ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

A Dancer’s Petition: Death, Precarity and Resilience in Imperial Exhibitionary Spaces


Mahapatra Pratichi - University of California, Irvine, History, Irvine, United States


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


 In October 1895, Begum Jehan and Vajir Jehan, dancers based in Bombay, went on a tour to England on a six months contract. Few months in, Piaree Jehan, their grandmother and also a dancer herself, learnt about the death and disappearance of Begum Jehan and Vajir Jehan respectively. In 1896, Piaree filed a petition to the Bombay Police Commissioner, seeking justice.Through a close reading of Piaree Jehan’s petition along with contemporary newspaper reports, this paper documents how Indian women dancers asserted their claims as professional artistes in the racialized and sexualized spaces of imperial exhibitions. In the second half of the nineteenth century, several groups of Indian women dancers started touring European and American venues for contractual performances, as pre-existing sources of patronage for the dancers declined owing to colonial legislations on prostitution and rising Anti-Nautch movement in India. However, amidst adverse weather, hostile audience and untrustworthy showmen, misfortunes, akin to the Jehan sisters, often befell them. This paper argues that, despite the adversities, dancers made spaces for self-expression as laboring performing artistes by claiming unpaid wages, refusing sexual offers, writing petitions and forging female-centric kinship ties.By doing so, this paper, also invites reflections on locating moments of negotiations of the marginalized within the logics of nineteenth-century imperial exhibitions and the colonial archive.