ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Gender, Body, and the Politics of Culture

Performing Art/Performing Labour


“All the others have become devis, I am the only bai left,” remarked Rasoolan Bai—the acclaimed classical thumri singer from the “tawaif cultural tradition” subjected to live and die in penury towards the end of her ­career—as she looked at the portraits of female singers and musicians at the All India Radio station in Allahabad (Dave 2011).1 Her ironic comment underlines the “sanitising” thrust of the nationalist refurbishing of culture, reinforced through the state radio broadcasting network that sought to reform (or remove) the “impure” bais or hereditary women artists from the gentrified space of performance of the new nation.

Indeed, the cultural policy/politics was never constituted in isolation but trudged through many rugged routes of exclusion and ­inclusion—of particular castes, classes, or communities—creating new forms of hierarchies, new categories and ranked ­orders, and subsequently marginalising and evicting certain “styles” performed by a specific class of artists and entertainers. In order to thrive with its glorious inventory of culture, the making of the moral nation bluntly mandated the erasures of a number of bodies that perform and labour to earn a living. Thus, on the one hand, the hereditary performance labour of the lower castes came to be recast as “arts” in modern India among respectable middle classes. It came to be re-aestheticised as the classical arts through the processes of textualisation, spiritualisation, and systematisation. The sanitising endeavours, on the other hand, sought to criminalise and abolish many other forms of artistic labour, robbing the subaltern arti­sts of their livelihood and vulgarising and “de-aestheticising” their performance practices as obscene unscrupulous transaction and thus reiterating the division between culture/art and work/livelihood. The sexualisation of women artists in this process further obscured their performing labouring bodies.

Unearthing Marginal Practices

This special issue brings to the fore complexities embedded in the politics of performance both at the micro-space of the ­region and the macro-space of the nation state. The existing feminist research on a range of local hereditary performance practices from “traditional” tamasha, nautanki, and naach to special drama, cabaret, and bar dance has not only challenged the obfuscation of the lives and struggles of performing “public” women but also uncovered how they threatened to unsettle the normative structure of family and culture through their unruly sexual desires. The “itinerant performativity” of these women artists is articulated on stage as well as in their
personal and social lives. The special issue takes into account how the irresoluble paradox rooted in their lives define their “double living”; their experiences of poverty, hunger and lack of education as well as their everyday survival, and negotiations with the interlocking social structures to promote their self and the family; their performance of erotic excess and informal sexual relationships as well as their forging of new personhood deploying motherhood and marriage (Paik 2017); and their social “absence” and precarity as well as their aliveness, pleasure, and control over their performing bodies at the proscenium (Sarkar Munsi 2016).

Our focus is on the peripheral and the transgressive as we examine performance practices that flourish organically—marked as folk, tribal, or popular—having to confront the branding as crude, corrupt, and commercial by the hegemonic cultural codes. We will examine the travels and exchanges among varied artistic practices that entail significantly eluding, disturbing, and subverting the neat cultural diffe­ren­tiation(s). Foregrounding the unending tussle between coercion and subversion, marginalisation and resistance, appropriation and exclusion, we focus on some absent, lost, or marginal voices of women performers, actors, and dancers whose subversive moves often fell foul of the moral economy of Indian culture. In this special issue, we seek to move or reposition women from peripheral to central spaces of performances as actors, producers, or wage earners.

Performance and Labour

The question of labour (śrama) of performance is addressed by Dave Mukherjee (forthcoming) by elucidating how the labouring, servile, and tired abject body falls within the space of performance. While the strategic salience attached to action or kriyā where the actor–dancer could lay full claim to her own creative agency, the labouring body often emerged synonymous with the “other,” being placed in the lower rungs of social ladder as the anti-aesthetic. In this gendered division of labour, the female body always offered the corporeal form and edifice of performance, while the male controlled her artistic output, exacting her physical, emotional, and sexual labour. Women performers were historically placed under male authority, and the balance of artistic autonomy and social agency was tilted decisively away from the female performers towards their male mentors, managers, and patrons (Bose 2011: 78).

