ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Between the Sacred and Profane: Reclaiming the Agency of the Baijis of Colonial Bengal


Gupta Dr Devina - Gitam University, History, Hyderabad, India


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


This paper investigates the cultural political economy within which the female dance performers of colonial Bengal were entangled when the term nautch given by the British, the notions of respectability of the ‘native’ zamindar men and women pivoted the position of the baijis in Calcutta on an axis of race, class, caste, gender, religion and ethnicity peculiar to late 18th and early 19th century Bengal. Locating the shifting perceptions of her embodied practices in the colonial, missionaries and nationalist construction of dancing girls as ‘immoral,’ the paper adopts the methodologies of social history, art history, gender studies and connected histories to construct a framework within which the baijis from the Mughal courts of Agra-Lucknow were able to assert and reclaim their agency while travelling to and performing in the new patronage centres of colonial Bengal. To tease out the discourse of the nautch as profane and its negotiation by the female dancer’s subjectivity in performances intermingling the sacred and profane, this paper analyses paintings by SC Belnos, Charles D’Oyly, AM Collin, newspaper sketches in the Graphic and postcards of German photographer W Roessler. In these representations various factors intersected to make the body of the baiji a discursive site of analysis. The mobility of some courtesans from the Calcutta clubs to movie screens in the 1930s demonstrated their possible reconfigurations of the various interconnected nodes of colonial politics.