Wesleyan University

Davesh Soneji "Illicit Sexuality and the Politics of Movement: Dance and the Kalavantulu Community in South India" 10/06/2014


This lecture explores the persistent yet invisible performance practices of former courtesans (kalavantulu) in coastal Andhra Pradesh, South India. Following nearly a hundred years of "reform" activities the status of these women as legitimate citizens was curtailed as a result of state-endorsed legislation that criminalized their lifestyles in the mid-twentieth century. Today, narrations of selfhood and identity among these women emerge through encounters with their dance and music repertoire which they are careful to preserve "behind closed doors" in the relative privacy of their homes. Outside the kalavantula community, "courtesan dance repertoire" is read as a vestige of feudal history but within this community, personal and collective imaginations, identity, and selfhood live through these mnemonic bodily practices. For some women in courtesan communities today the repertoire is mobilized to consolidate an otherwise untenable civil identity.

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