Constructed Identities, Appropriated Culture


Celebrating 10 Years of the Jaipur Literature Festival

Prachi Bhagwat, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


“Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an incoherent… political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality.”

– Ernest Gellner


In his book, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Eric Hobsbawm describes the process of nation making as one imbued with the element of artefact, invention and social engineering. The story of the making of India, still described by many as a nation-in- making, is no exception. While the anti-colonial discourse in the mid-nineteenth century revolved around themes of economic exploitation, by the end of that definitive century, the discourse took root in the realm of culture. A section of the anti-colonialists set out on a mission to construct a formidable cultural identity, setting new parameters for what it meant to be Indian.

A group of social reformers sought to reform cultural practices and meet the standards of progress and modernity, as held by the British. When native women became the central project of reform, it fuelled the rise of another vocal group who, through rhetoric, rejected all that the British held to be progressive and modern, especially with regard to women. This group consisted of staunch, mostly upper-caste nationalists who set out on a mission to ‘revive’ a pure, glorious Hindu past and, with it, its rich cultural heritage. Simultaneously, they rejected the concept of the modern woman that the reformers advocated. The definition of the ideal Indian woman as pure and chaste, inviolable by colonial modernity, was an allegory of the colonisation of the nation as a whole: the pure nation, fashioned as Bharat Mata, was to be worshipped, and her purity protected from defilement by foreign elements.

It was in this context that an aggressive re-invention of art forms was undertaken. Until now, the performing arts had been practised by the lower-caste and minority communities, such as the Dalit women who performed lavani in Maharashtra, the tawai’fs in Northern India who had inherited, and themselves developed a rich tradition of music and dance over the years, and most famously, the devadasi: remembered today as the temple dancers who performed sadir in parts of southern India.

The upper-castes had long considered the arts, their performers, and their audiences, to be uncultured. Furthermore, these arts were entangled in the sexual labour the women often had to perform for their patrons. It was for this precise reason that they stood at the intersection of two processes in modern India: the zealous project to construct a definitive ‘Indian’ culture and the emergence of a new kind of sexual morality that worshipped and protected a Bharat-Mata- like woman, and vilified “ill-famed” women as prostitutes, as M.K Gandhi described devadasis on a trip to Jaffna.

An anti- ‘nautch’ (anglicised for naach) movement to ban the devadasi tradition, gained support among both the social reformers and the British, for whom the co-existence of the sacred and the profane appeared blasphemous. However, for the revivalists, although the artists meant little, their art was too important to be driven towards extinction. As such, the dance form had to be sanitised to adhere to the image of a glorious Hindu past and, more importantly, to be performed by the ideal, respectable Indian woman. Artists like E.M Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale pioneered the transformation of Sadir to Bharatanatyam. While Bharatanatyam is advertised as the foremost classical dance of the nation, it is in fact the creation of India’s interaction with processes of modernity, and was crucially shaped by the colonial encounter.

The sensual element or shringar was subsumed by themes of devotion. The performance of the dance form moved from the mandapa of the temple, to the proscenium stage, with emphasis on set design and lighting. Its history was directly traced to Bharata’s Natyashastra, providing it with the cultural capital that comes with claims to antiquity, and schools were opened to disseminate this new knowledge. Upper caste women and girls flocked to institutions like Kalakshetra and trained to become Bharatnatyam dancers, while Rukmini Devi emerged as the saviour of a dying dance form integral to India’s cultural pride.

The dasis, like the lavani dancers and the tawa’if, remained excluded from the narrative of cultural glory. These were the ‘kind of women’ who were an inconvenience to the narrative of Indian nationalism. They could neither fit in the story of the ‘golden past’, nor find their ground in the shifting realities of the present. Their lives were an aberration, representative of everything ‘India’ did not want, or project itself to be.

I should add here that it is not as if the devadasi tradition or the performance of lavani or even the lives of the tawa’if were not mired in exploitation but that, by banning these practices, coupled with the sanitisation and appropriation of their art forms, these women were further marginalised and denied agency, and forced to survive solely on sexual services and menial work. A letter of protest against the Devadasi Abolition Bill of 1927, published in the Tamil newspaper Cutëcamittiran, asked if it is correct to call “all devadasis prostitutes, and all prostitutes, devadasis,” arguing that in no way would the passing of the Bill result in the termination of prostitution. For the devadasis, it was a ‘damned-if- you-do- damned-if- you-don’t’ situation.

Soon, in independent India, with the Karnataka Devadasis Prohibition of Dedication Act, 1982, and Maharashtra Devadasis Abolition Act, 2006, the devadasi practice was formally banned in these states. The dasis were not alone in facing this onslaught. In 1948, the chief minister of Maharashtra banned the practice of tamasha and lavani, and agreed to lift the ban only on the condition that all obscenities from the songs were to be removed before being performed in public. In the same year, Vallabhai Patel announced that the tawai’fs, who had taken to the radio to continue singing, be banned from doing so because “women whose private lives were public information” must not be allowed to perform their music on the airwaves.

Today, upper caste communities across the nation have emerged as the custodians of Indian ‘high’ art across nearly all forms, and exercise a monopoly over the cultural scene. Just three days ago, news reports emerged of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s new project of telling the stories of its mahapurush, Hedgewar, VD Savarkar and Rana Pratap, employing the style of Dastangoi, an Urdu storytelling art that travelled to India in the 16th century. Dastangoi in fact belongs to the very culture and people that the RSS’s most influential sarsanghchalak, M.S Golwalkar, has described as the “Muslim menace” and “hostile elements” in his speeches. Moreover, the RSS has chosen not to use the term Dastangoi because it is a part of Urdu culture, and so will instead use the term ‘Katha Sagar’. One month ago, paintings at the Jaipur Art Summit were vandalised for containing obscenities and nudity, and thus not being representative of ‘true’ Indian culture, according to the Rashtriya Hindu Ekta Manch. Clearly, the combination of revivalism and appropriation is alive and kicking.

The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 will host a session on cultural appropriation and the many ways it takes place, with speakers including Ajay Navaria, Mark Singleton, Jim Mallinson, Mrinal Pande and Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Pavan K. Verma. There will also be a session on Mother India: Indian Films and the National Narrative, involving Prasoon Joshi, Rachel Dwyer and Swanand Kirkire and Madhu Trehan, to further raise questions about the many ways that art is not isolated from the political context in which it is created.

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