ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

13 – The Travelling Female Performer: Mobility and Agency in and beyond South Asia, c. 1760-1940

Female performers in South Asia–devadāsī, mirāsan, tawā’if, kanjrī or naṭnī–have historically been peripatetic communities. This panel explores connections between travel, mobility and power for female performers in South Asia’s broad colonial period (1760-1940), to facilitate a discussion across disciplines like history, ethnomusicology, literature, politics, and art history.

Convenors

Radha Kapuria - University of Durham, United Kingdom
Shweta Sachdeva Jha - University of Delhi, English, Delhi, India
Jennifer Howes - Independent Scholar, Art History, London, United Kingdom

Long Abstract

Female performers in South Asia–devadāsī, mirāsan, tawā’if, kanjrī or naṭnī–have historically been peripatetic communities. This panel explores connections between travel, mobility and power for female performers in South Asia’s broad colonial period (1760-1940), to facilitate a discussion across disciplines like history, ethnomusicology, literature, politics, and art history.

Female performers­–both professional and non-professional–travelled across many patronage sites. These ranged from the courts and salons of Indian rulers, East India Company ‘Nabobs’, and zamindars in small town qasbas, to the proscenium stage, which extended to recording studios for gramophone and film, and new schools for music and dance that emerged in the early twentieth century. This period also saw upper-caste middle-class women enter spaces previously shaped by hereditary performers. Despite the moral censure they faced, did these hereditary performers also participate in nationalist and reformist movements? Did female performers articulate their agency through travel and mobility? How did travel help them negotiate their position vis-à-vis powerful structures of patronage?

We welcome papers that look at both transnational and quotidian circuits of these performers’ travels. This could mean journeys to international theatre spectacles and expositions, to religious sites like temples and sufi shrines, or participation within rites of passage like weddings and pilgrimage. In the context of Empire, we are interested in mapping not just how female performers travelled in local, regional and transnational contexts, but also whether they were able to transcend the trope of the ‘nautch girl’.