1. Acknowledgment: Paromita Vohra, 'Bodily Fluid: The Movement of Bollywood Dance from Body to Body', was first published in Tilt Pause Shift: Dance Ecologies in India, edited by Anita E. Cherian, New Delhi: Tulika Books in association with Gati Dance Forum, 2016, pp. 183-96. [return to page 1]

2. Bharatnatyam is an Indian classical dance indigenous to the Tamil Nadu region in India which illustrates Hindu religious and devotional themes. The name Bharatanatyam is derived from joining two words—'Bharata’ and ‘Natyam’ where ‘Bharata’ is a mnemonic of ‘bha’ (Bhava) which means emotion, ‘ra’ (Raga) which means melody, and ‘ta’ (taal) which means rhythm, and ‘Natyam’ which means dance.

Bharatnatyam can trace its lineage to the dance form Sadir or Sadir Attam which was performed by Devadasis in royal courts, temples and other private spaces. Devasdasis were a community of female artists and dancers whose life was dedicated to serving a deity in ritual, dance and art. They were temple dancers, and later started performing in royal courts as well. The majority of dance compositions in Sadir were meant to be physical representation of the poetic texts that were usually erotic in nature. Longing, separation, and union were the core situations that characterised the poetic texts that were performed in courts, by courtesanal communities.

In the late 19th century, the Devadasi practice was banned, in a series of reforms propelled by British colonisers and upper-caste Indians, conflating Devadasi practice with to prostitution. Devadasis were caught in a web of multiple political agendas, and denoted as “vulgar” from the elite Brahminical lens. The many traditions of their dance like nautch, dasi attam and so on, were reconstructed and “modernised” into Bharatnatyam, which is now advertised as a Brahmin tradition of devotion, purity and storytelling.

3. Mother India is a visual personification of India that derives its iconographic attributes from the Hindu Goddess Durga, who rides a tiger and vanquishes a demon. Many pre-independence calendar art images feature images of this goddess-like figure called ‘Mother India’, holding in one hand a burning torch (Amar Jyoti or the eternal flame in remembrance of heroic sacrifice), and in the other, the national flag. Her golden halo and lion companion (’vehicle’) aligned her semiotically with the goddess Durga, though she had but two arms and carried no weapons. She is often pictured silhouetted against the map of India, its outline filled out by mountains and lakes, forest and flowers, signaling a sovereign India, freed from British rule (the mother-land). Post-independence the idea of India as Bharat Mata (Mother India) remains and is often used in nationalist discourse, offering a continuity between the idea of the Indian woman as a mother-goddess, pure and caring of the nation’s sons.

4. A full-length, gathered skirt, usually worn by women, in different regions of South Asia and often decorated with embroidery, colourful laces and small mirrors.

5. A gharara, also known as bara paincha (12-paneled) is a garment born in the Indian Islamicate culture, mostly in Northern India. It consists of a kurti (a short, mid-thigh length tunic), a dupatta (veil), and a pair of wide-legged pants, flared at the knees. They are usually made of silk brocade and elaborately embroidered. Ghararas originated in the princely states of Awadh (within modern-day Uttar Pradesh) and were popular among North-Indian Muslim women of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women characters in what were known as Muslim socials, Bollywood films set in an entirely Muslim social milieu, often wore ghararas to signal their aristocratic culture. In contemporary times, ghararas are most commonly worn for weddings or on major festivals like Eid.

6. Launched as an extension to the Social Purity Movement in India in the late 19th century (the 1890s), the Anti-nautch movement abolished many Indian dance practices, inlcuding the Devadasi practice. 

The term Devadasi means ‘servant of god’ refers to the community of female dancers in South India. The Devadasi practice followed marrying pre-pubescent girls to the temple deity in a ceremony called pottukattal, (tying the holy thread). Once a girl became a devadasi, she started training in the dance form called Sadir Attam. They used to perform in temples, royal courts, and at private soirees of the elite classes, often held on occasions such as marriages. Each of these contexts had its own set of dance and music compositions, though there was also a natural overlap, and technique and texts could sometimes be transferred from one context to another. Different names were given to these dancers depending on which occasion they performed on, such as the Alankara Dasis who performed at weddings and other ceremonies and Rajadasis who danced at royal functions. They were the most important ritual performers and no festive occasion was complete in the temple without the performance of the temple girls.

The “anti-nautch” movement began in South India as a struggle for the middle-class to orient all women in the service of the home and nation, and autonomy was looked on with suspicion. The restriction of women's lifestyle choices to Victorian sexual norms also resonated deeply with indigenous Brahmanical patriarchy. By the 1920s, the anti-nautch movement had reached its peak, and many devadasis were forced out of their homes and into urban rehabilitation centres that tried to “domesticate” them. The movement that started with a struggle to domesticate the devadasis in the south, later spread to the tawaifs of the northern region of colonial India, and also sought to sanitise manifestations of the erotic and queer in Indian culture.

7. Ghazal is a genre of lyric poem, featuring five to fifteen autonomous couplets, typically dealing with themes of love, longing, melancholy, metaphysical questions, mysticism, devotion and often sung by Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians. The form has roots in seventh-century Arabia, and gained prominence in the thirteenth and fourteenth century with Persian poets as Rumi and Hafez.

