Abbas, Ghulam. “Anandi.” Translated by G.A. Chaussée. The Annual of Urdu Studies. Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2003, https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/18349.

This story is available for free online through the University of Wisconsin’s digital library. In ‘Anandi’, Ghulam Abbas dissects the hypocrisy of a society that hides behind a facade of self-righteousness but derives secret pleasures from what it declares taboo. Summary from Desi Writer’s Lounge.

Abbas, K.A. “Flowers for Her Feet.” An Evening in Lucknow: Selected Stories, edited by Suresh Kohli. Harper Perennial, 2011, pp 10-35.

Summary: ‘Flowers for Her Feet’ is a short story in which the sexual exploitation of a girl is depicted. Chandra, the dancing girl is harassed and exploited by all, especially the economic elite as the rich people think that women are commodities which can be bought or sold for money.

Summary from Sahapedia.

Chander, Krishan. “A Prostitute’s Letter: To Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Qai-e-Azam Jinnah.” Translated by Haris Qadeer. River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction, edited by Ruchira Gupta. Speaking Tiger Publishing, 2016, pp 184-190.

Abstract: This epistolary short story is written from the point of view of an unnamed sex worker and describes the plight of two girls, one Hindu and the other Muslim, both traumatized by the deaths of their families and placed into sex work following the partition of India and Pakistan.

Dewan, Saba. Tawaifnama. Context, 2019.

            Summary from the New India Foundation

            This is a history, a multi-generational chronicle of one family of well-known tawaifs with roots in Banaras and Bhabua. Through their stories and self-histories, Saba Dewan explores the nuances that conventional narratives have erased, papered over or wilfully rewritten.

In a not-so-distant past, tawaifs played a crucial role in the social and cultural life of northern India. They were skilled singers and dancers, and also companions and lovers to men from the local elite. It is from the art practice of tawaifs that kathak evolved and the purab ang thumri singing of Banaras was born. At a time when women were denied access to the letters, tawaifs had a grounding in literature and politics, and their kothas were centres of cultural refinement.

Yet, as affluent and powerful as they were, tawaifs were marked by the stigma of being women in the public gaze, accessible to all. In the colonial and nationalist discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this stigma deepened into criminalisation and the violent dismantling of a community. Tawaifnama is the story of that process of change, a nuanced and powerful microhistory set against the sweep of Indian history.

Dhar, Debotri. The Courtesans of Karim Street. Niyogi Books, 2018.

Summary

An anonymous letter. The promise of a redgold tree. And Dr. Megan Adams sets off on a ten thousand mile journey. From the scenic suburbs of Princeton and poorer neighborhoods in New Jersey, America, onwards to India, to New Delhi’s opulent enclaves and the narrow bazaars of the old city, Megan’s travel plucks her from the politics of American academia to bring her face to face with the lurking shadows of an untold past. On an entirely different journey is Naina, a young Indian woman who must navigate the stony, impenetrable divide between the old and new sides of Delhi every day. Inheritor of an ancient tradition that pre-dated India’s colonized history, she can still hear the music of the sarangi and the tinkling whisper of anklets. The stories of the two women, their cultures, their pasts and postcolonial presents, collide. And a saga unfolds, of love, loss and liberation, of timeless friendships, and of impossible choices.

Summary from author’s website.

Duva, Anjali Mitter. Faint Promise of Rain. She Writes Press, 2014.

Summary from publisher’s website

It is 1554 in the desert of Rajasthan, and a new Mughal emperor is expanding his territory. In a family of Hindu temple dancers a daughter, Adhira, must carry on her family’s sacred tradition. Her father, against his wife and sons’ protests, insists Adhira “marry” the temple deity and give herself to a wealthy patron. But after one terrible evening, she makes a brave choice that carries her family’s story and their dance to a startling new beginning. Told from the perspective of this exquisite dancer and filled with the sounds, sights and flavors of the Indian desert, Faint Promise of Rain is the story of a family and a girl caught between art, duty, and fear in a changing world.

Farooqi, Musharraf Ali. Between Dust and Clay. Freehand Books, 2014.

Summary: In an old and ruined city, emptied of most of its inhabitants, Ustad Ramzi, a famous wrestler past his prime, and Gohar Jan, a well-known courtesan whose kotha once attracted the wealthy and the eminent, contemplate the former splendor of their lives and the ruthless currents of time and history that have swept them into oblivion.

Summary from Goodreads.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. “The God and the Bayadere: an Indian Legend.” Goethe’s Works, vol. 1 (Poems). Edited by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen. Rpt. in the Online Library of Liberty. pp. 213-215. Accessed April 25, 2021.

This poem is available free online through the Online Library of Liberty.

            Summary: This poem follows Mahadeva, lord of the earth, and his ascension to earth for a day where he meets a bayadere (temple dancer). This poem is very loosely based off tales of Parvati and Shiva.

