The hidden underworld of Indian dance is celebrated tomorrow night at Rich Mix with a new project that fuses performances from female and transgender performers with the illuminating research of writer Anna Morcom.

Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance is a one-off performance, featuring performers Natalia Hildner, Leela Ek Paheli, Emiko Ishii, Raheem Mir and Asifa Lahore, Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen, and explores the secret histories of India’s courtesans, modern bar girls and the exclusive worlds of cross dressing and queer performers.

Mixing dance with archive film and narration, the project is curated by Akademi, an organisation that aims to promote and foster excellence in South Asian dance, connecting it with contemporary cultural, political and social agendas. Akademi have collaborated with Wise Thoughts, a pioneering LGBT and BAME arts charity.

The idea first came about when Nina Head, who manages artist and development and productions, and Akademi’s director Mira Kaushik watched the Channel 4 documentary Muslim Drag Queens.

“Mira and I contacted each other mid-programme and were immediately fired up to produce an event that acknowledges the contribution of LGBTQ community in South Asian dance.” Explains Nina.  “After researching the topic for over a year, we began our collaboration with Professor Anna Morcom in putting together her fieldwork into Illicit World of Indian Dance with our experience as an established London-based production house.”

Morcom, an ethnomusicology professor at Royal Holloway, has published a book, Illicit Worlds and Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion, and her fieldwork in the area provided Head and Kaushik with the perfect partner for the project and work to showcase.

Exploring the worlds of inclusion/exclusion in Indian dance, the show is split into two sections.

“This event relates to two significant sections of society – women and LGBTQ communities,” explains Head.  “It’s is split into two halves, the first focuses on the history of the female performers from the mid-century courtesan through to the current political struggles of the modern bar girls in Mumbai.  The second part of the evening focuses on the male performing as female and highlights that both cross-dressing and transgender performers have always been a part of the dance scene.”

Promoting what has historically existed in the shadows of India’s rich official performing arts culture could be seen by some conservative sectors of society as a bold act, but Head is resolute that Akademi is not seeking to make an overt political statement, but rather to promote a generous message of inclusivity, with a focus on showcasing an often neglected area of South Asian dance.

“We support the full spectrum of dance and promote diversity across South Asian Dance,” she says. “This is an evening of inclusion, dance must be accessible by and to all. We have never become religiously involved – we’re a social company and we are involved in the promotion of dance as an art form.

“This is not a political or religious statement, but an acknowledgement of the contribution of these marginalised and underground forms of dance.”

But as with many non-conformist or marginalised artistic communities, finding individuals willing to share their art, building bridges and gaining trust for the project proved a challenge for Akademi.

“We began with a narrative for the show and worked hard to provide live performances to enhance the script devised by Professor Anna Morcom,” says Nina. “It takes time to build trust and respect within marginalised communities and time to build confidence to work together. We are happy that we were able to get a host of talented artists to support Anna’s narration with their performance. It was impossible to find a courtesan or hijra (a term used in South Asia to describe the transgender community) in London – not for the lack of trying!”

Although the performance is a one-off – Head describes it as a pilot piece – she hopes that it may have a future too. She’d like it to tour, and Akademi is currently seeking partners and venues who may be interested in working with them.

Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance is performed at Rich Mix on Friday September 9.

Image by Simon Richardson, courtesy of Akademi.