Who are you calling a Kanjar on Instagram, Ali Sethi?

Ever wonder about the history of the community?
A photograph of a Kashmiri dancing girl of the Kanjar tribe, by Samuel Bourne, 1860s. Image: Wikipedia Commons
A photograph of a Kashmiri dancing girl of the Kanjar tribe, by Samuel Bourne, 1860s. Image: Wikipedia Commons

If you have lived in Pakistan, it is quite likely that you would have heard the word “kanjar” almost always used to shame someone. This word is often used as a slur to denigrate people working in the entertainment industry. Pakistanis are still uncertain about their relationship with entertainment. They will sing along to your songs, laugh at your jokes, watch your movies—but then call you a kanjar. Perhaps they do it to tell themselves that they are still more dignified than you.
Kanjars have a long history of being social outcasts. During the colonisation of India, Kanjars were listed under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, as a tribe "addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences." The colonizers were too lazy to scrutinize crimes, and for the sake of convenience criminalized entire communities by designating them as habitual criminals.
By 1947, thirteen million people in 127 communities faced search and arrest if any member of the group was found outside their prescribed area. The recent humorous exchange on Ali Sethi’s live show on Instagram brought the word, kanjar into the spotlight. Someone called Sethi a Kanjar and he responded by saying, “Your whole family is Kanjar.” Though the artist later explained the origins of the word and how he wants to reclaim it, for many people in society it is still an insult to call someone a Kanjar.
As with any community, there are myths around the origins of this one and their identity as a tribe. According to some researchers, the word Kanjar is derived from the Sanskrit kanana-chara, which means ‘wanderer in the jungle’. There is reasonable consensus that the Kanjar were a nomadic tribe in India, who used to be folk entertainers.
In post-colonial times, Kanjar is more exclusively associated with prostitution than entertainment. There is the legend of an outstanding Kanjari dancing girl named Majori. She was so adept that she could effortlessly dance on a tightrope. A king made her an offer: he would raise her status to queen and give her half of his kingdom, if she could dance on a tightrope blindfolded and catch the bangles he threw up in the air. Majori took on the challenge and was going to catch the bangles when another dancing girl severed the rope. Majori came crashing down and was severally injured. Before she succumbed to her death, she cursed her community by saying their progeny would be condemned to see their women prostituted.
In Pakistan, there was a considerable number of the Kanjar community in the Shahi Mohalla (also known as Heera Mandi) to the extent that it was also referred to as the Kanjar Mohallah. The women were sex workers and their men were pimps. The Kanjar prostitutes tended to think of themselves as occupying a higher status than other prostitutes because of their community’s long association with the profession.
And so this word, which is used as a slur today, used to give women within a profession a sense of pride.
Kanjar is a community, not an adjective and thus it is incorrect to call someone that if they are not of that tribe. The people who are entertaining you might not necessarily be Kanjar and not all the people from the Kanjar tribe are entertainers or involved in prostitution. It is the year 2020 and about time that we stop using someone’s identity as an insult, for no one can choose the community of their birth.

The writer is pursuing Masters in Public Policy at Central European University. He tweets @@jasirshahbaz


Ali Sethi


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