Celebrating ten years, Mumbai's all-male lavani dance group is twice as old as the city's gay pride parade, which last month happened for the fifth time. Bin Baykancha Tamasha (or, Performance Without Women) is growing in popularity. In a long post on The New Yorker's blog, Sonia Faleiro, author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars [Kindle], reports on Men in Saris: Mumbai's New Lavani Dancers. Briefly:
"The city’s gay culture is dominated by young, English-speaking men, many of who work in call centers and find partners online. Financial independence makes it easier for them to live separately from their parents—still a cultural anomaly in India—and to express their sexuality more openly. In contrast, Mumbai’s working-class gay men live in chawls (or tenements), in single rooms that they share with as many as a dozen family members. They start work while still in high school, and marry within a few years of graduating. Family pressure to have children is fierce. Fearful of being ostracized, they keep their sexual identity secret. Most of these men don’t have the money or confidence to visit gay clubs, and they find partners in public parks and have sex in public toilets.
"These men speak the local language, Marathi, and reject the term “gay.” Instead, they prefer the concepts of kothi and panthi, depending on whether they see themselves as feminine or masculine, respectively. “Kothis,” said Vikram Doctor, a journalist and organizer of the pride parade, “are queens—flamboyant, bitchy, and out to shock people.” Thepanthis are their consorts. It is the kothis, effeminate men, who are drawn to lavani as performers, while panthis form a core part of their audience.
Despite favorable court rulings and changing attitudes, the dance troupe is "not willing to publicly associate with L.G.B.T causes" and, as Faleiro writes:
"Arranged marriage is the norm for kothis, according to Naz Foundation International, an advocacy group on male sexuality. Even kothis who were aware of their attraction to men since they were very young marry to avoid social stigma, and to fulfill their obligation to produce heirs. It isn’t clear whether their wives know of their husbands’ sexuality when they get married. For those who find out later, divorce is still economically and socially damaging enough that it’s not really an option."
Of course the Olympus of all Mumbai reporting is Katharine Boo's National Book Award winner and NBCC champ, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
(Photo, from a previous Mumbai Pride, via Groovy Ganges.)