Cover of The Vulgarity of Caste by Shailaja Paik
The Vulgarity of Caste
Dalits, Sexuality, and Humanity in Modern India
Shailaja Paik


October 2022
422 pages.
from $32.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503632387
Paperback ISBN: 9781503634084
Ebook ISBN: 9781503634091

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Winner of the 2023 John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History, sponsored by the American Historical Association (AHA).

Winner of the 2024 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize, sponsored by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) - South Asia Council.

This book offers the first social and intellectual history of Dalit performance of Tamasha—a popular form of public, secular, traveling theater in Maharashtra—and places Dalit Tamasha women who represented the desire and disgust of the patriarchal society at the heart of modernization in twentieth century India. Drawing on ethnographies, films, and untapped archival materials, Shailaja Paik illuminates how Tamasha was produced and shaped through conflicts over caste, gender, sexuality, and culture. Dalit performers, activists, and leaders negotiated the violence and stigma in Tamasha as they struggled to claim manuski (human dignity) and transform themselves from ashlil (vulgar) to assli (authentic) and manus (human beings).

Building on and departing from the Ambedkar-centered historiography and movement-focused approach of Dalit studies, Paik examines the ordinary and everydayness in Dalit lives. Ultimately, she demonstrates how the choices that communities make about culture speak to much larger questions about inclusion, inequality, and structures of violence of caste within Indian society, and opens up new approaches for the transformative potential of Dalit politics and the global history of gender, sexuality, and the human.

About the author

Shailaja Paik is Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. She is the author of Dalit Women's Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination (2014).

"In this brilliant original account of women in Tamasha, Shailaja Paik argues that the extractive sexual economy of caste rests on their desired as well as derided labor. Drawing on rare archival sources and careful ethnography, she calls attention to how the women negotiate stigma, especially in relation to a Dalit emancipatory politics, embarrassed by their 'sexual excess.'"

—V. Geetha, author of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Question of Socialism in India

"Paik not only breaks new ground but also builds a foundation. Combining ethnography, archival work, and critical readings of key thinkers, she offers a dazzling interdisciplinary exploration of how Tamasha serves as a metonym for the ways gender, caste, and power construct identity in caste-patriarchal society. This work is one of the many reasons Paik is at the forefront of Dalit feminist studies and why she is one of the most innovative historians of South Asia writing today."

—Christian Lee Novetzke, University of Washington

"Paik repeatedly identifies herself as a feminist Dalit and attributes this to her unprecedented anthropological access to, and understanding of, contemporary Tamasha artists. She also draws on Marathi-language lyrics, articles, advertisements, and other sources never before available in English. Recommended."

—M. H. Fisher, CHOICE

"While demonstrating the 'agency' of Tamashe women as a product of complex, contingent historical processes, Paik makes a significant argument about the mutually constitutive binaries of touchability/untouchability, brahmin/untouchable, ashlil/aslee, housewife/prostitute, among others. In doing so, she offers conceptual resources for Indian feminist and Dalit thought to deal with the impasse of the 'prostitute' question. Equally important, Paik develops her earlier emphasis on contingency, context and rupture of Dalit women's agency to illuminate the contingency and temporality of Ambedkar's thinking around manuski, family and caste labour and the material limits that history imposes on its actualisation."

—A. Suneetha, Contributions to Indian Sociology

"As a path breaking book within Dalit, caste and gender studies, [The Vulgarity of Caste] opens new terrain within the larger discipline of cultural studies."

—Ali Ahsan, Cultural Studies