Danced by the beloved: placemaking, gender, and performance among the mūratān of Punjab
This ethnography delineates intersections of Dalit placemaking and queer agency in rural North India. It takes as its focus the lives of mūratān, a Punjabi male-to-female gender nonconforming and sexually nonnormative identity. It is a regionally specific term for the common idiom of the ‘effeminate male,’ also described in North India and Pakistan as kothī and khwājā sirā.
Mūratān are socialised as men yet seek every opportunity to give material shape to a femininity that they describe as innate. This dissertation explores both the desire and the enactments of feminine dispositions by following the trail opened up to the ethnographer by mūratān. Societal exclusion and familial violence continue to shape the lives of these doubly subaltern identities. Nevertheless, the mūratān of the Jalandhar-Doab region of East or Indian Punjab where this research takes place exude a certain confidence the source of which is explored in this dissertation. Mūratān compare their relative freedom to live as their ‘true feminine selves’ (aslī rūpa) with other regions, and attribute it to the uniquely rich ecology of performance that exists within the Jalandhar-Doab region. The dissertation situates this ecology as one shaped by an enduring dargāh culture which proliferates in this region through a network of Sufi shrines. Mūratān have made a place for themselves within dargāh culture as inheritors of a tradition of pīr (Sufi saint) veneration. Invoking the precedent set by Sufi poet-saint Bulleh Shah, no occasion of pīr veneration is complete without men who impersonate women dancing for the pīr. In post-partition Punjab, mūratān have additionally emerged as the only practitioners of a regional theatre known as naqqalān.
As rural performers, they engage in an intense cultivation of places (jagāhs) as sites of habitation where their alterity can accrue a positive social valence. Performance, queer Dalit identity, and placemaking thus emerge as key intersecting themes in this dissertation. It highlights an agency won through mūratān’s practices, but which in turn depends on regional attributes and features that become visible only through mūratān’s eyes and which become capable of being shared through their narratives.
In exploring this existential topography, the dissertation necessarily engages with the theme of desires which mūratān call armān. These are desires that ‘cannot be buried’ and which seek sources of materialisation in adornment, in growing one’s hair long, and in the pursuit of romantic relationships with men. While the assumption of feminine form or rūpa is more afforded to mūratān in the Jalandhar-Doab, other armāns – of conjugal bliss, of care from one’s kin – end in dukh (sorrow). The dissertation ends by training a comparative lens on the practices of two generations. While the older generation of regional mūratān seek to maintain enduring ties with their kin and eschew physical augmentation, the younger generation or urban mūratān deploy emergent commentaries on relatedness and embrace biomedical procedures as part of their aspirations to enact a new kind of femininity.