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Book Review

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Raising the Curtain: Recasting Women Performers in India by Lata Singh. Orient BlackSwan, 2017. 186 pp. Rs 695. Hardcover, ISBN: 9789386392756

‘Raising the Curtain: Recasting Women Performers in India’ by Lata Singh sheds light upon the cultural chronicles of female performers in the Indian context, while contemplating their existence as a diverse and multifaceted group that transcends the boundaries of caste and social status. The divergent social and cultural contexts in which female performers operate give rise to distinct roles, agencies, issues, and concerns within their respective domains. Through this book, Singh argues that the aesthetic component of their performances has often been highlighted, however positioning these performers in their larger historical, social, cultural and political contexts has remained underexplored. In this backdrop, the book particularly focuses on historicizing low caste women performers in India who have remained marginalized even in the feminist historiography.

The first chapter of the book provides a historical account of courtesans and historicizes the degrading association between dance and women in the Indian context. It traces their journey from being considered as respectable performers to becoming morally corrupt sex workers. Courtesans like devadasis, who were originally low caste Mahari women dancers, practiced various classical dance forms and performed in temples in the service of gods and goddesses. However, the anti-nautch campaign led by the Britishers in late 19th century stigmatized their work and reduced it to mere sex work. Similarly, other traditional women performers across India such as women of bedia, nat and kanjar communities who had an old tradition of dancing were defamed. The campaign was fueled by a strong concoction of ideas of morality and respectability propagated by colonial rulers with respect to women dancers. Dance, as an unconventional occupation which brings women out in the public, questions the gendered public-private dichotomy that has regulated social boundaries for men and women for centuries. The body of a woman performer, while performing in public, is available for male gaze and challenges various social boundaries. By virtue of imposing such discourse, the colonial rulers instilled a sense of disdain towards diverse indigenous manifestations of artistic expression, categorising them as mere sources of amusement, uncivilized and ultimately immoral, all the while exalting their own artistic endeavours.

The second chapter discusses the reformist discourse propagated by the burgeoning Indian middle-class in colonial India which considered itself as the harbinger of modernity as well as custodians of the Indian culture. Influenced by the colonial discourse, their standpoint about courtesans and their performances was also marked by a blurry boundary between women performers and sex workers. Mostly belonging to the upper caste stratum, this emerging middle class looked down upon often the low caste women performers as the most public women. Their discourse of respectability revolved around the ideas of marriage, family and domesticity which did not align well with the non-traditional workspace of women performers. They called the art of courtesans vulgar and depraved. Their unconventional working hours, travelling and intermingling with men incited apprehensions over transgression of normative sexuality. The middle class associated the art of courtesans with sexual availability while considered performances by middle class women as respectable. The dominance of such discourse became soon apparent when the low caste devadasis gradually began to be replaced by upper caste and upper class women performers in Bharatnatyam and Odissi dance forms.

In third chapter, Singh uncovers the deep-rooted contrived association of dance with low caste women which was obliquely discussed in the first two chapters. Apart from devadasis, Singh also discusses the contributions of kolhati women, who perform lavani in Maharashtra, that have never been acknowledged. Instead, women performers of tamasha and nautanki are subjected to extreme social stigma and not allowed to marry as bodies of lower caste women performers are seen as arousing and hence meant only for dancing. Despite being the bread-winners in their families, these low-caste women performers are neither respected nor valued for their contributions. These women have challenged the dominant discourses of marriage, domesticity, sexuality and consequently have been the victims of social marginalization. Low caste women have been historically stigmatized as available as they have always transgressed the public-private dichotomy by working in the public sphere due to their economically impoverished status and owing to various exigencies of life.

The fourth chapter foregrounds the agency of women performers by focusing on artists of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). IPTA has played significant role in transforming the dominant perceptions about women performers. It contends that dancing body is potential site for political interventions and resistance and not just a medium of aesthetic expression. Driven by their agencies, interests and concerns, women performers may view performance as more than their profession and may also take it up as a political activity. Discussing biographies of such women performers, Singh emphasizes that the voices of women performers need to be recorded to exhibit diversity of their experiences and journeys. The existing biographies of women performers have either focused on their success points or revealed their impoverished background at the most. Singh (2017) underscores that the social contexts they live in and their lived experiences and everyday realities warrant attention in the existing scholarship. She also criticizes the cursory attention paid to the dilemma they face between their personal and professional lives. She suggests that in the absence of any written documents or records in this context, oral testimonies can be one way out leading towards their richer and contextualized accounts.

The book is a significant contribution in underlining that the women performers have been marginalized in the feminist writings as these writings remain largely dominated by upper-caste and middle-class women. There are recent writings that have focused upon subaltern women but women performers still remain invisiblised within the subaltern category. Their position, as women performers, in gender-based hierarchies poses a conundrum as they have a different social locale and resist conventional notions such as those around femininity and womanhood. Furthermore, the category of gender itself is divided along caste, class and race that further compound the position of women dancers or performers. There is a need to delineate these complex and multi-layered identities of women performers and understand their journeys in a broader contextualized manner. The book foregrounds the need to understand the dancing body as a socio-cultural construct which embodies the social milieu it is situated in as well as the associated social norms.

Ruchika Ranwa is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai.

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