ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Performing Art/Performing Labour

Gender, Body, and the Politics of Culture


“All the others have become devis, I am the only bai left,” remarked Rasoolan Bai—the acclaimed classical thumri singer from the “tawaif cultural tradition” subjected to live and die in penury towards the end of her ­career—as she looked at the portraits of female singers and musicians at the All India Radio station in Allahabad (Dave 2011).1 Her ironic comment underlines the “sanitising” thrust of the nationalist refurbishing of culture, reinforced through the state radio broadcasting network that sought to reform (or remove) the “impure” bais or hereditary women artists from the gentrified space of performance of the new nation.

Indeed, the cultural policy/politics was never constituted in isolation but trudged through many rugged routes of exclusion and ­inclusion—of particular castes, classes, or communities—creating new forms of hierarchies, new categories and ranked ­orders, and subsequently marginalising and evicting certain “styles” performed by a specific class of artists and entertainers. In order to thrive with its glorious inventory of culture, the making of the moral nation bluntly mandated the erasures of a number of bodies that perform and labour to earn a living. Thus, on the one hand, the hereditary performance labour of the lower castes came to be recast as “arts” in modern India among respectable middle classes. It came to be re-aestheticised as the classical arts through the processes of textualisation, spiritualisation, and systematisation. The sanitising endeavours, on the other hand, sought to criminalise and abolish many other forms of artistic labour, robbing the subaltern arti­sts of their livelihood and vulgarising and “de-aestheticising” their performance practices as obscene unscrupulous transaction and thus reiterating the division between culture/art and work/livelihood. The sexualisation of women artists in this process further obscured their performing labouring bodies.

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Updated On : 31st May, 2022
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