In the modern era, the political economies of performance lab­our are diverse and dynamic with a complex entanglement of local cultural economies, national policy contexts, and global capitalist circuits. The recent feminist interrogation of labour has sought to reframe female labour variously in terms of multiple processes of social reproduction in the household–market continuum; emotional, aesthetic, and bodily labour of women in the service sector; embodied labour and the production of value and stigma; and the gendered nature of creative work in the knowledge economy.

Borrowing the lens of the “unruly spectator” from Priya Srinivasan (2012), we wish to argue that beyond the aesthetic of a fleeting performance, the unseen bodily labour becomes manifest through her sweat, tears, and blood. Although the dancing/performing body is often viewed only in aesthetic terms, it is also a labouring body and works in multiple ways to create art. The body that labours for a livelihood is also the body that is the artistic tool to manifest a performance practice/culture. But the aesthetic presence of the transcendental performing body seldom shows signs of that labour—in its backstage breathlessness or onstage sweat, dampness, or blood. As Srinivasan (2012: 11–12) comments,

The dancer labors in training her hands to form mudras. She labors in learning to slap her feet on the ground. She labors to turn and travel ­effortlessly. Her labor is revealed in sweat and even blood spilled onstage. The sculpted bodily form moving in space is her labor made visible.

While Marxist theory tends to separate labour from the means of production, Srinivasan (2012: 11) claims that in dance the labour of dancing cannot be alienated from the means of production—the dancing body. She explores the uniqueness of dance as labour, “as the dancing body’s liveness and the display of its labour in performance produces a dance product.” Therefore, according to her “a dancing body as a laboring body disrupts traditional understanding of the act of labor, the means of production, and the product” (Srinivasan 2012: 11).

Identifying Cultural Labour

The elusiveness of this “immaterial labour” of performance has complicated the definition of cultural labour. The dominant discourse on culture that associates it with leisure and cultivation of mind makes cultural labour a “category of disavowal” (Prakash 2019). However, the emergence of “imm­aterial” labour using creative resources for the production of cultural goods and services in the post-industrial economies highlights the troubled exchange between culture and labour. The debates on Adorno and Horkheimer’s thesis of “culture ­industry” and “cultural industries” bring out the tensions bet­ween framing of culture in terms of the capitalist domination in its commodification and standardisation, underlining the complex and heterogeneous processes of producing symbolic goods within the capitalist society as a site of resistance and constitution of public sphere (Lee 2013). The distinctness of “creative economy and labour” as the production of tangible and intangible artistic outputs, however, lies not only in the generation of wealth and profits through the utilisation of creative and knowledge resources but also in the creation of subjectivity and affect. As workers invest their emotional lives in the lab­our process, the work for these “creative workers” has become the site of self-fulfilment, auto­nomy, and pleasure, and of fashioning of identity, leading sometimes to new forms of exploitation and inequality.

In juxtaposition to this “creative labour” and industries ent­renched in the global circuits, Prakash (2019) outlines “cultural labour” rooted in the “non-capitalist” and (also capitalist) local caste economies. Rege (2002) identifies cultural lab­our in terms of the caste-based cultural practices rooted in the ­social and material conditions of Dalits and Bahujans. The symbolic meanings and affect produced through the “cultural labour” are intertwined in the performance of caste, according to Prakash (2019). It affirms the life and knowledge of subalterns within the local landscape, while, paradoxically, it also reproduces caste through the enactment of enslavement. The struggles over cultural meanings are thus inseparable from the struggle for survival and resources. Labour has a fraught meaning in a society driven by institutionalised social and poli­tical inequalities and a body that performs for a living emerges as the source of anxiety around the question of paid labour. Drawing on existing discourses on the performing art and performing labour, we aim to explore a range of diverse themes—historical to everyday, performative to affective, mobilised through the performance labour of women. The labouring body—both in its artistic and physical sense—offers us an entry point into the slippery terrain of cultural politics.

