Dialogue with a dancer


What is this cultural labour you are talking about? How does it impact what we do, what others do? Don't you think that the relationship between aesthetics and labour is an odd one? Both stand in opposition, don't you think? And tell me how is cultural labour different from other forms of labour: affective labour, emotional labour, and creative labour, estranged labour? Are you really saying that Indian artistic practices are sites of cultural exploitation? That as we dance we become further enslaved? So, are we to stop performing? What does this framing offer us? Can you not explain it in easy language rather than the academic one?

What if I say, whatever you have learnt about Indian art, dance, music, theatre is actually about the middle class? It presents a monoculture, a Brahminical ideology defining Indian cultural and aesthetic discourse at large. The Indian middle class believes, and will make you believe, that Indian dance is classical dance, Indian theatre is theatre produced by the National School of Drama and the few progressive theatre practitioners from the middle class, Indian music is Hindustani and Carnatic music and Indian cinema is Bollywood. They will tell you that the most important Indian epics are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

These are the lies which underpin aesthetic and cultural discourse in India. The cultural middle class driven by Brahminical ideologies have subsumed all other discourses in this frame. The Indian middle class has not only successfully established itself as ‘the cultural class’, but has also projected itself as the only cultural class. The prevailing aesthetic and cultural discourse has been constructed based on the erasure of land, labour, body and materiality. Boaventura de Sousa Santos terms it as ‘the sociology of absences’, in which practices and experiences of the lower orders are rendered invisible as part of larger narratives as they don’t exist. It produces the logic of non-existence of others. Drawing from de Sousa Santos,1 it can be argued that scholars have maintained general silences around immense variety of knowledge and experiences. They have also actively created these silences through particular processes. Some of the aesthetic experiences and discourses were not allowed to exist in the first place in the hegemonic presence of the monoculture of knowledge, in the name of merit and rigour, and through the exclusive canons of production of artistic creation.

Cultural Labour2 was an attempt to expose the monoculture produced by the social elites in the field of Indian aesthetics and cultural discourse by showing that others too exist there. By bringing footnotes into the body, absent into present, invisible into visible and weakness into strengths, I tried to present a case of narrow and myopic vision of the middle class idea of the culture and aesthetics. In this essay, I am trying to address some of the questions – from concerned readers, scholars, artists, and activists in the field – raised by my monograph Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India in 2019. I want to make the concept more accessible and show its applicability in a broader cultural context and within specific contexts, for example the folk performance of the subaltern communities.

The focus of Indian aesthetic and cultural discourse has remained so narrow and so exclusive that in this diverse country, it can be termed as a discourse of one community. It is the discourse of the upper caste kula (the family and lineage). In cultural discourses, kulas are cool. The culture for this privileged community is kuleen sanskriti. They call it proudly. But is it capable of seeing beyond its own bodies and eyes? There could be two powerful reasons for the disavowal of what lies beyond its borders. First, caste societies have killed the sensibility that observes injustices, the capacity to think beyond their own privileges. The second is deliberate, ignoring outside cultural production as part of a process Y.S. Alone3 terms ‘protected ignorance’: you protect this culture in order to continue with your hegemony. As Alone puts it, ‘Even so-called progressives, including socialists and liberals in the fields of creative writing and art practice, have endorsed the idea of superiority based on caste’.4

Therefore the kulin Sanskriti of the upper caste is presented as Indian culture. It is not surprising that the very essence of sanskriti is based on honour, privileges, and hierarchies and not on sensibilities. Sanskriti is articulated in the forms of display of hierarchy and medieval feudal pride.

What you say is just middle class and upper caste bashing, isn't it?

But that is precisely the problem I have tried to address in my book. I have started this work by asking a fundamental question: What could be the reasons for the marginalization of folk performances in the Indian cultural and aesthetic regime, more especially in the artistic and aesthetic discourses, and more specifically in feudal caste society in India? The question quickly shifted to what are their strengths? Once we know the strengths of performance cultures of the subaltern communities, we should be able to discover what aesthetic regimes do not like or what they want to get away with. I found that the strengths of subaltern performance cultures lie in the inseparability of culture and labour – their relationship with the land, location, body, and other associative properties. These are the strengths that have been marginalized in the wider cultural discourses of the prevailing aesthetic regime.

