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Updated: April 14, 2014 17:04 IST

‘The first time I saw Hindi films, I thought they were unrealistic’

Sangeetha Devi Dundoo
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Author Anna Morcom
Author Anna Morcom

Anna Morcom gives readers an insight into the world of tawaifs, Bollywood dancers and transgender communities in her new book

Academic and a huge Indian cinema enthusiast Anna Morcom was surprised when she learnt through Varsha Kale, President of Indian bargirls union, that the bargirls were to a large extent from traditional hereditary performing communities, the old tawaif and bai-ji communities. “This opened up a fascinating history,” says Anna. Extensive research followed where she met folk communities across the country, bar girls, Bollywood dancers and the result is her new book Courtesans, Bargirls and Dancing Boys: Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance (Hachette publication). In these edited excerpts from an e-mail interview, the London-based author discusses the journey of writing her book.

Did you perceive your book ‘Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance’ as partly academic and partly catering to mainstream readers?

I saw the book as an academic work, since I am an academic. However, I was keen that it should also be accessible to a more mainstream non-fiction readership. My interest in maintaining its academic rigour also lay in the nature of the subject, which is sensitive or controversial in places, and hence I feel it is important for sources to be clear (for those who want to follow up sources) and arguments to be well grounded in facts and sources rather than emotions. To achieve this balance is not easy, but I hope non-academic readers will read the book. There is a lot of interest in courtesans/tawaif in India.

The book has involved 16 months of fieldwork between 2006 and 2009. Where did the travels take you?

I started in Mumbai, meeting people who danced in the film industry, and then came to know of the bar girls from families/communities from all across North India. I followed up some contacts which took me to Muzaffarpur in Bihar (where there is still a community of active tawaif), and to Tonk, Rajasthan. I also visited Nat performers in UP. Indirect contacts from bar girls also brought me to GP Road in Delhi, and direct contacts brought me to Congress House and Kamathipura, where I watched two mujra performances. I also visited Kolhati performers in Pune and villages in Maharashtra. My research on transgender communities took place in Lucknow, Balliya, Delhi and Mumbai. I also visited female dancers in Lucknow, Mumbai, Delhi and Jalandhar.

The transgender and hijra communities are also a significant part of the book. How did you get an insight into their world?

I met the transgender kothi and hijra communities also by fortuitous coincidence — I went to the ‘Entertainment workers conference’ in Calcutta in February/March 2007, organised by the sex workers cooperative DMSC. There were a lot of LGBT people there. I met three young men from the Bharosa Trust in Lucknow which deals with MSMs and sexual health, who were from the kothi community. I was chatting to them and was interested to hear they were from Lucknow, and enquired if there was still mujra there, since I was researching mujra, to which they replied that mujra was finished in Lucknow, and there was only mujra performed by boys. I was intrigued, and said I would like to find out more, and they welcomed me to Lucknow. Via the Bharosa Trust, I met many kothi performers, and some hijras too. Again, contacts lead to contacts, and this community was very open to talk, knowing I understood their gender position and was interested to hear their stories. They were also enthusiastic about dance and keen to talk to me about this, and show me their dancing, as opportunities arose. I also think it was easy to work with them as a female researcher.

Were you faced with a situation of having more information than you could fit into one book? Would you consider writing more books/papers on dancing communities and exclusion?

I would certainly like to write more on these topics. Other authors have done excellent work (in academia and some writing for the mainstream), but it is just a drop in the ocean in terms of understanding these communities which have played such a major role in India’s cultural heritage.

In the initial portions of the book, you analyse Pakeezah in detail. You also have a doctorate in Hindi film music. How did this interest in Hindi cinema come about?

The first time I saw Hindi films and heard Hindi film music , I had the reaction typical of westerners that saw it as ‘unrealistic’, and the music did not appeal at all. I couldn’t understand it. Then later I became curious, and thought that if a large number of India’s vast population loved these films and music, and I didn’t, it was surely me that was missing something. Hence I was keen to explore them and try to understand the appeal, which I began to, and have become a keen fan. I remember someone in my Hindi class in the UK (a Bengali tabla player) gave me a cassette of old film songs — from Baiju Bawra and Mere Mehboob, both by Naushad, and I was mesmerised by the beauty of the melodies. Also, as I learned Hindi from 1993, I started to love the language and enjoy films and songs from this point of view. I also watched films in the early days to help learn Hindi. Initially, I had visited India as a volunteer English teacher in Dharamsala, teaching Tibetans, and had decided to study about India, and Tibet, when I returned to the UK, as my initial 6 months in India had made an indelible impression on me. I studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, as an undergraduate (BA in Hindi and Ethnomusicology) and later a Ph.D.

Bollywood choreographers and junior artistes have been subjects of many documentary filmmakers and writers. How differently do you look at their world?

My approach was to look at contemporary Bollywood from the social and historical point of view, tracing the remarkable way in which Bollywood dance has become an acceptable activity for middle class girls and boys when any dance, let alone quite sexy or sensual dance, had been entirely unacceptable around a century ago. I knew something of the sociology of Indian performing arts, having studied this at university, so was fascinated by this process of social and cultural change. Whilst I am a fan of Bollywood films and music and dance, my approach is to look at the background of these phenomena and their development in a way that goes beyond fandom, that opens them up in ways which I think are fascinating. I think it is really enriching to know more about culture and arts, as a fan, and also for scholars.

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