The power and promise of the flip-word “vulgar”

The word “vulgar” evokes disapproval that may border on disgust; and it commonly runs top-down from the perspective of a beholder of self-proclaimed “finer” sensibility, casting judgment on objects and acts deemed “lowly”, “common” or “abject”. Since the advent of “classicism”, post-Enlightenment, which the Merriam-Webster defines as “adherence to traditional standards (as of simplicity, restraint, and proportion) that are universally and enduringly valid”, this perspective gains a renewed-validity and results in the imposition of a variety of corrective-measures. Measures, which aim to temper, reign-in and literalize the fluidity of lived traditions by adhering them to the “correctness” of an original text to reinstate past-glory; thereby driving the divide between the “classical” and the “common” even deeper, where the commoner is not only to be kept at an arm’s length but even held suspect and therefore to be controlled as his untamed and vulgar proclivities may well pose a threat to the project of (re)instating glory.

The use of the word “vulgar” along with its corollaries such as obscene, cheap, low-life, crude, tasteless, crass, indecent, indelicate, excessive, shameless, obnoxious, uncouth, etc. is not only subjective but also relative. It operates, rather effectively, as a gesture of distancing between the “refined” and the “crude” and conventionally remains the prerogative of the former. But what is of note here is that it may mean or imply quite differently from the perspectives of the “that which distances” and the “distanced”. As much as it tells us something about the identity of the object for which it is adjectively employed, it also gives us a glimpse into the mindset of the user. Through the prism of the word, both parties, the user and the receiver, become momentarily privy to attributes of the other; though, historically, only one perspective has been permitted and privileged, that of the caster of the word, the sophisticate. The word then comes to resemble a coin with equally valid flip-sides, except that in this case, the currency of the two sides might be unequal and they in turn may each foster a different set of corollaries.

Historically, the haves, the sophisticates, or the classicists have invented systems and created constructs that serve to continually undermine, devalue, marginalize, and even police the vantage point of the “lowly-other” along with all those who may seem different or idiosyncratic. Almost all Indian Reformers, in their earnest bid to reclaim lost civilizational and cultural “glory” made arbitrary distinctions between what they deemed “correct” and “incorrect” in Indian practices. This they did by adhering the practices to “lost-but-now-found” Shastras, plus tediously ridding them of influences that they considered aberrations caused due to “lower-instincts” of the commoners. The devadasi and the Hatha yogi in particular were direct casualties of such cleansing attempts to make Indian life “ideal” and “profound” once again.

What is important for us to register here is that this dream of the reformists was nothing new, it echoed the underlying drive of all “constructionists” who have through the ages been occupied in devising constructs to delineate and enforce the “ideal” upon the lived-life. The preoccupation of these constructionists, apart from the inculcation of “higher” and “refined” values has also been the “cultivation of innocence” and conformity among the common people, for the sake of their edification and upliftment out of the morass of their “lower instincts”.

Our ancient texts on aesthetics list things that may not be “shown” in literature or performance, the Sahitya Darpana, a 14th-century text by Vishvanatha Kaviraja lists a number of them, namely, battle, marriage, eating, cursing, death, amorous play, lying down, kissing, bathing, anointing to name a few. In nineteenth century, the Victorians in a bid to enforce stringent morality went as far as forming a décor-aesthetic, which was to drape the legs of chairs and tables. What is being controlled by such constructs are not the limbs of furniture but the suggestiveness of nakedness for fear of it exciting the lower instincts and triggering immoral thoughts and acts. So, it is a “suggestion” that is to be controlled; making both opacity and restraint the hallmarks of high or classical art and literature, and even interior design as we see in this example. Both of these, opacity and restraint, become woven into the pedagogy of the “classical” to stem out even the suggestion of that which might lead to the generation of ideas, images, mannerisms, and words considered unsavoury and immoral; and simultaneously to distance and police the other, i.e. the commoner, by attaching to them the derogatory “labels” of vulgar, low-life, common, cheap, even commercial and so on.

Chandraloka, a sixteenth-century text by Jaideva Piyushavarsha of Orissa, subdivides the term ashlila , i.e. vulgar, into three categories; these being vreeda , implying erotic acts that would embarrass or discomfit the modesty of the well-bred viewer or reader, jugupsa or disgust evoked by objects or acts considered abject and untouchable, and finally amangala, or things considered inauspicious such as death.

Rukmini Devi, the prime re-constructionist of Bharatanatyam dance categorically valorised bhakti, i.e. devotion over sringara, the amorous/erotic sentiment, both in her pedagogy and artistic works. For instance, freezing the movement of the hip, as it may suggest lasciviousness, became the hallmark of her style of Bharatanatyam taught at her institute, Kalakshetra. She painstakingly edited out the explicit verses of the traditional songs as well as the erotic gestures that were part of the devadasis’ repertoire as she considered them both vulgar and inappropriate for the use of the well-bred middle-classes; likewise, she rejected the devadasi-convention of biting the lower lip to depict the intensity of painful-pleasure; in the Mahabharata scene when Bhima slays Dushasana by tearing open his belly and pulling out his entrails, she did not subscribe to the Kathakali convention of pulling out a stream of red-dyed gauze hidden underneath the performer’s belt to enhance dramatic effect, as it seemed both excessive and violent to her; and in her choreography of the battle scene between Rama and Ravana in her epic-creation of the Ramayana, she chose not to depict the battle on the stage but had the dancing kinnaris or heavenly damsels describe the scene of blood and gore transpiring on the earth below from the skies above. I would say that she was not only following the dictate of the Shastras in making these decisions, but these were also her personal aesthetic choices informed by her taste, which to my mind remains unparalleled in refinement, her abhorrence for violence, as well as her idea of morality. I would also like to point to the fact that her aesthetic choices stay consistently shy of intense emotion and showing acts or mannerisms considered improper or abject.

