Earlier this month, Haryanvi singer Sapna Chaudhary allegedly attempted suicide at her house in Delhi, according to news reports. In a suicide note, Chaudhary alleged harassment on social media following a performance in July in which she was reported to have used words that insulted the Dalit community. She later apologised for the insult but, it appears, the apology was not enough to mollify the aggrieved.

Beyond the politics of caste in the Sub-continent, the episode highlighted one more thing: the careers of female performers can tell us something about the troubled nature of gender in private and public spaces in our part of the world.

Pakistani model Qandeel Baloch did what entertainers do – provide entertainment. But she was killed by her brother because she was a woman in a society that invariably links women’s actions to family or community "honour". Whereas the sexual culture of men is seen as a natural part of being a man, "womanhood" and "sexuality" are imagined to be antithetical notions. Baloch died for seeking a career that brought these notions together.

Masculinity is a relationship between men. It is the performance of an identity whose fragility must constantly be hidden through acts that pretend otherwise. The horror that masculinity constantly seeks to repel is the presence of women who, by "acting like men", disrupt the relationship between men. This is a psychic horror that men are schooled in and grow into, and forms the basis of masculine identity. Baloch unpicked the threads that suture the relationship between masculinity, men, and (subsequently) women. This relationship is most frequently threatened by women in public places, for such women are caught in a double bind: they are both objects of desire as well as fear, and men negotiate this context with great anxiety.

The case of Sapna Chaudhary

Most commonly, men learn to deal with public women as part of their performance of masculinity through everyday events that seek to mask the fragility of that identity. Sapna Chaudhary, who both sings and lip-syncs risqué ragini songs to accompany her raunchy dance numbers, is an enormously popular performer. In her performances, Choudhary is, by turn, coquettish and demure. Her dancing is a mix of gyrating pelvic thrusts, heaving bosoms, veiling and unveiling of the face, and hand gestures that travel across various parts of the body. Her performances provide a case study of the everyday reinforcements of masculinity.

In a tradition that is quite old, but given fillip by new technology and wealth, Chaudhary performs at various community events that are frequently sponsored by local big men. The Haryanvi raginis she performs are dialogues between lovers, mock rejections, and depictions of the female body as desiring and the male body as a "horse without reins". The performances take place on makeshift stages. The backdrop consists of billboard-size photographs of the (male) chief sponsor. The sponsors’ names frequently carry honorifics such as "Pehalwan" and "Chaudhary".

Sapna Chaudhary performs to an audience that is seated beyond the stage. But men also lounge around her on the stage, filming her every move on their phones. The dancer carries on regardless. It is as if there is no one there, or that she has learnt to draw her body into itself, even as it is a public object. The bodies of the men, on the other hand, are purely public. The men express their masculinity through not having to withdraw into a private self. Their bodies become masculine through a phalanx-like quality that does not need to offer a reason for its invasion into the singer’s space. This is an important way in which men learn the privileges of masculinity. Of course, there is already a context for this performance of power: the photos of the sponsors announce that the woman is there through the aegis of a male sponsor. Public women are subject to particular rules of masculinity.

One of the rules of masculinity is also established through the display of a particular form of power during her performance: the stylised showering of rupee notes around the performer. A satisfied patron flicks individual bills from a pile with his index finger. His unhindered access to the space of the performer and the note-flicking expression of his appreciation quite clearly establish the power of his masculinity: he has the measure of the woman on stage and the notes express his attitude towards women "such as these", as distinct from the women of the household who perform other kinds of duties, such as producing sons. "These" women have a price. The relation of power between men of means and the public woman is stark. But there is another aspect to this. The notes the male patron showers also stand for symbolic ejaculation, establishing the right of men to express their masculinity in public.


Death or reformation

In one of her videos, as Chaudhary is in the middle of a song, a man jumps on to the stage, rushes towards her and forcefully shoves a note on her face. Chaudhary recoils as the man does a jig, his crotch above her shoulders. He slowly walks off the stage while the singer appears to complain publicly to a middle-aged man sitting close by. The latter appears to be the local big man. He, however, begins to record the performance rather than address her complaint. The singer gingerly goes back to her routine, slowly gaining composure, her face showing disgust.

Remember the onscreen fate of Helen? She either died or was "reformed" into a good woman. In death, Qandeel Baloch has also found respect of a very Sub-continental sort. Her father reportedly spoke of having lost a child who was like a son rather than a daughter. In her father’s eyes, the daughter could never become the daughter she always was, and in her brother’s, she was always a failed sister.

Between Sapna Choudhary’s performances as a successful site of masculine self-definition and Qandeel Baloch’s failure as a woman, we have the peculiar situation of gender in the Sub-continent. Here, masculinity is established when men show other men their power over bad women, and the "bad woman" can only be redeemed if she agrees to being identified as a devoted son. Masculinity requires as well as condemns the bad woman, for ultimately what matters is the relationship between men.