Female Spectatorship and Agency

In Maharashtra, the “rhythmic bold poetry” of lavani—once engaged itself with a broad spectrum of human experiences, including the mundane, political, or even religious and spiritual life—takes erotic fulfilment through the female body and voice as its central motif. The sexualised lavani marked the bodies of lower caste women as insatiable and promiscuous so that their sexual and productive labour was appropriated through the institution of slavery. But can pleasure be taken as a psychoanalytic and semiotic tool of female empowerment? While phallocentrism historically wiped out female subjectivity as spectators, can there be any agency of female spectatorship in the visual pleasure? Speaking about sexual pleasure and desire, Anagha Tambe unfurls the excitement and pleasure of women spectators of erotic lavaniWhile historically, the repertoire of lavani has developed for male consumption, she analyses the new urban revival for middle-class mixed audiences and especially for women-only audiences; something unusual within the cultural landscape of lavani. “Women-Only! Reframing the Erotic Lavani in Contemporary Maharashtra” points out the new sexual subjectivity of middle-class women in neo-liberal times, which, in a curious turn, leads to its de-stigmatisation through its “respectable” middle-class women audience. Tambe toys with simultaneous desexualisation and resexualisation of lavani, underlining the interplay of global sexual economy with the regional economy of cultural labour.

Sexual Entertainment, Labour and the Moralising State

The relationship between erotic work and dance work is fundamental to dance performance at sexual entertainment venues. Questions arise: Are the dancers mere salesgirls of their erotic performance as commodities in a global market economy or do they enjoy command over their bodies and sexual power? Based on many personal interviews with cabaret and bar dancers of West Bengal, Aishika Chakraborty maps the varied patterns of migration, trafficking, and survival strategies of night dancers who ferried themselves between the two cities of Kolkata and Mumbai. Her paper “Dancing the Night Away: Erotic Outlaws of the Democracy” explores the arri­val of exotic dancers in the colonial nightclubs of Kolkata since the waning years of British Raj as it further maps the rapid spread and popularity of pubs and cabaret-theatres in postcolonial West Bengal. Moral policing, she argues, that app­eared as an abiding concern of the Maharashtra government during the dance bar ban of 2005 resonated more strongly in the discrete eviction of cabaret dancers enacted by the “progressive” state Government of West Bengal during the 1980s and the 1990s. When the state came down hard on sleaze shows at the theatre to protect Bengal’s kristi and sanskriti (both meaning culture), what happened to the famished “fantasy” girls who were mostly recruited from Hindu upper-caste poor refugee families? The paper interrogates the moral and cultural backlash of the patriarchal state that sought to corset those sexually deviant bodies, calling them out as visceral symbols of immorality and pervert culture.

Human Rights, Sex Work and Aesthetic Labour

Situated at the interface of second- and third-wave feminism, the papers in this issue simultaneously embrace and challenge the contesting pulls of both the waves of feminisms. While radical feminists conceived prostitution as a symbol of the ­social, sexual, and economic exploitation, the third wave firmly rejects the victim trope by defining prostitution as work. At the intersection of the body, aesthetics, and sex work, Prarthana Purkayastha, in “Corpo-activism: Dance and Activist Labour in the Work of Komal Gandhar, Kolkata,” takes the dancing body as a locus of the labouring body that coalesces with the lived experience of the sex workers and their children.

Based on in-depth interviews with members of Komal Gandhar, the cultural wing of the Durbar ­Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective comprised of over 65,000 sex workers in eastern India, she explores the ways in which the labouring bodies engage in margin­alised and criminalised work, contributing to contemporary feminist and legal discourses on sex work. Purkayastha offers a new coinage, “corpo-activism,” which implies the activation of human rights through embodied aesthetic labour as a crucial phenomenon that mobilises the agency of minoritised groups. She considers Komal Gandhar’s India’s Got Talent stint as their co-option of the neo-liberal agenda by inserting sex work rights into prime-time television programmes, which creates a new narrative of tragedy and triumph through subaltern solidarity and collective resistance of the sex workers.