I would now like to contrast these stipulations laid down by the Shastras and followed by not only Rukmini Devi but almost all reformers in every field and discipline through the late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century India, with the erotic poetry of Annamacharya (fifteenth-century) and Kshetraya (seventeenth-century). This Telegu poetry penned by men and sung by the pleasure women or devadasis is explicit both in its sexual as well as mercenary content. This poetry was the mainstay of the devadasi repertoire and its edited—by classical standards of restraint and opacity—version is still performed by Bharatanatyam dancers today in the form of padams, javalis and kirtanas.

Annamacharya, given the epithet of saint, writes suggestively about the woman’s body:

Don’t you know my house,
garland in the palace of the Love God,
where flowers cast their fragrance everywhere?
Don’t you know the house
hidden by tamarind trees,
in that narrow space marked by the two golden hills?
That’s where you lose your senses,
where the Love God hunts without fear.

And Kshetrayya continues in the same erotic vein:

You say, “Come close, my girl,”
and make love to me like a wild man, Muvva Gopala,
and as I get ready to move on top,
it’s morning already.!

And lastly, I cite an anonymous poem addressed to Lord Konkanesvara with bold sexual and mercenary content:

To sit by my side
and to put your hand
boldly inside my sari:
that will cost ten thousand.
And seventy thousand
will get you a touch
of my full round breasts.
Only if you have the money
Three crores to bring
your mouth close to mine,
touch my lips and
To hug me tight,
to touch my place of love,
and get to total union,
listen well,
you must bathe me
in a shower of gold.
But only if you have the money

So, what we have here are two well-documented sides of the stringent classicists-constructionists who advocated living by the book on the one hand, and the hereditary poet-performers on the other who freely wove their lived-histories and even their body’s “lowly instincts” into their art-making. Each is not only attractive in their own right but also equally repulsive to the other. Whereas the classicist vision may promise to fulfil our human dream of becoming restored, nay absorbed, unto a state of “untarnished-purity”; the sacred-erotic poetry emerging out of the abject-ethos of hereditary pleasure-women may offer a seamless experience of sensory-sublimity brought about through the distilled abstractions of their body, voice, tone, word, gesture, nuance, glance and style; and that too, within a safe-space tailor-made to un-normatively address the anxieties of intimacy and to unhesitatingly speak of things sexual in a manner and tone that may explicitly engage the body to lift the spirit of the rasika (aesthete) unto a buoyant-resolve where even the very possibility of intimacy may come into profound questioning. The truth perhaps is that both sides are in pursuit of the ever-nebulous middle ground, the madhyama avastha, where in the self may come into recognition.

However, the two sides remain ever mistrusting and severely judgmental of the other. While the former remains preoccupied with “textual-correctness”, the latter wrests the license and the capability to make and break their own rules in search of resonance; while the former holds deep-feeling in suspicion and even fear, the latter actively elicits a no-holds-barred engagement with the abjections of the body in search of a sensorially immersive poetic experience. We may have to concede that this conflict between the two is here is to stay, and the name-calling of the other is perhaps perennial in nature.

This name-calling based on mutual-repulsion brings forth corollaries befitting their perspectives around the flip-word “vulgar”. I have already listed the corollaries of the word vulgar from the distancing-sophisticate’s point of view at the beginning of this paper; from the perspective of the “distanced” or the one assigned to the margins, for whom knowledge may be derived not from the book but farmed out of the somatic intelligence and sensitivity of the body, it is the very “correctness” of the classicist-constructionist that is irksome. And from the margins this might appear to be too much of an idea, unbearably studied, image-conscious, un-lived, false, trite, literal, pedantic, didactic, flat, veneer, simulative, hollow, vapid, cheesy, appropriative, smug and so on. In other words, it might seem nothing short of a masquerade that apart from being fake and meaningless, may actually be defeating the very purpose of art, poetry, beauty, and resonance. A resonance that can only be born out of abstractions wherein the correct and the incorrect are freely allowed to co-mingle and disable the other.

To conclude I would like to say that it is of critical importance that in order to keep the middle-space of co-mingling alive, it is imperative to keep the space of the suppressed voice and the corollary-vocabularies of the distanced and marginalized alive and active. And even more important is to recognize the flip-sidedness of the name-calling words such as vulgar, because such words are powerful words, they are not only ploys for distancing, but can be vital tools to call out the bluffs of the other in order to challenge and tip the power-in equations for the purpose of opening a resonate space full of buoyant resolve. Because both within the subject and the object of the abject, there lies the promise of absence and sublimity.

Reference –

Ksåetrayya, When God Is A Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs, Edited and Translated by – A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, University Of California Press, 1994


Navtej Singh Johar is a dancer-choreographer, scholar, yoga exponent, and a social activist. A recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Contemporary Choreography (2014), his work—within all fields of his varied interests—remains consistently body-centric. It twines practice with critical theory and social action, traverses freely between the traditional and the contemporary, and rigorously engages both the philosophical and the sociological discourses of the body. His choreography draws on plural vocabularies: bharatanatyam, yoga, physical-theatre and somatics, and has won critical acclaim both nationally and internationally. A research fellow at the, International Research Centre, “Interweaving Performance Cultures”, Freie University, Berlin, Johar teaches Dance Studies at the Ashoka University, India. Founder-director of Studio Abhyas, New Delhi, a space devoted to refining the processes of embodied Indian practices as well as examining their historical contexts, Johar has devised two pedagogical methods, the BARPS method, designed to practice asana more effectively, and Abhyas Somatics, a practice that aims to evoke rasa and sukha that are essential to Indian aesthetics and Yoga respectively.