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Slaves, Prostitutes, and Patronage: Female Dancers in Colonial Bombay Presidency


· Pratichi Priyambada (Mahapatra) University of California, Irvine (Irvine, United States of America)


07/26 | 17:50-18:10 UTC+2/CEST


My paper maps the shifting categories of female dancers in the colonial abolitionist discourses in the Bombay Presidency in the first half of the nineteenth century. Engaging with a set of colonial judicial records from the Bombay Presidency, writings of British abolitionists, and Parliamentary Papers on Indian slavery, this paper explores how the colonial state identified the “dancing girls” as “slaves” and “prostitutes” by the middle of the nineteenth century. Such legal categorization of dancers, I suggest, reflected larger colonial concerns of controlling certain ‘unruly’ native groups in order to contain the spread of venereal diseases in the Presidency. At the same time, I also explore, how the formation of such criminalized legal identities resulted in the decline of the dancers’ preexisting modes of livelihood enabling their social marginalization. In the wake of their declining patronage, the dancers, however, resisted through written petitions and appeals. This paper, therefore, argues that the intersection of the dancers’ negotiation with the colonial state vis-à-vis colonial attempts at controlling the dancers through legislations reflected larger changes within the interlinked systems of enslavement, performance, and sexual practices under British colonialism in the nineteenth-century Bombay Presidency.