Courtesans, bar girls, dancing boys and Bollywood dance


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DANCE can be a livelihood, a vocation, a hobby, or just an occasional activity. However, to ask ‘why dance?’ opens up wider questions about its value – in terms of not just pleasure or livelihood, but of social identity. To ask ‘why dance’ leads to the question of ‘who dances’, and how dance is intertwined with status and identity. Of course, all activities and occupations shape who we are in social terms, at least subtly. But dance, and music too, give rise to specific issues.

Dance is an art form that is created by the moving body, and audiences watch this moving body to watch dance. Dance, like music (which usually accompanies it in some form), is also particularly affective – it can hold particular power over emotions, and has aesthetic potency far greater than mundane actions. Dancing as a physical activity affects the state of both the body and mind. Just watching it, and listening to music, can cause joy, excitement, a raised heartbeat, and a myriad other feelings.

This indelible link of dance to the body, affect and emotion – key to its power and potency – means that dance often intersects with gender, sexuality and notions of respectability and status particularly sharply. In India, these issues have strongly shaped why certain people dance and others do not, their value and place in society, and the value of their art.

I explore these matters in connection with North Indian female dancers, looking from the nineteenth century to the present day. I focus on courtesans and hereditary female performers, including bar girls, middle class dancers of classical or Bollywood dance and female impersonators or cross-dressed dancers. My analysis is based on fieldwork and archival work.1

Before the emergence of modern education institutions, to be asked why they did a certain occupation would be an odd question for a majority of people in India – most people’s occupation was dictated by caste and community, and was hereditary, and carried a very specific social status. This was the case, in particular, with professional performers, male or female. Looking at the classical traditions of music and dance in courts, salons and temples, being a performer was largely hereditary, and it constituted a service to a patron. Because of this, performers were in some significant ways seen as low status or low caste.2 But, at the same time, music and dance are recognized as immensely powerful, and such performers are the conduits for this. Hence, they could also be rich, prestigious, awe-inspiring, beloved of powerful patrons, and so on. The status of dancers and musicians is, therefore, complex, in-between, inconsistent, or liminal.3

For women, engaging in any kind of work or profession outside the home or domestic sphere carried a low status. With the embodied and affective nature of dance and music, however, this status took a specific character, and being a dancer or singer was seen as incompatible with marriage (unless performing only for other women). This can be seen clearly in the film Pakeezah, where it is only after the tortured courtesan heroine Sahib Jaan dances on glass and destroys her dancer’s body – the feet – that she is able to marry her paramour, Salim. There are, however, particular kinds of ‘marriage’ that are not incompatible with being a professional dancer – that of the devadasi to the temple god, for example, or temporary or mut’a marriages of courtesans to patrons. However, devadasis could not marry a mortal man, and mut’a wives had a markedly different status in relation to the permanent wives.4


This incompatibility of marriage and public performance (or for some women, of any kind of work outside the home) still exists. For example, until quite recently, it was taboo for a film actress to continue acting after marriage (a taboo largely broken by Karisma Kapoor as late as in the 1990s), and most heroines still greatly curtail their work after marriage, which male actors do not.

An old man from a community of now disendranchised female and male performers in Rajasthan. © Anna Morcom.

Female professional performers were distinct from domestic women in their status, the kind of respectability they enjoyed, and also in terms of their education and skills in writing, poetry, music and dance. The women known by terms such as tawa’if, baiji, or nautch girl (as they came to be known under British rule) spanned a large range of different statuses. However, they were similar in that they performed music and dance for their patrons and sometimes also in more public settings or in salons; many wrote or recited poetry and also taught the nobility culture and etiquette; and they had long-term sexual relationships with patrons in a framework of concubinage.

Female professional performers of classical music and dance were at core hereditary artistes.5 The menfolk of some of these communities were also performers. In North India, they usually came from nomadic or semi-nomadic ‘tribes’ and communities rather than caste society. They were separate from the communities of their patrons or clients in terms of both social status and identity. But, at the same time, children of courtesan communities were largely fathered by the male patrons and clients, and the performers interacted closely with them in their artistic work.6

The imperatives of social reform and the zealous moral climate of British rule in the late nineteenth century in particular, focused intently on matters of female purity. There was also a growing intolerance to ‘decadent’ feudal practices amongst the increasingly prominent and numerous bourgeoisie, such as men keeping concubines. The dancing girls’ ambiguous or liminal position as non-married women, who provided artistic entertainment to elite men and were their concubines, became increasingly seen as prostitution. This has had far-reaching consequences. Colonial policies that sought to regulate prostitution such as the Contagious Diseases Act (1868) and the Cantonment Regulations (1864) were brought to bear on dancing girls, increasingly stigmatizing them and shaping their identity as common prostitutes rather than performers.