Each line of the poem must be of the same length. The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet's signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet's own name or a derivation of its meaning.

Traveling from Persia, the ghazal found a permanent home in India where it is sometimes traced to the 13th century in the works of Amir Khusrau. Its Urdu incarnation is identified in the work of Mohammad Quli Qutub Shah towards the latter half of the 16th century, and Vali Deccani in the 17th century.

8. Tawaif is a female entertainer who is well versed in the arts of poetry, singing, dancing, music, and etiquette. Sometimes caste-based professions, patronised by the dominant castes and landed elites, such performance communities were differently known in different parts of Indian, for instance, devadasis in the South, baijis in Bengal, and naikins or kalavantins  in Goa.  Often called “nautch girls” during British rule, their profession was conflated with prostitution in the late 19th century as part of purity movements and colonial law.

9. Mujrah is a dance form that emerged to entertain the Mughal royalty in pre-colonial India that incorporated elements of Kathak dance on music such as thumri, Dadra, ghazal or poems. The word ‘Mujra’ actually means to pay respect. The respect is paid to the audience in the form of dance. With the decline of performance communities due to purity movements, alongside the decline of the old princely states and landed elites due to changes wrought by the British colonial system, mujrah was performed more vestigeally in red-light districts and remained a popular dance item in Bollywood films until the 1980s. Mujrah song-sequences preserved the cultural memory of the tawaif and also reflected the knowledge and skills of the tawaifs which partly shaped the song and dance elements of early sound cinema.

10. The Vedic term Ganpati which means ‘guardian of the multitudes’ is another name for the Hindu deity Ganesha. Ganesh Chaturthi is a Hindu 10-day festival that celebrates the birth of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha, son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The festival is observed on the fourth day (Chaturthi) of the Hindu month of Bhadra (August-September). It begins with the installation of clay idols of Lord Ganesha either in homes or in pandals (outdoor tents/sheds). On the last day of the festival, the clay idols are carried to local water bodies in a huge musical procession accompanied by a huge crowd, chanting, dancing and singing. Then the idols are immersed in the water, a ritual known as visarjan with the hope that the Lord Ganesha will come back again. The festival celebrates Lord Ganesha as the god of new beginnings and the remover of obstacles (vighnaharta) as well as the god of wisdom and intelligence. [return to page 2]

11. An annual 9-day Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of the Goddess Durga over the buffalo-demon Mahishasur. Mahishasura was a buffalo-demon who won a boon of immortality whereby no man or God could kill him. Mahishasur, with such power, unleashed a reign of terror on earth and with his army of asuras defeated gods. To end this, all the three most powerful gods of the pantheon—Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva—came together to create a powerful force—Shakti who is known as Goddess Durga. With 10 arms, each with a weapon (a chakra, a trishul, a thunderbolt, a sword, a flame and more)  and riding on a lion, Durga fought with Mahishasur for 10 days, slaying him on the last. Those 9 days are celebrated as Durga puja, at the advent of autumn, especially in the eastern states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Assam, Bihar, and Tripura. The festival centralises the presence of women, fertility, art, food, dance and domesticity.

12. A divine play or dance of divine love. The word is also described in the sense of “playfulness” as well as “drama” or theatre.  It also refers to the revelational displays or dramatic manifestations of the various divine events in the life of Krishna where he attracts the milkmaids away from their homes, into the forest, where they play out their love and passion in the midst of nature.

13. A married or unmarried cowherdess or milkmaid most commonly referred to in connection with the god Krishna, and depicted as surrounding him with love and dance and desire in mythological narratives. The love of Krishna with Radha, a married gopi, is celebrated as the apogee of spiritual union and typifies the ardour of Bhakti and Sufi relationships with God, where the devotee is often referred to as female, the god as male, and love described as romantic and sexual as well as devotional and spiritual - the two becoming metaphors of each other as a way of connoting absolute submission to the divine being and divine love.

14. Though often conflated with the word demon, in Hindu mythology, asuras are actually beings defined by their opposition to the devas or suras (gods).

15. Amrit Manthan/Samudra Manthan (Churning of the Ocean Milk) is an event in Puranic mythology where the devas (gods) and asuras (demigods), who are traditionally opponents, churn the ocean in order to obtain the Amrit (elixir of life/immortality) from the celestial ocean of milk. Numerous magical objects and magical beings emerge, including the sun and the moon. When the nectar finally emerges, the gods trick the asuras and steal it away. The Churning of the Ocean is seen as rich with symbolism of the spiritual churn within, with metaphors for consciousness, desire, self-interest, asceticism, relational harmony, contradictions of human nature and so on.

16. Nach Baliya (2005) is an original Indian, Hindi language dance reality show by Star India where real-life celebrity couples compete with each other in a dance battle. In 2005, Star One (channel by Star Group) announced Nach Baliye, which was also open to the celebrities who were married to non-public figures, became an overnight success and a popular franchise among TV audiences.

17. Jhalak Dikhlaja (2006) is an Indian dance reality T.V. show and the spin-off of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing/ABC’s Dancing With The Stars where celebrities from various fields team up with professional dances to compete.


Morcom, Anna, Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, Delhi: Hachette India, 2014.

Majumdar, Neepa, Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s–1950s, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Pinto, Jerry, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006. Tuli, Nidhi, The Saroj Khan Story (documentary film), 2015.