In as much as India is an agrarian society, land has been almost erased from the discourse of aesthetics. One can find similar erasures taking place in different sets of material of relationships. Culture and labour are seen as two different undertakings. But what happens when we bring them together? First, we are then in a position to see and realize their strengths. Second, we are able to comment on the erasure on which cultural discourse and the aesthetic regime is constituted. In other words, we then see that the very foundation of the Indian aesthetic lies in the erasure of the strengths of the performance cultures of the subaltern and Bahujan communities.

Cultural Labour attempts to expose these connections. In the book, I demonstrate how these aesthetic and cultural discourses are exclusive to the core, an upper class attempt to dislodge the imaginative practices of the lower orders and claim a universal Indianness based on their own culture. I expose the structures of feeling in which have Indian culture and aesthetic discourses are arranged. Perhaps, no other field of study maintains such hegemonic presence of the discourse of one class. It follows this rhetoric: art and culture are special, our particular discipline is special and we are special. In the regime of aesthetic discourses, cultural performances of a vast number of communities appear in the footnotes. What happens when we change the discourse and place classical and elite performance cultures in the endnote? The whole dynamic changes, changing our very perception of what art and culture are. Cultural Labour became revengeful writing that tried to expose the Indian aesthetic model based on the upper caste and middle class.

I have used the term cultural labour both as a conceptual framework as well as a field of cultural productions where it works in an affective form. While Indian classical dance and artwork have been over theorized as part of aesthetic discourse, folk performance becomes part of the empirical field of anthropology. In the absence of methodological and conceptual work in this field, there are attempts to synthesize various discourses, from anti-caste perspectives to the Gramscian perspective to draw some connections. The point is that the field of study remains insufficiently theorized and lacks a methodological and conceptual approach at the most basic level. This lack has been
one of the major reasons for the oblivion and misrepresentation of the performance. As a conceptual framework, cultural labour offers us a methodological lens to examine various ways in which ‘folk performance’ endows values in the social and cultural lives of labouring castes. This conceptual framework does not place culture against labour, but labour as a culture, and culture as labour in performance practices. It examines the way cultural labour presents an affective and aestheticized labour and laboured culture in Indian society. The conceptual and methodological framework tries to bring culture and labour together in entwined and as well as intertwined performative mediation.

But then what is the argument? How do aesthetic and labour suddenly come together? Aren't both producing values, labour in a more general sense, and aesthetics in a more specific way? Can you explain it?

The fundamental argument the book posits is that the question of aesthetics is founded in the question of labour. Let me give you an example. You might have asked a labourer in your house, What work are you going to do or what have you done or what have you made? Can you ask the same question to an artist and performer: What have you produced? The labourer might have prepared ten chapatis, or made an Almirah for you. You can see the product in front of your eyes. But how are we going to evaluate the production of the cultural workers/labourers? They may say, I was dancing for four hours. That is an answer but not sufficient. You can allege that they have not actually done anything.

Do cultural industries, such as Bollywood, pay their cultural workers on the basis of hours? Bollywood stars will make an appearance and will generate a brand value for the products. They will hardly take five minutes for that action. Yes, they might have rehearsed and put hard labour in their work that is not seen on the screen, however, that is being recognized. It does not provide us an answer as to why the work of other performers will not be recognized. A certain aesthetic and evaluation criteria in which values produced by other communities are not recognized has been built into the discourse. This is the reason that Bollywood stars or middle class dancers do produce cultural capital, while dancers of bidesia create their own humiliation by dancing on the stage. One becomes a brand ambassador, the other a figure of shame.

