Cabaret Dancing and the Malayali Feminists’ Moral Burden – K R Gouri Amma from the 1970s

[On 27 February 1974, K R Gouri Amma called for attention under Rule 16 in the Kerala State Legislative Assembly, drawing attention to the ‘menace’ of ‘naked dancing’ in Kerala. The translated version of her speech is below. It was perhaps one of the few matters on which the right and left, men and women who claimed to be decent, were all in public agreement – ‘naked dancing’ lowers the moral standards of a culture. This page from the records of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly does not give us any clue of who these ‘naked dancers’ were – they seem to have been a group of women with a male manager. They had actually secured permission from the local government authorities for their performances.

This speech reveals a great many things about the limitations of the early generation of swatantryavaadinis in Kerala – how they could so easily slip into conservatism. By this time, the shame of lower-class nakedness as a tool of caste oppression had more or less disappeared, and now the shame was of a clearly sexual nature and disproportionately borne by women. Men of all classes at this time went around with just a piece of cloth around their waists at home and even at work, as labourers for example. Women’s nakedness, unless it was of very senior women, had begun to evoke horror and the visual representation of women’s bodies clad in normal everyday attire that did not fully cover up was beginning to sexualize these female bodies intensely — the ‘nightie’ ubiquitous in present-day Kerala as the solution to the problem of female nakedness – was waiting in the wings for a grand entry.

So one can well imagine the horror of the first-generation feminists, including KR Gouri Amma, at seeing women not only naked, but also dancing before random men! Something that we, their daughters, have to definitely shake off. At the same time, one cannot help noticing how an issue on which all first-generation feminists agreed upon and one which bothered them (remember, this issue came up again in the early 1980s when Sugatha Kumari attacked cabaret performers) was raised so quickly, and with such alacrity in the Assembly. This incident was remarkable this way too – for in the coming decades, few women legislators would have the guts to stand up and voice a common cause in the legislator on behalf of women even when everybody on the women’s activist side were agreed on it. One remembers sadly how our women legislators have failed us, over and over again. When will we find someone like Gouri Amma to be our voice in the Legislative Assembly?]

[ This is from the Proceedings of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly, Vol. 17, Tenth Session, 24 February 1974, pp 1742-44.]

License for strip-tease in exhibition grounds and other public places.

Smt K R Gouri: Sir, recently, in public arenas, festival grounds, church festival grounds, and in other places of public performance, naked dancing by women has become utterly common. This started as beauty contests, and then gradually became a dance for the dinners of elite people in big hotels. Recently, in Ernakulam, very close to a public road, near Shanmugham Road, a Sheeba theatre has been constructed, a license has been secured, and this has been going on for months, under police protection. When the show was on, there were protests from the people’s side, two times. The police lathi-charged the protestors and beat them. After all this, in order to raise this naked dancing to higher levels, now a license has been granted to hold them in the exhibition arenas. In the Exhibition that is on at Ernakulam a special space has been set apart for gambling and arrangements have been made for women to dance naked there. The Municipality, which is an autonomous governing body, has auctioned off this space for an amount of two and half lakhs. The license for this activity which raises a veritable challenge to people’s culture was granted by the police officers there as well. I understand that before this started, the Corporation Councillor Madhavi Amma had submitted an application to the City Corporation to prevent it. We too had submitted an application. We had asked for a discussion on our application, but the Corporation did not discuss it. When we pressed for a discussion and threatened a walk-out, the Council was dismissed. And then recently, conspiring with them [the performers] they said that the license was cancelled. If the police don’t get their cut, they will be arrested. This is something they, senior police officers included, go there to do, to make sure that there is enough encouragement to make them pay up to the police. In this way, they apparently cancelled the license as a challenge, and then they went to the High Court and secured permission again, I hear. I have got to know that this is going to be presented at the Exhibition at Thiruvananthapuram as well. It was performed at the temple festival at Mullaikkal and in Aluva too. It has been done in places of worship and churches. A license from the local self-government is needed for its performance. The government should arrest those who engage in this immediately, without a warrant, according to Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code. Now it has been upgraded and performed in two more Exhibition sites continuously. The government should take steps to ban this strictly. Two months back, we had passed a resolution against this and sent it to the government and the local self-government. All that has been thrown to the winds; no matter what anyone says, these performances will be held, there is money to be made from it, doesn’t matter if our culture sinks deep, it will be done — that is what is being said, and this performance is happening continuously. Drastic steps must be taken to ban this totally. I humbly request you to kindly arrest all those who are engaged in this according to the sections of the Indian Penal Code, and punish them.

[The Home Minister K Karunakaran is in full agreement. He says that the license was granted because this dancing was mentioned as an art. Naked dancing was performed after this license for art was secured. The gamblers too had no permission and when the police reached their venues, they inevitably decamped. The police entered the venue when ‘fully naked dancing’ was on and arrested six women and their male manager, and sealed their venue, and sealed it before they could go to the Municipal Court and secure a stay. Their license was also cancelled. Now the Court has ordered that they be granted a license afresh! The government was however determined to suppress this cultural abomination.]

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