Golanad, Kitanjali. Girl Made of Gold. Juggernaut Books, 2020.

A substantial excerpt of this novel can be read online at Medium.

Publisher‘s Summary

Thanjavur, the 1920s. One night, the young devadasi Kanaka disappears and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume that Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. Through the story of Kanaka’s disappearance, Gitanjali Kolanad gives us a beautifully realized world – of priests, zamindars and devadasis, and of art, desire and their dark reverse sides. Girl Made of Gold is a mystery, thrillingly told, and also a moving human story of the pursuit of love and freedom.

Kapil, Pandhey. Phoolsunghi. Translated by Gautam Choubey. Penguin, 2020.

This novel is an English translation of of Pandhey Kapil’s 1977 Bhojpuri novel of the same name.

Publisher‘s Summary

‘Babu Sahib! You must have heard of a phoolsunghithe flower-peckeryes? It can never be held captive in a cage. It sucks nectar from a flower and then flies on to the next.’

When Dhelabai, the most popular tawaif of Muzaffarpur, slights Babu Haliwant Sahay, a powerful zamindar from Chappra, he resolves to build a cage that would trap her forever. Thus, the elusive phoolsunghi is trapped within the four walls of the Red Mansion.

Forgetting the past, Dhelabai begins a new life of luxury, comfort, and respect. One day, she hears the soulful voice of Mahendra Misir and loses her heart to him. Mahendra too, feels for her deeply, but the lovers must bear the brunt of circumstances and their own actions which repeatedly pull them apart.

The first ever translation of a Bhojpuri novel into English, Phoolsunghi transports readers to a forgotten world filled with mujras and mehfils, court cases and counterfeit currency, and the crashing waves of the River Saryu.

Karmali, Sikeena. The Mulberry Courtesan. Aleph, 2018.

Publisher‘s Summary

In 1857, the shadows are falling thick and fast on what is left of the Mughal empire. The last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is a broken, bitter man in his eighties who has retreated into religion and poetry. Zafar’s empire extends no further than the precincts of his grand palace, the Red Fort in Delhi, but this hasn’t prevented numerous court intrigues and conspiracies from flourishing within the Lal Qila; these involve the emperor’s wives, children, courtiers, hangers-on, and English functionaries among others. Flung into this poison pit is Laale, a young woman from an Afghan noble family, abducted from her home in the mountains and sold into the Mughal emperor’s court as a courtesan. Fiery, independent and beautiful, the ‘mulberry courtesan’ captures the ageing emperor’s heart, giving him hope and happiness in his last years.

Told against the backdrop of India’s great revolt of 1857, and the last days of the Mughal empire, The Mulberry Courtesan is an epic tale of romance, tragedy, courage and adventure.

Kipling, Rudyard. “On the City Wall.” Soldiers Three and In Black and White. Penguin, 1993. pp 153-173.

Summary:

Lalun, a beautiful and talented woman, lives and entertains along the city way of Lahore. Visited by many men, one named Wali Dad is especially friendly. Wali Dad has had an English education and feel uncomfortably places between the European and English worlds. As the story continues, the reader gets an introduction to a leader Khem Singh, someone who may disrupt British rule in India. Khem Singh has been imprisoned though, but escapes. A riot breaks out and Lalun helps an old man out of the riot through her window. She asks the narrator to assistance getting him through the city safely, and he agrees, only to later realize it is Khem Singh. He returns the man to captivity and the rebellion ceases.

Summary from Wikipedia.

Kolanad, Gitanjali. The Girl Made of Gold. Juggernaut, 2020.

Summary: Thanjavur, the 1920s. One night, the young devadasi Kanka disappears and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated.

Summary from Goodreads.

Manto, Saadat Hasan. “A Girl from Delhi.” Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition. Translated by Khalid Hasan, Penguin Random House India, 2011, pp 94-100.

Abstract: This short story follows Nasim Ahktar, a Muslim Nautch girl in Delhi, and her move to Pakistan after the partition of India.

Narayan, R.K. The Guide. Penguin, 1958.

Summary: Formerly India’s most corrupt tourist guide, Raju—just released from prison—seeks refuge in an abandoned temple. Mistaken for a holy man, he plays the part and succeeds so well that God himself intervenes to put Raju’s newfound sanctity to the test.

Summary from BookFrom.net

Narayan, R.K. The Man-Eater of Malgudi. Penguin, 1961.

Summary

This is the story of Nataraj, who earns his living as a printer in the little world of Malgudi, an imaginary town in South India. Nataraj and his close friends, a poet and a journalist, find their congenial days disturbed when Vasu, a powerful taxidermist, moves in with his stuffed hyenas and pythons, and brings his dancing-women up the printer’s private stairs. When Vasu, in search of larger game, threatens the life of a temple elephant that Nataraj has befriended, complications ensue that are both laughable and tragic.

