Censorship and the Nationalization of Dance in India: An Overview from 1947 to the Present


  • Arundhati Chakravarty




Dance, censorship, classical dance, performing arts, nationalism, cultural identity, devadasi, CBFC, tawaif, Cinematograph Act, cultural appropriation, popular cinema, item numbers, pre-censorship


In this essay, I present a broad overview of the intersections between dance and censorship in independent India. I try to explore the consequent exclusions within the mainstream dance discourse and practices as they were shaped by hegemonic forces of nationalism. I also look at how the changes in instruments and objectives of censorship reflect changing visions of nationalism. Thisessay broadly examines two major forms of censorship, both of which have been crucial in the appropriation and reconstruction of dance as an integral part of the nationalist cultural identity of India. First, there are the overt forms of censorship, which have been enforced by instruments of state power like legislation and statutory bodies. The post-independence government enacted the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act 1947 and Cinematograph Act 1952 ostensibly for socialreformandprotectionofpublicmorality,butineffectthey carried forward socio-political biases of Orientalism and colonialism into the postcolonial project of constructing the Indian imaginary. The process necessitated the elimination of hereditary artist communities and professional women performers (and many of their movement idioms) from mainstream practices of dance, even as their art was decontextualized and reconstructedtosuittheofficiallysanctifiedhighculture. This mode of erasure also influenced popular forms ofdance, especially those appearing in Indian cinema, by inscribing them with nationalist notions of womanhood, sexuality, and, more recently, religious majoritarianism. Second, I trace the covert operation of censorship, in which state institutions play a key role in the support and promotion of art. Through selective funding and promotion, conferring privileging labels like “classical,” and presiding over the formalization and classicization of dance, these institutions helped fit dance practices within the nationalist framework of a normative Indian cultural identity that is predominantly Hindu and rahminical. This process resulted in hierarchization, stigmatization, and even omission of certain dance practices, some of which I have highlighted in this essay. The sustained influence of direct and indirect modes of censorship created standardized codes of aesthetics and performance practices, contributing to a chilling effect and leading practitioners to censor themselves. Finally, I argue that the centrality of dance in the national cultural discourse enabled its

use as propaganda to censor negative actions of or perceptions about the government. The phenomenon, which may be described as artwashing, has become increasingly prominent in the contemporary context of Hindu majoritarian nationalism seeking to launder itsexclusionary tendencies in the process of redefining Indian cultural identity on its terms. Thus, I argue that censorship in the domain of dance has played not just a repressive role but also a productive role by enabling discourses of nationalism. It has acted as a tool of governmentality, by which nationalist ideologies have been established and reinforced to public, such that they are no longer confined to the sphere of the state but have percolated down to the conduct of individuals.