My book Courtesans Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance tells the modern history of Indian dance in terms of the repercussions of the stigmatisation and exclusion of courtesans and devadasis from high-profile and high status performing arts from the 19th century. Female impersonators were also sidelined, though more subtly. In addition, erotic male performers, found in traditions across South Asia, have suffered a parallel process of exclusion to courtesans and devadasis.

From the 1930s, classical performing arts came to be a middle class and largely upper caste preserve, and from the 1990s, a vast arena of Bollywood and other popular dance forms has opened up within middle-class India. The book charts these immense sociological and cultural changes.

My intention had been to write a book about the middle-class Bollywood dance craze (which I had first encountered in London), and to explore questions of gender. This would build on my previous research on Hindi film songs. However, as I discovered the illicit world of Indian dance (initially via Mumbai's dance bar girls), the book took a very different shape.

Here are some sequences that reflect my findings.

Teer e nazar

This clip is from the famous courtesan film Pakeezah (1971) by Kamal Amrohi. The heroine of the film, Sahib Jaan, tortured by her "life of shame" as a courtesan, gives a final, denouement performance in this song, smashing a glass lantern and dancing on the shattered glass, thus lacerating her feet. It is these feet whose beauty the hero, Salim, had fallen in love with on a coincidental meeting in a train carriage when Sahib Jaan was sleeping. However, being a courtesan, these feet also had to dance, and they thereby embodied what the film depicts as her shameful existence. As a courtesan, she must dance and entertain men but never marry them. However, destroying her dancing feet, in this sequence, she enacts a ritual death of the courtesan, and is able to then emerge as a bride of Salim.

The film enacts the death of the courtesan tradition and the salvation of courtesans by marriage. However, in reality, courtesans suffered devastating loss of status and livelihood through this reform, and only a minority were "saved" and absorbed into the mainstream, bourgeois society through marriage. It should also be noted that the idea that courtesans were shamed by their existence is very much a myth of modern India.

Kaushiki Chakrabarty

In this video, the young Hindustani classical singer Kaushiki Chakrabarti sings a thumri. Thumri is a repertoire that derives from courtesan performers. However, Chakrabarti is from a middle-class, upper- caste background, as opposed to a courtesan lineage, and is representative of the post-reform classical world in India, which has distanced itself almost entirely from courtesans. Comparing the performance style of Chakrabarti to the albeit filmic depiction of the courtesan Sahib Jaan, the first point to notice is that modern, middle-class singers such as Chakrabarti do not dance. Furthermore, there would be no question that the lover Chakrabarti sings about in this thumri is fictional, and that the thumri is not a direct address to any audience member, but a focus for refined aesthetic pleasure. The lover could also be seen as Krishna, making the thumri about the divine love of Radha and Krishna, and thus devotional rather than erotic in ethos.

Courtesan performers, in contrast, performed directly to patrons and clients, and such performances and their texts had a far more erotic meaning entwined with the aesthetic beauty of the music. Contemporary courtesans performing mujra (which are still to be found) and bar girls (largely from lineages of courtesans and dancing girls) perform with sometimes intense eye contact, and often with a more sexualised performance. Thus, comparing the clip from Pakeezah with this clip, we see how classical performing arts bifurcated into a middle-class, highly respectable form with a de-emphasis on the bodily presence of the performer, and on the other hand, an illicit world of the courtesans and dancing girls, increasingly sexualised and increasingly connected with transactional sex.

Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai

In this infamous song from the 1993 film Khalnayak, the heroine, Madhuri Dixit, is a policewoman. A dangerous criminal has escaped from the charge of her police officer fiancé, and, desperate to save his name, she goes undercover as a dancing girl to root out the criminal who, being a criminal, it is assumed, will be found in disreputable haunts with disreputable dancing girls. The song, whilst outrageous, is also fall of irony, with the policewoman heroine performing as a playful and seductive dancer, and the villain, it turns out, also knows she is under cover, but plays along.

This song caused a vast controversy in India, with the allegation that the dance was against the dignity of women. This very argument, in fact, was a key reason for the stigmatisation and boycotting of courtesans back in the nineteenth century, with the promise that they would be saved from indignity. However, the vast majority went into sex work or less well-paid and prestigious forms of performing arts. These identical arguments were also used to ban Mumbai’s bar girls in 2005, with, again, devastating loss of livelihood, and for many, a return into sex work.

In such debates on erotic female performers, what is not considered is the livelihood and labour of female dancers, and their skills. It is also not considered the power and agency such performers have over their male audiences, as is shown beautifully in Choli ke peeche, where the dancer outperformers the mere lyrics of the song, adding layers of irony and humour. As dancers lose such a space to perform and interact with audience members via music and its aesthetic charms, the alternative has largely been prostitution, where interaction is focused far more on the sexual act. There is little scope for gaining a public persona, or for having fans beyond those who wish to have sex with them. Whilst the status of such dancers is not high, it is certainly higher than that of commercial sex workers, and, broadly speaking, they earn considerably more money. Being able to dance and having a place to dance is what creates these differences. Thus questions of "dignity" and "indignity" and also "choice" need to be carefully considered.

Kothi dancing boy in Delhi

This is a video of a young man performing in female dress at some kind of private party in Delhi, presumably a kothi, a "feminine man", or a "transgender female". This is an underground community who are somewhat separate from the well known hijras or eunuchs, who, officially, perform in ritual-auspicious roles rather than erotic ones, though the line is actually blurred.  Unfortunately, the video is very low quality, and the performance also does not begin to do justice to the kinds of accomplished grace and talent with which I saw kothis dance in various places in North India.

With public dance historically being incompatible with marriage (as Pakeezah so clearly shows), men and boys have long been traditional female performers in South Asia, and indeed, in other parts of the world too. This includes female impersonators (who are not necessary female-inclined males) as well as kothis. Male to male love had no official place in society, but it existed in unofficial or liminal zones, and being a professional or semi-professional female dancer was one of the most important. Feminine males are able to be not just females whilst dancing, but hyper-feminine, and can attract the attention of male audience members. Many kothis have met life partners through performing, though this is separate from their official life, which, in India, involves compulsory marriage.

Mujra clip

The final clip I would choose for this piece would be one of the so-called mujras performed by contemporary dancing girls. There are abundant such clips such as this one to choose from on YouTube, largely from Pakistan, performed by girls from the Kanjar community, one of the hereditary female dancing communities who formerly included high-ranking courtesans but are now increasingly down-at-heel and involved in sexualised performances and sexual transaction, as with these communities in India.

Just searching for "mujra" on YouTube immediately brings you to extremely sexualised performances by these dancing girls, and illustrates the dramatic change in what mujra refers to compared to the days of Sahib Jaan, the albeit fictional courtesan of Pakeezah. Mujra does, however, continue in forms much closer to that seen in Pakeezah, with a repertoire of ghazals, and in UP and Bihar, genres such as Kajri, as well as qawwali and film songs.

It is particularly striking to realise that the respectable and chaste classical performing arts of middle class India and the almost pornographic mujra clips in fact share the same ancestor of pre-reform classical performing arts. A significant proportion of India’s commercial female sex workers are from formerly female hereditary courtesan and dancing girl communities. Ruling on the bar girls case in the Supreme Court in 2013, the judge stated: ‘the expression “the cure is worse than the disease” springs to mind’. This was the case with the courtesans and devadasis too.