Colonial censuses and ethnographies further cemented the categorization of dancing girls as ‘prostitutes’. This was further fuelled by moral judgements that outweighed careful and nuanced consideration of the complex social status and working patterns of dancing girls. Most specifically, an anti-nautch or ‘anti-dance’ campaign gathered momentum by the latter part of the nineteenth century, declaring nautch girls to be prostitutes: they were seen on the one had to be enemies of Indian culture and society and, on the other, as helpless victims of exploitation. There was increasing pressure on both Indian and British elites to refrain from holding nautches or to boycott them.

Bhartiya Bargirls Union rally, Mumbai. © Bhartiya Bargirls Union.

Declaring nautch girls, courtesans and devadasis as prostitutes neglected to take into account the significance of their education and skills in music and dance to their status and their livelihood. Returning to the question of ‘why dance’: for hereditary female performers, in addition to dance being a hereditary occupation – just something one did if one was born into certain communities – it offered a significantly or a vastly superior livelihood and status as compared to prostitution. There was considerable scope for mobility through a honing of these skills and handling relationships with clients and patrons well, and potential to gain real prestige and money.


As a result of anti-nautch campaigns and the demise of the princely courts (which were finally abolished after independence), courtesans and nautch girls suffered both a massive loss of livelihood as well as intense stigmatization. Whilst fiction such as ‘Pakeezah’ presents the unhappy courtesan as ‘saved’ through marriage, this was the truth for very few courtesans. True, some were able to make independent careers in the early film industry, or through publishing their poetry, or as recording artists, and a small number even continued in the transformed classical traditions of the twentieth century, though with their backgrounds largely a matter of silence.7 However, a majority of hereditary female performers either continued as performers, but lower down the cultural hierarchy, in what were increasingly illicit worlds of dance, invisible at the level of ‘Indian culture’; or they went into transactional sex work, unable to gain a livelihood from dancing.8

Thus, these communities of hereditary female performers went from dance and music being a more or less compulsory livelihood determined by their birth, to being unable to dance, or struggling to dance. As for the devadasis, following the Madras Devadasis Act (1947) and enactment of laws in other states, they were actually legally forbidden to dance.

From the early twentieth century the classical dance traditions were transformed into a form suited to modern concert hall performance with audiences and performers from the bourgeoisie. Courtesans or devadasis, as such, had no place in these reformed traditions, despite their historical legacy. From the 1930s, as the traditional professional female performers had been marginalized, women from upper caste/upper class backgrounds started to pioneer dancing as a profession that did not conflict with bourgeois respectability.


New answers to the question ‘why dance’ have hence opened up for middle class Indians. Rather than being an occupation inconceivable for girls from upper caste backgrounds to enter into, dancing and singing have become a widely endorsed and encouraged activity for girls from ‘good families’. Rather than something that would mark them as a courtesan and thus unable to marry, it is now a highly valued accomplishment that makes them competitive in the marriage market.

However, the old stigma remains in certain ways: whilst many middle class families strongly encourage girls to learn dance, most do not wish them to follow it as a profession (indeed, it is still common for certain kinds of middle class families to see any kind of profession outside the home as unsuitable for girls). Nevertheless, dancing is, broadly speaking, an acceptable middle class profession and hobby.

The answers to ‘why dance’ in the mainstream of today’s India, therefore, largely concern whether or not people have talent and passion for it and value its aesthetic and spiritual qualities and benefits. The acceptability of dance in the middle classes has further increased since the 1990s with the popularity of Bollywood dance outside of Hindi films. Here, rather than rarified notions of ‘art’, dance is a means to get fit, de-stress, boost happiness levels, have fun and, for many, earn a good living, though it is also valued as a spiritual activity.8


There has been little enquiry into questions of whether traditional courtesans and devadasis enjoyed dancing, singing and performing, since they were largely hereditary and, furthermore, their lives and livelihoods came to be seen almost exclusively in terms of sweeping moral questions. However, as Soneji’s work has compellingly shown, communities of disenfranchised devadasis in South India value dance and their traditional skills and knowledge extremely highly, to the extent that they perform amongst themselves, behind closed doors. For them, dance and music are not just valued as art, but as a way of remembering their former lives as well regarded performers and the earlier prestige of their community.9 Women of courtesan communities have also expressed sadness for their lost social and cultural status.

