Courtesans in Bollywood
Dancing with the Nation
Author - Ruth Vanita
Publisher - Speaking Tiger, Rs 450
This book examines the complex relationship between tawaifs and Indian cinema, writes ANUBHAV PRADHAN
Some books are difficult to talk about, not because they are badly written or argued but simply because they are so meticulously researched and carefully presented that it’s almost impossible to find anything substantial to say about them. Rarely do such books come out and make the reviewer’s task so challenging. There is, particularly in academics, always something to say, always something to commend or disagree with: rarely is the critic’s pen left silent by the depth and promise of an argument.
Ruth Vanita’s latest monograph, Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema, is precisely such a book. A bold experiment, much more in terms of form than in content, Dancing with the Nation is the culmination of seven years of work studying the representation of tawaifs — courtesans — in more than 200 films produced in the Bombay film industry over the past eight decades. In terms of numbers alone, it may well be one of the most comprehensive critical comments on tawaifs in Bombay cinema to be produced till date.
The book is not, however, critical in the regular sense. Readers familiar with Vanita’s considerable corpus of work will not find Dancing with the Nation similar to, say, Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, 1780-1870 or Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, and Culture. Both in terms of writing, the tone and structure of the narrative, and the presentation, the format of the final print product, Dancing with the Nation does not conform to prevalent perceptions of a standard academic text. In the hands of a less versatile author this could have been cause for concern, but Vanita’s erudition oozes throughout the narrative of Dancing with the Nation sans the conventional props of an academic exegesis.
Doing so, it informs and delights in equal measure. Spread over six neat chapters-"Family”, “Eros”, “Work”, “Male Allies”, “Nation”, and “Religion”-and flanked by the obligatory introduction and conclusion, Dancing with the Nation derives its biggest strength from the acute clarity with which Vanita breaks down her thesis into six thematic concerns which, read as a whole, cover most if not all the ground on the representation of tawaifs in Bombay cinema. One of her key agendas in conducting this exercise is to reach to a “less masculinist and more matrilineal” perspective on both the Indian family and the Indian nation, but Dancing with the Nation is so clearly and so much a labour of love that it is very easy to lose sight of this underlying ideological commitment in the broad and judicious sweep of Vanita’s argument.
Nonetheless, Vanita is eminently successful in recovering the tawaif as central to the enduring, ongoing cinematic myth making of the family and the nation in India. Long considered a dangerous other, a destabilising outcast at the margins of the nation and its culture, the tawaif’s significance stems from society’s need to have a “residual voice of excess” which provides alternative visions of kinship, pleasure, and companionship. Insisting that traditionally tawaifs were neither unwilling victims of circumstances nor without respect and admiration in the wider ambit of poetry, music, wit, and dance, Vanita argues that the gradual feminized sexualisation of the tawaif in Bombay cinema through the twentieth century reflects the social reformist, even Puritanical, zeal of film-makers and audiences. Another kind of bias, prevalent in scholarship, is also underscored by Vanita when she emphasizes the curious lack of attention given to tawaifs by scholars of Indian films over the past few decades: despite appearing centrally in more than 200 films across 82 years, tawaifs —and these films — find only cursory mention in the work of most scholars of Bombay cinema.
It is from these margins —critical, representational —that Vanita works to rescue the figure of the tawaif in Dancing with the Nation. Though a little breathless, the larger effect of the book is to reinscribe the tawaif as a leitmotif in filmic — and social — notions of gender, sex, and tradition in India. Importantly, it also reiterates the non-religious nature of tawaifana work and culture: instead of being symptomatic of Muslim rule and oppression, tawaifs are the children of the hybrid, indigenous culture of South Asia with Islamic and pre-Islamic roots. With only 22 cinematic appearances in this new millennium as per Vanita’s own reckoning, tawaifs are undoubtedly a dying breed in cinema as they have been in real life. Yet, Dancing with the Nation holds the promise of becoming a key node of reference for all those interested in the politics and aesthetics of tawaifana ada in Bombay cinema and, by extension, Indian society and culture.
The review is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. Views expressed are his own
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