The Performance of Cultural Labour: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Indian Folk Performance

Brahma Prakash Singh

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Performance has emerged as an important concept in the field of art, culture, media, communication and socio-anthropological studies. This thesis examines the ‘Indian folk performance’ from a performance studies perspective, examining performance as that which arises out of the labouring bodies and lived experiences in Indian society. Such performances are embedded in ‘everyday lives, struggles, and labour of different classes, castes, and gender’ (Rege 2002). These performances can be considered as performances of cultural labour. Performances of cultural labour are recognized by the centrality of performance, the materiality of labouring bodies, and the integration of various art forms.
Drawing on an understanding derived from the cultural performances of the Indian labouring lower-caste communities, the thesis attempts to provide a conceptual framework for understanding Indian folk culture and performances. For theoretical approaches, I have drawn from Dwight Conquergood’s idea of performance studies as a radical intervention (2002) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s concept of performance (2007) as well as interdisciplinary and integrated approaches to art and culture with a critical ethnography. Performance studies approach with a critical ethnography shows a great potential in such research because if performance stands for identity, then it also stands for the embodiment of oppressed identities, genres and struggles. While performance here functions as an epistemic as well as an analytical tool, critical ethnography provides an ‘ethical responsibility’ to address processes of hiddedn injustices (Madison 2005)
This thesis is based on an ethnographic study of four folk performances: Bhūmi-pūjā (a land worship celebration), contemporary Bidesiyā or Lauṇḍā-nāc (the theatre of migrant labourers), Reśamā-Cuharmala (a Dalit ballad) from the North Indian state of Bihar, and the performances of Gaddar and Jana Nāṭya Maṇḍalī from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Existing approaches to Indian theatre and performance studies, with some exceptions, no matter how admirable and ideologically progressive, continue to be shaped by residual strains of colonialism and caste-based feudal and elite cultures. This thesis attempts to go outside of such bourgeois understandings in terms of both its subject matter and approaches. I argue that the performance of cultural labour as a conceptual framework needs to go beyond the questions of representation and counter-discourse to take account of the articulation of the labouring body and its creative and productive processes that constitute the core of the performances of cultural labour.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Gilbert, Helen, Supervisor
  • Cohen, Matthew, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • Indian Folk Culture
  • Performance Studies
  • labour
  • caste
  • aesthetics
  • cultural performance
  • Bidesia
  • Bhumi-puja
  • Reshma-Chuharmal
  • Dalits
  • lower-caste

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