Waiting’ and Women Cine-workers

Interweaving varied approaches of feminist writings on ­Indian cinema, Madhuja Mukherjee pans the searchlight on the unseen economy of the cine-workers’ labour. Can the long, tedious, and daunting hours of “waiting” for work, before or in-between work be counted as “working hours”? Shifting the focus of studies in gender, labour, and Indian film industries to the subject of work and “waiting,” Mukherjee’s “Bodies in Waiting: Remapping Gender, Labour, and Histories of the ­Indian Film Industry (1930s–1950s)” extracts a history of women’s labour from the sporadic writings by women cine-workers to comprehend historical temporalities related to a precariously unorganised sector of the film industry. She takes “waiting” as an integral aspect of film work as multiple orders of temporal and social uncertainties connected to the notion and experience of “waiting”—waiting for work, waiting during work, waiting for payments, waiting during transits, waiting to recover from ailments, waiting in-between, as everyday creative labour.

Offering a new reading of gendered labour through a collage of life experiences penned by Shanta Apte, Kanan Bala, and Shyama, among others, the paper maps the “lab­our geographies” of the industry that exist across lang­uages and cultural practices in diverse regional cinema at different temporal stages.

Women in Theatre History

Erasure of women from the historic archive of art and performance is neither new nor shocking. A Mangai aptly contends that almost all regions have fantastic stories of early act­resses, but somehow they never get written into the history of theatre. Mangai’s paper, “The Legacy of Balamani Ammal in Tamil Theatre: Affirming a History Lost in the Conjunction between Social Respectability and Historiography of Arts,” is an attempt to resurrect both histories by tracing the life of Kumbakonam Balamani Ammal. Balamani’s history is not just about her being a woman; it is about the history of theatre ­itself—its genres, technology, innovation, process, and patronage. The first-ever woman to receive the title “Drama Queen,” Balamani was also the first to run an all-female drama company. But historians often gloss over such monumental struggles for survival and success of this woman artist. Through a gendered reading of theatre, the paper flags off these aspects of resistance and resilience.

If the history of cultural practices—patronage, skills, capital, and fame—are appendages of default patriarchal systems, the cultural inventory of our modern nation must also record and archive the histories of erasure. This issue is an attempt to ­recover the fading histories and lost voices that still linger ­beneath the dominant expression of the nation.


1 The suffix bai is used variously in different contexts, even to connote respect to a woman, especially in the public domain. In the context of Hindustani classical music, this suffix is used for the women artists from courtesan tradition of tawaif or naikeen or baiji, which was sought to be given up by taking up honorific suffix of devitai, and so on in different regions.


Bose, Mandakranta (2011): “The Ownership of Indian Classical Dancing and Its Performance on the Global Stage,” Dance Matters, Performing India, Pallabi Chakravorty and Nilanjana Gupta (eds), New York: Routledge, pp 73–88.

Dave Mukherjee, Parul (forthcoming): “Artistic Labour in Dance and Painting: Revisiting the Theory-Practice Debate via Mimesis (Anukŗti) and the Abject Body,” South Asian History and Culture.

Dave, Rajana (2011): “When Music Leaves the Paper Trail,” Asian Age, 3 May,

Dutt, Bishnupriya and Urmimala Sarkar Munsi (2010): Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity, New Delhi: Sage.

Lee, David (2013): “Creative Labour in Cultural Industries,” Sociopedia.isa

Morcom, Anna (2014): Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, Gurgaon: Hachette India.

Paik, Shailaja (2017): “Mangala Bansode and the Social Life of Tamasha: Caste, Sexuality and Discrimination in Modern Maharashtra,” Biography, Vol 40, No 1, pp 170–98.

Prakash, Brahma (2019): Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the “Folk Performanc” in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rege, Sharmila (2002): “Conceptualising Popular Culture: ‘Lavani’ and ‘Powada’ in Maharashtra,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 37, No 11, pp 1038–47.

Sarkar Munsi, Urmimala (2016): “Precarious Citizenship: Social Absence versus Performative Presence of Nachni,” Samyukta, Vol XVI, No 2, pp 157–77.

Singh, Lata (2017): Raising the Curtain: Recasting Women Performers in India, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.

Srinivasan, Priya (2012): Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


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Updated On : 31st May, 2022
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