In the evening of April 14, 2017, the Dalit Panchsheel Social Foundation and Machhindra Eknath Gaikwad Foundation celebrated the renowned Dalit Lavani dancer and film actor Megha Ghadge as a star attraction and special guest-of-honor at their annual Ambedkar Jayanti Celebrations at Tadivala Road/Dhole Patil Road, Pune. During the event, she was on stage flanked by respectable women and men of prominence, including local Dalit and touchable corporators.

Her neat image, including the full white dress, as expected for a community public event, struck a stark contrast with her skimpily draped sensual body projected on the screen, accompanied by a song from her movie Kata Kirr. The entire spectacle – life-size portrait of Ambedkar, movie screen surrounded by big banners with Ambedkar’s image and announcements of his birth anniversary celebrations, blasting music, ostentatious lighting, and crowds of men joyfully dancing to sensual lyrics and intoxicated with masti – represented everything Ambedkar and Jalsakars opposed, but times had moved on.

No one – neither Ambedkar, nor the Dalit community, and nor touchables – ever anticipated that these new transformations and disparate notions of freedom, self-making, provisional resistance, and reconstructive practices would be deployed by Tamasha women at the end of the 20th and into the 21st century.

These formed an acquisitive, responsible, and self-interested ethic through which Tamasha women could remake themselves and their families. A new generation of artists transformed the meaning and practice of Tamasha in the context of new political and sexual-caste economy. They were agents in creating and preserving masti historically produced in Tamasha. They displayed wealth and preserved their honour, identity, personhood, and name before others. Some leading Tamasha women also enjoyed the pleasure of power and continued to negotiate precarious public political realms. Tamasha women rearranged complex ideological relations of assimilation or challenge for different purposes.

Tamasha remained a fraught performativity – it was work, violence, play, and amusement. While Tamasha was exploitation rooted in caste violence and hard work and was the only means of earning livelihood for Tamasha people, especially Tamasha women, it was play, nonwork, individual and social relaxation, pleasure, fun, and sexuality for men in the audience and respectable society as a whole. Men’s personal relaxation, expression, and pleasure were commodities available to purchase with their labor as a worker and a male. Tamasha women made men feel good, and to this end, they sold their sexuality, but not sexual intercourse. If they developed extended relationships with men outside the Tamasha theatre, that was a different matter.

Tamasha and Tamasha women were central to male bonding and to constructing manliness and
male sexuality. Women cultivated this dhanda (business) of Tamasha and provided the service
of sexual pleasure to men. Beyond the sexual and the voyeuristic, this service generated the
pleasure of belonging, bonding, and male homosociality. Men laughed, joked, patted each other
on the back, and sat with their arms around each, having a good time watching Tamasha. They
enacted their manliness and male bonding in the enjoyment of degrading Tamasha women.

In other words, Tamasha women were central to the construction of the male ego, virile manliness, muscular masculinity, and male bonding. Tamasha women were successful if they made men feel appreciated, approved, loved, and recognised, and this success perpetuated economies of caste, class, gender, and sexuality.

In the mid-1990s, a group of men straight and gay – started experimenting even more with Tamasha by introducing troupes called Bin Bayakancha Tamasha (Tamasha without Women) in Mumbai. Madhusudan (Madhu) Shinde, a Dalit-Chambhar (leatherworker caste), transgender, plump, jovial artist in his early 50s, reported, “Some [dominant-caste] artists like Anil Vasudevan and Pramod Kandalkar – both of whom were trained as Bharatnatyam [classical] dancers – experimented with Bin Bayakancha Tamasha.” Vasudevan and Kandalkar made innovations to their own dance programs by appropriating Dalit arts and eventually organised an all-male dance troupe. As a result, some leading straight but mostly gay male artists worked with other men, trained them through repeated rehearsals, and reintroduced them to perform as women. Many gay and straight men attended these shows.

Madhusudan preferred to be called “Madhu” (honey) – the ambiguous twist being in the name, which could be a woman’s or a man’s name and it means sweet as honey. Madhu wanted themselves and their co-workers to portray the “perfect” and “real” woman: “My dancer friends think by increasing the size and lifting up their padded chests, they look sexier [like women]. However, this picture of breasts – big, tight, with upward push – is artificial. Had you seen them earlier, you would have laughed your head off. One of the fundamentals of portraying a woman is to have ‘downward-slanting small breasts.’” Along with dancing, Madhu is also a choreographer, arranges for dance costumes, and manages dance performances for the government, schools, private housing societies, and so on.