If you ask me what cultural labour is, I will not answer. Instead, I will ask you: what does a folk performer produce? What do they invest in? We can also ask what else they have to invest – emotion, intuition, imagination, body, sweat and their own image in society in many cases in India. When they dance, not only do they dance, they carry the image of society and community. One woman’s image on the stage presents the image of a community – it can be Kolahati, Bedia or Kothawalis. Similarly, in the case of the Dalit performer, he is not just representing himself as an independent and autonomous artist, he is representing the whole community. It is about the future of the making of individual and community that are entangled in performance. The Buddhan theatre has been working on the project to transform the stigma of criminality that regularly undermines the survival of the nomadic Chhara community in Gujarat, and produces the desire and the dignity to move away from that stigmatized history. It takes such a group an immense amount of hard labour to construct this identity and create new values for the dominant belief systems.

But what is cultural labour in relation to the actual production?

Cultural labour is ‘a sense and enactment of intense, passionate, ritualized and aestheticized forms of production of values in a specific socio-cultural context’.5 What do singers and drummers produce in ritual worship or what do the performers produce in a theatrical enactment of bidesia? What does their performance do – how do they effect themselves, the environment, and society at large? And, what do the performers invest and for whom do they perform? What are their idea, conception, and the world of performance? And, what is the labour of such performance which produces such an animated, affective and real-world of beliefs? For example, what does the balladeer Gaddar invest and produce in his singing of revolutionary songs? I ask many such questions in relation to their ‘investment’ and passionate productions.

What is significant in this kind of performance, apart from meaning, message, and content, is affect – the sensible force or style through which it produces effects. Ritual and performance in their affective turn produce corporeal values in the form of impulses, feelings, sensations, and passions. Deeply rooted in the ritualized context, the performance reveals the most vivid exemplification of the formation of cultural and aesthetic values in society. I see cultural labour as the potential within associations of labour and aesthetic values. I explore, also, how the performance produces meanings and values and help sustain them through what Raymond Williams calls the ‘structures of feeling’.6 

What is this culture and labour? What is this attempt to bring two incompatible categories together?

William Adams says that ‘If one can see labour, production, and history through the lenses of artistic creation and enjoyment, one is bound, eventually, to see artistic activity and artefacts through the lenses of labour and productive relations.’7 Drawing on many such studies, I started thinking of performance from core labour questions, such as what do performers produce? What do they invest in?  Do they produce their own enslavement or do they also have the potential to produce their emancipation?

Ted Gioia argues that music used to work as a force of sustenance, it used to guide communities on many occasions, it provided them with a sense of time and space, it solidified social bonds and so on.8 However, when engaging in discourses about music, we tend to separate these domains.  For the social elites, the separation of culture from labour becomes the yardstick for understanding culture and aesthetics, while for others, culture and labour were never separate, they developed through strong interactions.9 Humanities studies placed only one under the regime of aesthetics in which culture came to serve as a marker of values, tastes, attitudes, and experiences of social classes. The idea of culture as a particular category was further concretized with the discourse of modernity. This also has to do with the notion of aesthetics, civilization, and development of the civic sense as well.

The first analytical blindless lies in the Brahmin-bourgeois assumption that art and labour are two different undertakings. The blindness is long-standing, as pointed out by Sharad Patil: ‘The formulation that sanskriti or intellectual production is made in leisure and leisure is available only to the upper classes, and hence upper classes are the creators of culture, was first made by the philosophers of the Greek slave society.’10 

This precludes the labouring castes from participating in artistic activities: one takes place during leisure time and the other at the time of labour, without realizing that some of the most beautiful songs in India are composed and produced while working in the field and participating in labour. Shouldn't this realization impact the analysis of performance? Cultural labour asks us to consider creativity in the labour process and the question of labour and production in artistic creation. The assumption comes from the 'innocent' belief that lower castes do not have their own culture and instead replicate the culture of the upper caste following the logic of Sanskritization.

Because of artificial binaries, the significance of labour has been continuously denied in the field of art and culture and vice versa. I have argued in the book that such approaches have done considerable damage to both labour studies and aesthetics and the culture and performance studies discourse. The labouring side of artistic and cultural practices has been ignored for a long time in the pleasure-centric discussions of aesthetics and culture studies, neglecting the point that labour is inherently part of any creative and cultural practice.