Divya Sagar, kothi performer, at Bharosa Trust, © Anna Morcom.

Bars in which girls dance to Bollywood music emerged in Mumbai and Maharashtra from the 1980s and in particular, the 1990s. By the new millennium, they were gaining considerable visibility and generating controversy. It was said that the bar dancers or bar girls were prostitutes, not performers. On the one hand, it was claimed that they were causing the ruin of middle class families and social fabric more generally and, on the other, that bar girls were victims of exploitation by these men. A ban on dancing in bars and restaurants was brought in by the government in 2005, leaving an estimated 75,000 bar dancers out of work, many of whom went into sex work following the ban.


Although it was never discussed by the press, these arguments and the mass disenfranchisement of female dancers were an exact parallel to the anti-nautch campaign of the nineteenth century. Further, the parallels in fact went deeper, as the bar girls were largely from communities of the same former courtesans or nautch girls that the anti-nautch campaign had targeted. For these girls, dancing in bars offered a vastly better livelihood than the other opportunities they had for performing, and for many, the community occupation had become brothel based sex work for many decades. In these communities, dancing in bars was looked upon favourably by community elders as a return to the original occupation.


However, the dance bar ban of twenty-first century India differed from the anti-nautch campaigns of the nineteenth century in key ways. There was strong support, albeit from a minority of the public who saw these girls as unfairly targeted, although this tended to involve seeing the girls as victims with ‘no choice’ but to dance. However, a bar girls union was formed, and the debate started to be grounded in terms of labour and livelihood rather than questions of morality. The ban was legally challenged and successfully struck down by the Bombay High Court in 2006 as being unconstitutional on two grounds: it was declared to be discriminatory, since the ban exempted dance in three star restaurants and above; it was also declared to violate the right to practice a profession.

The High Court judgement carries a long discussion on dance in India, which includes noting erotic dance as part of India’s historical heritage and present-day Bollywood films. In 2013, the Supreme Court upheld this judgement, with the judge stating in conclusion, ‘The expression, "the cure is worse than the disease", comes to mind immediately.’

This entire debacle raises some interesting questions. It shows the rise to prominence again of a large segment of female dancers who were engaged in dance as a livelihood largely because of community background. This contrasted with the middle class world where dance was a matter of choice, of passion, or talent (or perhaps of family pressure). However, rather than seeing the engagement in dance of the core of the bar girls as a matter of khandani pesha or hereditary profession, it was constructed as an absence of choice, as helplessness or victimhood – majboori.

Like with the anti-nautch campaigns, the moral agenda that drove the debate led to the total dismissal of any value of the profession of bar dancing to the bar girls, despite the clear evidence from the bar girls that for them it was a good option, and they wanted to continue to work. The ruling that bar dancing is a profession (and that if there are instances of obscenity that be regulated with pre-existing laws) is thus a landmark decision. Whilst it ignores the questions of the community background of bar dancers and the history of these communities, it legitimizes livelihood and profession as an answer to ‘why dance’ for such women.


I have so far discussed hereditary female performers and middle class female performers, indicating some contrasts between them. However, there is also another important segment of female performers that is very little written about or discussed: female impersonators. Because of the conflict between dancing and marriage, as described, professional female performers were of the courtesan-type, women who did not marry and lived under different norms. However, in addition, another segment of professional female performers consisted of men and boys who performed female roles. Some of these female impersonators are fairly well known, such as Bal Gandharva, the star of the Marathi stage in the early twentieth century


However, female impersonation not only involves men who simply perform as females in female dress, but also those who identify with females. This includes the hijras or eunuchs, who perform in public and dress as women. They are largely seen as the ‘third gender’, and their role as performers is officially ritual and auspicious – to bless the birth of a (male) child, or marriages. Another group exists who are known as kothi or zanana in much of North India. They are males who see themselves as females – transgender females. However, for a variety of reasons, they do not join the hijras to live openly as transgender females or third gender (though there is a large overlap in hijra and kothi communities). A large number of kothis perform as females in theatrical traditions and dance. They are seen in erotic terms by male audience members and often perform in clearly erotic ways, and are more or less equivalent to female hereditary nautch-girl-type non-marrying performers.

