Tracing the history and patronage of tawaifs in the history of Kathak

At the time of independence, a nationalist outlook was possibly the need of the hour, she said.

Published: 22nd October 2018 02:07 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd October 2018 08:36 AM   |  A+A-

Pallabi Chakravorty, dancer, anthropologist and faculty at Swarthmore College, USA delivered a lecture as part of TS Parthsarathy Memorial Lecture  Ashwin Prasath

By Express News Service

CHENNAI: We must be conscious of our history and reclaim it,” said Dr Prof Pallabi Chakravorty, dancer, anthropologist and faculty at Swarthmore College, USA while delivering her lecture — ‘Whose Feminism? Indian dance history through the tawaif and the item girl’ — as part of the TS Parthsarathy Memorial Lecture at Madras Literary Society on Saturday.

At the time of independence, a nationalist outlook was possibly the need of the hour, she said. However, today the environment is different and yet, the ‘Hinduisation’ of dance, which she said began in the 1950s, continues. “It was very important then for the state to homogenise the narrative,” she explained. “The costumes changed and so did the dance. We are now living under a difficult regime where a Hindutva narrative is being pushed and if we are not cognisant, all we will be left with is Radha-Krishna in Kathak when there is so much more.”  

Pallabi spoke about the problematic way in which Kathak’s history has almost completely negated and ignored the contributions of the tawaifs (courtesans) by reducing the women to a word that is now associated with being ‘corrupt’ or prostitutes rather than with art. “The tawaif finds no mention in the Kathak narrative. This happened with the beginning of the purity and pollution discourse in dance. Giving it a Brahmanical caste identity wipes out the tawaifs’ identity. Their labour has been instrumental to the growth of the dance, but has been ignored as Muslim tawaifs could not fit into the nationalist identity and Sanskritisation of the arts that was being done at the time of independence.”

She added that even now through the course of her research, she meets women who were very hesitant to identify themselves as tawaifs owing to the stigmatisation. “The soul of Kathak was partitioned after India’s partition,” she said. “These tawaifs were Muslim women who enjoyed a lot of patronage from the kings and even from the British to an extent. But with partition, things changed. Many did not want to be identified as tawaifs because of the stigma and shame that was attached to the word. The loss of patronage led to many of these women becoming marginalised and taking up other means to earn a living as even the Muslim League refused to embrace them during that time.”  

Pallabi said that these days reality shows are providing people with access to the world of dance. “Many contestants on these dance reality shows belong to lower middle- class families,” she said. “For the first time, they are able to dance and are being accepted for it because the classical world has a very privileged and haloed existence that is not accessible to them. These shows have given them a platform to dance and earn which was something they could not have dreamed of before.” She said that traces of tawaifs’ dance form are visible in Hindi films. But integration of the tawaif identity and contribution into the kathak narrative seemed far-fetched as Pallabi believed Kathak is hegemonic and hence, amalgamation would be hard. However, she felt that it was important for people to question and not just blindly accept the narrative that was being passed down.


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