This dimension of labour as an affective, sensuous and creative activity connects it to the artistic and cultural realm. Labour enters into the domain of performance and aesthetics, and performance as labour becomes a hypothesis in the formation of what I termed as cultural labour. Such performances, with their affective qualities, become emblematic of the sensual, emotional and intuitive investment.

What does a performance produce, what do the performers invest and how do the participants who create a new set of relationships become the point of exploration?

What cultural labour produces is cultural and aesthetic values – taste, judgment, cultural status and social life. The formation of cultural labour and its circulation is a deeply current issue in Indian society and is situated within the contemporary discourse of culture and politics.

Another problem lies in the material purity that these forms and discourses try to maintain, an aesthetic conceptualization based on the purity of the body and genres. The dominant view amounts to a rejection of cultural performances that do not maintain bodily and generic purity. To explain this, I would like to take an example of bidesia and dugola, two performances I have discussed in my book. They are performances that break categories and conventions. In the case of dugola, I give an example of how dugola concocts the pure and the sacred, questions the unquestionable, mixes life with death, death with erotica, desire with disgust, food with decayed flesh and belonging with displacement at the sensational and excessive level. The performers merge different musical traditions, different styles of singing, changing their repertoire from devotional songs to erotic songs, to the extent that we never know when the audience themselves will start singing and become part of the performance. The performances are organised according to affective and corporeal principles. While they are productions of materiality, in the mainstream discourses they are perceived as sensational and corrupting. It proceeds at the obscene level, ‘the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; they are transferred to the sphere of earth and the body in their indissoluble unity’.11 The analytical frame finds it difficult to capture the affective power of viserality.

A further problem in Indian aesthetic and cultural discourse lies in the denial of the labouring body itself. So even if the concern is the labouring body, it is represented by the social elites. One can definitely argue that there are limits to the genres in which the actual body has to be represented; however, when there is the mass presence of the labouring body in many performances, they are considered as the sites of production. I argue that the performance of the labouring body is the core of the production and dissemination of cultural labour. The performance of cultural labour does not necessarily evoke the theme of labour (as it happens in the labour theme songs of left political organizations), but it certainly involves labouring bodies in its performance. Thus, who are performing for whom and how one is performing (an experiential category) becomes more important than ‘what one performs in a given situation’. Who are the performers, what do they invest in their performance and what do they produce? Now it can be argued that these performers invest emotion, feeling, movement, passion, and corporeality into such acts. They offer services and produce meanings, values, and a set of relationship that also determines their status and position in society. While they produce an affirmation of life, they also produce their own subjugation.

This leads to the problem of the Brahminical aesthetic colonization, and in the negation of forms of art as obligations, while evaluating artistic production as grounded in autonomy. We need to seriously how to evaluate artistic practices when they are performed as part of obligation and service. While service as a category appears in scholarly discourses of post-industrial labour, the ‘service’ does not become a category to evaluate the works of Indian performers and artists who largely produce their work as part of service rather than being an artist in the sense of exercising creative freedom and autonomy. Therefore, it is essential to examine all service providing castes as artists in Indian caste-based society, whether they be barber, potter, ironsmith or professional entertainers. The division between art and craft and their values lies in this disjunction, which conveniently maintains the hegemony in which some are considered artists and others are service providers.

We see the service industry but we don’ t see the service castes, which are very much part of the post-industrial service industry. Traditional performers of Rajasthan who used to perform in the service of the king are now performing in the service of the hospitality industry. Patronage does not only exist in the form of monetary value but in the form of ritual and symbolic gifts. It comes as an unsigned cultural contract.

The final problem which I see is again associated with different kinds of erasure based on land and labour.  I have argued that Indian aesthetics has been constituted on this erasure or materiality. The prominence of popular cultural discourse and classical aesthetics at the expense of materiality leads to the marginalization of performance cultures of the subaltern communities. The notion of Indian aesthetics is constructed on the erasure of land, labour and other associated values. If aesthetics is a production of values, it is reproduced through the constant erasure of the body and the materiality of the lived experiences. These are the erasures that define the strengths of the performance. Is there any other situation in which one is evaluated not based on one's strengths but on the erasure of one's strengths? The Jana Natya Mandali artists of Andhra and Telangana trying to reclaim those values and creating a new mode of aesthetics for a new culture, faced violence precisely because of those reasons.

