ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Female Performers in Popular Terminology: Exploring Possibilities of Mobility and Agency in 19th Century Awadh


Burman Tanya - Ambedkar University, Delhi (AUD), History, School of Liberal Studies, New Delhi, India


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


 The paper presents an analysis of popular terms and categories that were used to address female performers in 19th century Awadh. Often these categorizations get overshadowed by the term ‘tawa’if’ which does not necessarily do justice to the multiplicity of women’s experiences, positionalities, caste, class identities, their regions of origin and patronage as performers. The paper argues that through a discussion of other less popularly known terms like  chunewali, kanchani, baksariya, not only are we able to understand these complexities better also explore the possibilities of female performer’s mobility and agency. The paper traces female performer’s travel to and from the region across neighboring areas and other princely states through the names and terminologies that these women carried with themselves across borders. It also threads out the process of making of new terms such as gorekamanewali, that emerged with the changing circumstances of a colonial clientele. Further the paper shall focus on the tussle between prejudice against women’s ‘work’ through terms like kasb or pesha karna, and female performer’s assertion of their dignified identities through terms such as ramjani and khandani. This study not only allows us an entry point into the dynamic structure of female performance practices but also complicates the discussion of female performer’s mobility and agency, beyond a narrative of pre-colonial tawa’ifs’ ultimate colonial downfall.