ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Pavalabai: Fighter of Vulgar and Violent Caste-Patriarchy in Maharashtra


Paik Shailaja - University of Cincinnati, History, Cincinnati, United States


21- Panel Title: Violence against women in South Asian countries


 Pavalabai Tabaji Bhalerao Hivargaokarin (1870-1939) was the first important and renowned Untouchable woman singer and dancer who performed in modern theatres of Mumbai in the early twentieth century. She was dedicated as a Murali and entered the popular, secular theatre of Tamasha, associated and worked with men from different castes, especially touchable men, and traveled throughout Maharashtra’s cities and villages to perform. She was a brilliant performer, one smart enough to play in Tamasha, secular popular form of public theatre practiced predominantly by Dalits and that delighted and aroused audiences of mixed-caste and mixed-class men.  She contested Dalit and Brahman patriarchal structures, was the head of her household, and was the main breadwinner for her family. I deploy Pavalabai’s history to argue that the performative pleasure of Tamasha was inseparable from subjection and exploitation—it normalized caste violence and cemented patriarchal control of Tamasha women, transforming them, as the case of Pavalabai demonstrates, into objects, paradoxically desirable as well as dangerous. Focusing on the microhistory of Pavalabai, my paper illuminates the ways in which vulgarity, sexuality, and sexual subordination were integral to the functioning and reproduction of caste and patriarchy. I recreate the life history of Pavalabai and the emergence of her Dalitness in the context of caste politics and unravel the paradoxes of Tamasha.