Bin Bayakancha Tamasha queered Tamasha and Lavani and mocked the ashlil of Tamasha through an exaggeration of heteropatriarchal assumptions in neoliberal India. The dancers experimented with new ideas, new sites of contestation and variability, new performativities, to once again both transgress and reinforce gender boundaries and hyperpatriarchy, thus signaling a need to inquire into the formation of homosexualities in Tamasha and in India.

Bin Bayakancha Tamasha exposed the failure of heterosexual regimes and brought into relief the supposed quality of heterosexual performativity. Anand Satam, a Vani (grocer, high caste) transgender (or “TG” as they called themselves) artist who worked with Bin Bayakancha Tamasha for seven years, emphasised that Vasudevan and Kandalkar said, “This idea is going to fly, just [wait and] watch! And it did, eventually. You attended the performance and you found it fantastic and successful!” Similarly, Ravi Sangamnerkar, a male choreographer training Tamasha and Lavani women, was ecstatic about Bin Bayakancha Tamasha: “Look how [these men are] outperforming women,” he stated, and yet he forgot how gay men were excluding women but also preserving the figure of the Tamasha woman through their exaggerated feminine identity, thereby contesting and
reproducing norms.

Bin Bayakancha Tamasha people appropriated Dalit Tamasha legacies and reconstructed the hypersexualised femininity as a fundamental function of dominant-caste patriarchies and re-idealised bourgeois forms of heterosexual exchange by inhabiting idealized notions of sexuality. However, at the same time, some like Madhu repeatedly mocked, inverted, and invaded patriarchal power with their swelling feminine presence and breached it with the plump belly that could not be controlled by the waistband. In the new millennium, touchable transgender communities have increasingly turned to Tamasha and Lavani as modes of sexual expression, art, and livelihood. In doing so, they exceeded the limitations of dominant culture, broadened the coordinates of the Dalit struggle, and opened a space for new alliances, solidarities, and politics.

And yet, none of TG artists I interacted with said anything about their reinventing and mobilising of Bin Bayakancha Tamasha being rooted in the sex-gender-caste complex that led to differentiation, exploitation, and stigmatization. At least, they did not mention it.

Sexuality is not free floating, and we need to analyse it in the contexts of caste violence and caste patriarchy.

The all-male sociability that Bin Bayakancha Tamasha invites and constitutes persists, eliding the Dalit woman performer’s labor and the sexual-caste logic that dictates it. Like Dalit Tamasha women, transgender men rearranged complex ideological relationships of assimilation, appropriation, and challenge for a different purpose and political possibility; however, they did not adopt an anti-caste perspective or worldview or pay attention to the logic of the caste order and brahmanism that transcends individuals. Nevertheless, no one vision, one anti-caste thought, or one resolution is possible for this history.

The supposedly rational, scientific, and academic approaches to Tamasha artistry represent new wounds in the battles between the proponents and opponents of shil-ashlil-manus-assli and continue to hurt hereditary Dalit artists whose lives were easily indexed as backwards, disgusting, dirty, vulgar, and corrupt. Dalits cited, twisted, queered, and deeply engaged with the assli discourse of the Marathi state and painfully reiterated elite norms. The success of their politics lay not in producing a pure, political opposition but in forging possibilities for their futures from presumably impure resources and precarious positions and expanding categories of manus and assli.

Dalit artists’ virtuous selves entangled with their community continue to puncture the neat, educated, and smart Dalit modernity of their caste fellows to exercise their few modes of agency surviving the structural violence of ashlil caste and untouchability. Their politics, different voices and dialogues deserve attention as it continues with recent insurgencies, transplanted to an even more diverse global theatre.

The Vulgarity of Caste: Dalits, Sexuality, and Humanity in Modern India

Excerpted with permission from The Vulgarity of Caste: Dalits, Sexuality, and Humanity in Modern India, Shailaja Paik, Navayana.