Dancing with the Nation

Dancing with the Nation

Ruth Vanita


Cinema, Non-fiction


Paperback with flaps


$450.00 $405.00

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$450.00 $405.00

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(Paperback with flaps | ISBN 9789386702906 | 272 pp | December 2017)


Acknowledging courtesans or tawaifs as central to popular Hindi cinema, Dancing with the Nation is the first book to show how the figure of the courtesan shapes the Indian erotic, political and religious imagination. Historically, courtesans existed outside the conventional patriarchal family and carved a special place for themselves with their independent spirit, witty conversations and transmission of classical music and dance. Later, they entered the nascent world of Bombay cinema—as playback singers and actors, and as directors and producers.

In Ruth Vanita’s study of over 200 films from the 1930s to the present—among them, Devdas (1935), Mehndi (1958), Teesri Kasam (1966), Pakeezah (1971), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Ahista Ahista (1981), Sangeet (1992) and Ishaqzaade (2012)—courtesan characters emerge as the first group of single, working women depicted in South Asian movies. Almost every female actor—from Waheeda Rehman to Rekha and Madhuri Dixit—has played the role, and compared to other central female roles, these characters have greater social and financial autonomy. They travel by themselves, choose the men they want to have relations with and form networks with chosen kin. And challenging received wisdom, in Vanita’s analysis of films such as The Burning Train (1980) and Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), courtesan characters emerge as representatives of India’s hybrid Hindu-Muslim culture rather than of Islamicate culture.

A rigorously researched and groundbreaking account of one of the less-examined figures in the study of cinema, Dancing with the Nation is also a riveting study of gender, sexuality, the performing arts and popular culture in modern India.


‘The phenomenon of the courtesan as Nayika, Tawaif or Devadasi, has suffered a lot from faulty culture-bound evaluations. Ruth Vanita underscores the grossly undervalued importance of these women and the theme of the tawaif in India's entertainment industry over the years. Dancing with the Nation is a well-researched and perceptive account of professional actors’ lives as financially independent women in a patriarchal society and film industry, and their depiction as screen characters. It offers us rare insights into the world of women entertainers, of India’s entertainment industry and last but not the least, the complex socio-cultural paradoxes that have shaped the enormously popular and lucrative film industry in India.’—Mrinal Pande

‘A unique facet of Indian cinema finally gets its due. Ruth Vanita gives courtesans of Indian cinema what the scripts do not often give them—respect. She frees them from the clichés of tragic other woman or vixenish vamp and presents them as multidimensional characters, one of the first groups of working women in Hindi cinema who radically queered the traditional boy-meets-girl narratives. Richly detailed, exhaustively researched, this book uses the changing role of courtesans in Bombay cinema to tell the much bigger story of a changing India.’—Sandip Roy, author of Don’t Let Him Know

‘This is a spectacular reassessment of India’s cinematic courtesans; it provocatively challenges reigning stereotypes concerning gendered and ideological collectives. If offers new insights into the interface between canonical texts and performance, between art and labour.’—Syed Akbar Hyder, author of Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory

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About the author

Ruth Vanita

Ruth Vanita is a professor at the University of Montana, where she directs South and South-East Asian Studies. She earlier taught at Delhi University and co-founded Manushi, India’s first nationwide feminist magazine. Her books include Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India 1780-1870; Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West; […]

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