bars?

Anna Morcom:
The contemporary Indian film industry, yes. I mean just briefly going back to the early Indian film industry. The early actresses in the Indian film industry were largely from courtesan backgrounds because again no 'respectable”' woman would appear in a film.

The recent Indian film industry, I mean this is interesting, so you’ve had this sort of long history of the stigmatisation, including of the bar girls, the bar girls they’re not dancers they’re just doing prostitution, they’re social evils or they’re exploited, they’re trafficked but at the same time the social change which has brought about the situation you have now where girls from good families, middle class families, can be there, in lycra, dancing to quite sexy film songs and that’s all considered fine and good. So their attitudes have changed and there’s a slight different view coming out of bar girls, and also courtesans.

Laurie Taylor:
You’re suggesting a moral campaign against bar dancers – you get a ban actually don’t you in 2005?

Anna Morcom:
There was a ban, yes.

Laurie Taylor:
So you can’t have any more dancing. But then there’s an appeal against this, and it gets overturned and the judgement – overturned – upheld in the Supreme Court – eventually upheld that judgement in the Supreme Court in 2013. Let’s hear an extract from that judgement.

Supreme Court Judgement:
If the notions of the State as to dancing are to be accepted, we would have reached a stage where skimpy dressing and belly gyrations which today is the Bollywood norm for dance, will have to be banned as inherently or invariably pernicious. We think as a nation we have outgrown that, considering our past approach to dancing, whether displayed as sculpture on monuments or in its real form. Dancing of any type if it becomes obscene or immoral, can be prohibited or restricted. Dancing however would continue to be a part of the fundamental right of expression, occupation or profession protected by our Constitution.

Now listening to that it does seem as though the Bollywood example is being used to say, listen if we’ve got Bollywood we can’t do really anything about the people who are dancing in bars. So it is a sort of victory isn’t it?

Anna Morcom:
It is a victory and it shows the changes in attitude. And interesting if you look back to the 19th Century then at that stage you couldn’t have respectable, as it were, women who were going to be married who were able to dance but now you can because classical performing arts were reformed, relaunched with upper caste – upper class women and they were changed to make them - so it didn’t clash with the gender norms basically.

So now you have this worlds of dance – classical and also now Bollywood – where women can dance and it’s not going to be meaning they can’t marry or they are "prostitutes" but back in the 19th Century it wasn’t the case. So you can see how the sort of century of change has brought about this kind of sympathy and inability to just say the bar girl – we could just ban the bar girls.

But what’s missing in that, it’s an extraordinary judgement, an extraordinary statement, has got so much in it, but one thing that is missing is the whole history and that the bar girls were these very women who were banned – well they weren’t banned; they were stigmatised and excluded.

Laurie Taylor:
Failure to recognise the honourable history.

Anna Morcom:
By a social campaign.

Laurie Taylor:
We hear in the news now, at least in the sort of like – the suggestions that the BJP – the Hindu Nationalist Party – are going to win the Indian General Election, do you see any implications of that victory for these dancing women?

Anna Morcom:
Well it was that sort of BJP type attitudes, if you like, a sort of conservative and typically Hindu middle class who were attacking the bar girls. So I think that is – those sorts of voices are very strong in India. But you know the law – the cases have been done, it was defeated, the state was defeated in the high court, it was defeated in the supreme court, so I’m not sure exactly what can happen on that.

Laurie Taylor:
But their trials and tribulations may not be completely over yet…

Anna Morcom:
I would certainly not think they would be.

Laurie Taylor:
Anna Morcom, thank you very much.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on May 14th, 2014 on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to the programme online.

 

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