Book: Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance
Author: Anna Morcom
Publisher: Hachette India
Anna Morcom’s extensively researched book is an investigation into the hereditary communities of female and transgender dancers in contemporary India. She investigates the emergence of illicit worlds of dance in the shadow of India’s official performing arts, and details the lives of the performers as they struggle with stigmatisation and loss of livelihood. An excerpt:
In the gender norms that have existed in India, as discussed in the introduction, a female body that performs in male space, or a male body that becomes female through performing as female in male space, tends to be seen erotically. Much of the dance that kothis perform is erotic. This may be explicitly so in particular contexts but in general tends to focus on romantic/erotic love and female characters.
Kothi performance, because it is generally targeted at a (male) audience (rather than just performed before an audience) is also often actively seductive as well as erotic, with desire sought and incited. The attraction of female dance comes not just from appearing feminine, but actually being in a position where it is possible to attract male attention and male lovers—to feel feminine and to be feminine in terms of the dynamics of bodily desire. This is also heightened by the emotional potency and, in certain ways, the additional feminising dynamics of music, song and dance, which I discuss more below. In this way, it is possible to see how female (and, in particular, erotic) dance constitutes femininity through its embodied, highly stylised and displayed nature, as well as through its relationship to the ‘reproductive arena’ of sexuality, emotion, passion and the dynamics of bodily desire between performers and audience. In this sense, dance can be described as a privileged space for performing gender—a place in which gender is constituted in a way that is particularly visceral, emotional, passionate and, potentially, strongly felt and ‘real’.
The overwhelming majority of kothis are attracted to dance and find it a ‘natural’ medium in which to be feminine and express their ‘true’ femininity. To be a good dancer also brings prestige and respect in the kothi community, since it makes the individual more feminine. In this way, it is prized as a skill as much, or even more than, feminine beauty. As an observer, I too found that it was when kothis were dancing that they seemed most feminine, with a skill, grace and passion that seemed rooted in a core femininity and female subjectivity, and a sense of the ‘true’, inner feminine self.
Through moving the body in this hyper-feminine, emotionally deeply-invested and often seductive manner, the femininity becomes physical — it is rooted in the body, and hence appears to be as ‘natural’ as if the body itself were female. All the kothis I met were clearly effeminate and, before I knew about the concept of the kothi, I had automatically assumed several to be ‘gay’. However, seeing them dance was something quite different. I met a professional kothi dancer from Lucknow who was slightly balding, had something of a paunch, was in his late thirties or forties, not particularly ‘pretty’ or ‘feminine’, and was wearing an old kurta-pyjama at the time. However, as soon as he performed a few movements of abhinay, there was an astonishing transformation into an accomplished, graceful, courtesan-type figure. Kothi dancers are well aware of this power of dance.
An effeminate Sikh man in his fifties with a beard and turban who had performed extensively when he was younger said that it was only when you were really accomplished as a dancer that people would see you purely as a female.44 In this sense, dance and movement have the potential to overwhelm even clear physical markers of the male sex such as beards or baldness. Many kothis boasted to me that when they danced in female clothes, no one could tell they were male. Several also stated that when seduced audience members got close enough to realise, they did not care.
In addition to the fact that they were by then so aroused, in terms of the politics of penetration, a man who is ‘passive’ is feminine; and, through the gendering power of dance too, the kothi performer is equivalent to, if not actually, a female.
While everyone is (largely unconsciously) performing gender, for kothis, who have a male body but are female, their performance goes against social norms and they therefore have to try harder to be feminine.
They must create an illusion that goes further than the general illusion of gender. Comparing the kothis I saw with (biologically) female dancers, the kothis displayed a level of enthusiasm and energy in performance (even those who did not dance well) that I did not see with the female dancers. Unlike some female performers, I never saw kothis dancing halfheartedly.
Excerpted with permission from Hachette India.