For kothis and zanana, yet more answers emerge to the question of ‘why dance?’. It is not a hereditary profession, since there is no way to ensure that a son will be a kothi. Dancing in the kinds of vernacular traditions as kothis do – badhava (wedding processions), dance parties, melas, and local theatre traditions – is not a high status activity. Kothis are from the lower, vernacular middle classes, with some from poorer socio-economic background. Nevertheless, dancing is not generally supported by families – whether as a male or as a female. In fact, many kothis run away from home to pursue dance, or do it covertly, with dancing as a female being part of an extensive double life they live, as males in their home and community, and in other places where they are able, as females.

For a large number of kothis dance is a passion, as well as a full or part-time profession. With this community there is an added attraction or identification with dance, as a means to be female, and to embody not just a female persona, but an intensely female persona – heroines of the theatre, or of the film, whose songs they dance to. In addition, this persona is one that has a legitimate (though low status) public space, with it being generally accepted (without too much questioning) that males performing as females are a normal part of life in vernacular theatre and dance cultures. However, like the hereditary female performers, this traditional, liminal space is being considerably squeezed, with performances becoming increasingly sexualized, and kothis (and hijras too) increasing depending on sex work for a living, unable to earn a livelihood from dancing.


Overall, to explore the question of ‘why dance’ involves looking into deep social structures and different kinds of social value, and exploring how these intersect with dance as an embodied and affective activity. This also involves looking at the deeply pleasurable and uplifting aspects of dancing and music making alongside low and stigmatized social identities, and how they intermix in complex and even contradictory ways.



1. For more details, see my book, Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance. Hachette India, Gurgaon, 2014.

2. It’s also important to remember that many musical instruments contain polluting substances such as leather or gut, which makes handling them something incompatible with belonging to a high caste.

3. This is explored by Katherine Brown, in ‘The Social Liminality of Musicians: Case Studies from Mughal India and Beyond’, Twentieth-Century Music 3(1), 2007, pp. 13-49.

4. On courtesans and mut’a marriages, see Katherine Brown, ‘Hindustani Music in the Time of Aurangzeb’, PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, 2003, in particular pp. 148-153; and Richard Williams, ‘Hindustani Music Between Awadh and Bengal c.1758-1905’, PhD thesis, King’s College, London, 2015, pp. 165-171. On devadasis and marriage see Amrit Srinivasan, ‘Temple "Prostitution" and Community Reform: An Examination of the Ethnographic, Historical and Textual Contest for the Devadasi of Tamil Nadu, South India’, PhD thesis, Wolfson College, Cambridge University, 1984; Saskia Kersenboom-Story, Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1987; Davesh Soneji, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

5. Devadasis were able to adopt female children necessary to maintain the community profession (Srinivasan, ‘Temple Prostitution’), and there is evidence that North Indian courtesans and nautch girls sometimes purchased slave girls to train as performers. See Shweta Sachdeva, ‘In Search of the Tawa’if in History: Courtesans, Nautch Girls and Celebrity Entertainers in India (1720s-1920s)’, PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, 2008.

6. The sociology of these communities is complex and little researched. The most extensive work is Anuja Agrawal’s book, Chaste Wives and Prostitute Sisters: Patriarchy and Prostitution Among the Bedias of India. Routledge, New Delhi, 2008. The Bedia are a community who were previously performers and concubines to nobility, though the focus is on them in the present, as sex workers. See also Morcom, op. cit., for a study of the social organization of female hereditary performing communities.

7. Sachdeva, op. cit.; Jennifer Post, ‘Professional Women in Indian Music: The Death of the Courtesan Tradition’, in Ellen Koskoff (ed.), Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Greenwood Press, New York, 1987, pp. 97-109.

8. Morcom, op. cit.; Amelia Maciszewski, ‘Stories About Selves: Selected North Indian Women’s Musical (auto)Biographies’, The World of Music 43(1), 2001, pp. 139-72.

9. Morcom, op. cit., fn. 1, pp. 109-140.

10. Soneji, op. cit., fn. 4.