Sharvari Sastry, PhD Candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations and Theater and Performance Studies
This talk draws on my ongoing dissertation research into the ethics and aesthetics of preserving intangible cultural heritage, particularly performance, specifically in the context of tamasha and lavani, popular “folk” forms local to Maharashtra. I trace how the figure of the female lavani dancer is interpellated as subject, object and metaphor in the discourse of cultural preservation. Conventionally considered a vulgar form of erotic entertainment performed by lower-caste women for an exclusively male audience, the chequered history of lavani has been refracted through Marxist and Ambedkarite anti-caste movements, anti-obscenity laws of the postcolonial state, and through intersectional feminist assertions that emphasize the co-imbrication of gender and caste oppressions. Since tamasha and lavani are routinely denigrated as being vulgar and obscene, the trope of the ‘dancing girl’ is often invoked to signify the moral turpitude of these art forms; at the same time, the dancing girl is also mobilized as the ever-fertile site of moral reform, who can be literally and figuratively molded to suit hegemonic projects of cultural conservation. Given the highly patriarchal and hegemonic framework within which lavani emerged and continues to flourish, what are the contemporary political and cultural stakes of ‘preserving’ such an art form?