I want to briefly clarify that not all artistic and cultural productions can be viewed as cultural labour. Cultural labour is specific to certain arrangements of the production of cultural values in specific socio-cultural contexts. Therefore, it is also different from other forms of affective labour. Cultural labour is a specific form of cultural production in which emotion and feelings are used to produce a set of relationships. It can be a relationship between priests and worshippers, or a caste relationship in performance. Cultural labour combines various dimensions of affective labour, immaterial labour, creative labour, and other forms of labour but it also remains different from them. It does not mean that cultural labour is India specific, or only works in a caste-based society. The form of labour also exists in other societies inasmuch as the condition of production remains the same - the lack of freedom of expression.

While there is a well established body of work that aims to understand operations of market and advertisers as sites of cultural productions, cultural labour highlights the need to study creative workers who perform without the notion of wages. Instead of the wages, they receive a gift and compensatory grants. Whereas immaterial labour is largely invisible, largely unseen or less obvious labour, cultural labour has an overwhelming presence in Indian society in forms of rites, rituals, festivals and dance and theatre. Cultural labour often fails to forge the sort of connection that produces international and cultural contact of a commodity, and in fact create fractures unless it is constituted in radical ways.

Cultural labour does three things together: first, it challenges the bourgeois assumptions that artistic activity and labour are two different undertakings; second, it attempts to bring culture and labour together for a better understanding of the production of cultural values; third, it shows that one is not necessarily an alienating activity and the other necessarily a leisure activity.

Ted Gioia beautifully writes in Work Songs, ‘Singing accompanied the tasks of cultivation; music contained powerful magic to secure the fertility of crops; songs and dance adorned the festivals and rites of agricultural communities.’12 The performance culture of the vast communities in India is similar to what Gioia has discussed. Yet in the larger discourses, art, culture, and aesthetics are not seen together with the land, body, and labour. Because the construction of the Indian aesthetics has been based on this erasure, hundreds of genres, performance cultures and performing communities do not appear in the larger discourses of aesthetics and culture. My book Cultural Labour, like many other such attempts, is an attempt to include the material and discourses that fall outside of the middle class cultural scape.

Is this my problem that when listening Ustad Amir Khan singing Ahir Bhairav, I hear cowbells in the background? The music for me creates an ambience of a village mourning when people are taking out their animals. I would like to understand the materiality of ahir bhairav in relation to Ahir caste who are a caste of cowherds, milkers, and cattle breeders widely dispersed across the Gangetic plain. Similarly, when I listen kaharwa taal, one of the most popular taal used in popular music and songs then I want to ask: does the music have some connection with the Kahar caste communities who used to be water carriers in the caste society? What are the material contexts of the rhythm? The community has made to disappear from the music genre but their rhythm remains. Classical singers and musicians will never tell you where the rhythm has come from, on whose movements they are singing, on whose rhythms they are elaborating. When I see the movements of Chau, I see the movements of birds, animals and labour – sweeping, polishing, fighting. Cultural labour provides a conceptual framework and perspective to bring these connections that have been deliberately dissociated and marginalized in the aesthetics discourse.


1. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The Rise of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond. Zed Books, London, 2006.

2. Brahma Prakash, Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk performance’ in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2019.

3. Y.S. Alone, ‘Caste Life Narratives, Visual Representation, and Protected Ignorance’, Biography 40(1), Winter 2017, pp. 140-169.

4. Ibid., p 146.

5. Brahma Prakash, op. cit., p 3.

6. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, Clarendon, 1977.

7. William Adams, ‘Aesthetics: Liberating the Senses’, in Terrell Carver (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 246-274.

8. Ted Gioia, Work Songs. Duke University Press, Durham, 2006.

9. Brahma Prakash, op. cit., p 12.

10. Sharad Patil, Caste Feudal Servitude. Malvai Prakashan, Shirur, 2006, p 35.

11. Michael Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, 1984, p 5.

12. Ted Gioia, op. cit., p 35.