Modern Laws, Human Rights and Marginalisation of Courtesan and Transgender Performers in India

  • Anna MorcomEmail author


Before the early to mid-twentieth century, performing professionally in front of men or in public was generally incompatible with marriage and ‘respectability’ for women in India. Anna Morcom traces the origins of professional female performers from hereditary groups of courtesans or dancing girls who did not marry, or males performing female roles. Male performers included transvestite female impersonators and men identifying as females—transgender female performers. She describes how, in today’s India, the esteemed classical performing arts are overwhelmingly the preserve of middle-class and upper-caste performers and institutions. Courtesans as such have no role, let alone cross-dressed males. Although performing in public has not entirely lost its ambiguity for women in India, especially as a profession, the middle class’ acceptance of dancing has nevertheless continued to widen and since the 1990s a Bollywood scene has emerged which is overtly sexy and sensual, but is not considered disreputable. Morcom examines the legal and social changes shaping this transformation, looking at laws, social campaigns and discourses of rights. In particular, she explores what has happened to traditional female public/erotic performers. She reviews colonial laws regulating prostitution and the criminalising of ‘obscenity’ and homosexuality, and the action of the anti-nautch (‘anti-dance’) campaign, a social purity movement against courtesans that spread in the nineteenth century. Morcom then turns to the present day and ab/use of trafficking and obscenity or nuisance laws against female hereditary and transgender performers, and the ban on dance in bars in Maharashtra in 2005 with its subsequent surprise defeat in the Indian High Court and Supreme Court. She explores these forces and others in the radical changing of socio-cultural space of India’s traditional female performers from a liminal to a more black-and-white illicit and excluded status.


Maharashtra State LGBT People Indian Penal Code Female Performer Male Dancer 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Music DepartmentRoyal Holloway, University of LondonEghamUK

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