Summary from Goodreads.

Qasim, Suraiya. “Where Did She Belong?” Translated by Mohammad Vazeeruddin. Stories About the Partition of India, vol. II. Edited by Alok Bhalla. Indus, 1994, pp 109-117.

Abstract: This short story is about Munni Bai, a tawaif of unknown parentage in Lahore in the days leading up to and directly following the Partition.

Ramanujan, A.K. et. al., eds and trans. When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others. U of California P, 1994.

This book is available to read for free online at the University of California Press E-Books Collection.

Publisher’s Summary

“These South Indian devotional poems show the dramatic use of erotic language to express a religious vision. Written by men during the fifteenth to eighteenth century, the poems adopt a female voice, the voice of a courtesan addressing her customer. That customer, it turns out, is the deity, whom the courtesan teases for his infidelities and cajoles into paying her more money. Brazen, autonomous, fully at home in her body, she merges her worldly knowledge with the deity’s transcendent power in the act of making love.

This volume is the first substantial collection in English of these Telugu writings, which are still part of the standard repertoire of songs used by classical South Indian dancers. A foreword provides context for the poems, investigating their religious, cultural, and historical significance. Explored, too, are the attempts to contain their explicit eroticism by various apologetic and rationalizing devices.”

Poets and Padams

When God Is a Customer is a collection of Telugu erotic devotional poetry, mostly short lyrical poems called padams, translated into English. Poems attributed to Annamaya, Sarangapani, Rudrakhavi, one anonymous author, and most prominently, Ksetrayya were selected for translation.

Telugu padams were originally performed by professional dancers and musicians, such as devadasis, whose patrons included courts, temples, and wealthy men. Padams are highly erotic, mostly feature female speakers, and often illustrate lover’s quarrels, infidelity, sensual longing, and sulking; these romantic conflicts long served as a metaphor for humans devoting themselves to the divine.

From the Introduction: Questions to Guide Interpretation

“From its formative period in the seventh to ninth centuries onward, South Indian devotional poetry was permeated by erotic themes and images. In the Tamil poems of the Saiva Nayanmar and the Vaisnava Alvars, god appears frequently as a lover, in roles inherited from the more ancient Tamil love poetry of the so-called sangam period (the first centuries A.D.)….

A historical continuum stretches from these Tamil poets of devotion all the way to Ksetrayya and Sarangapani, a millennium later. The padam poets clearly draw on the vast cultural reserves of Tamil bhakti, in its institutional as well as its affective and personal forms. Their god, like that of the Tamil poet-devotees, is a deity both embodied in temple images and yet finally transcending these icons, and they sing to him with all the emotional and sensual intensity that so clearly characterizes the inner world of medieval South Indian Hinduism….

[A]nd perhaps the most conspicuous attribute of this refashioned cosmology is its powerful erotic colouring. As we seek to understand the import of the Telugu padams translated here, we need to ask: What is distinctive about the erotic imagination activated in these works? How do they relate to the earlier tradition of South Indian bhakti, with its conventional erotic components? What changes have taken place in the conceptualization of the deity, his human devotee, and the intimate relationship that binds them? Why this hypertrophy of overt eroticism, and what does it mean to love God in this way?” (9-10)

Interpreting the Padams: The Courtesan’s Role

This section briefly summarizes and interprets the courtesan figures in When God Is a Customer by rewording and condensing a portion of the book’s Introduction. In its entirety, the Introduction also explores the God-customers’ roles, situates the poems in their historical contexts, and assists readers in the act of reading by exploring padams’ traditional themes and structural elements. We highly recommend that interested scholars read the Introduction in full.

Intriguingly, most of the speakers and characters in the poems of When God Is a Customer are courtesans. They are strong-willed and can be self-possessed, often brazenly playing power games with their God-lovers in search of their fee. The book’s introduction examines one such courtesan in “The Madam to a Courtesan”, a poem by Ksetrayya, on pages 14-16. Here, readers see the God-customer Muvva Gopala/Lord Krishna hapless and awkward, wandering the streets of the courtesan colony, unable to find the courtesan he lusts for; she has taken his money, but not given him her address. An older courtesan, the speaker, chides her for her haughtiness:

Woman! He’s none other
than Cennudu of Palagiri.
Haven’t you heard?
He rules the worlds.

When he wanted you, you took his gold—
but couldn’t you tell him your address?
Some lover you are!
He’s hooked on you.

     And he rules the worlds

I found him wandering the alleyways,
too shy to ask anyone.
I had to bring him home with me.
Would it have been such a crime
if you or your girls
had waited for him by the door?
You really think it’s enough
to get the money in your hand?
Can’t you tell who’s big, who’s small?
Who do you think he is? (14-15)

Like the courtesan spoken to in the excerpt above, many of When God Is a Customer’s speakers plainly lack wonderment at their God-lovers’ ruling powers: in an anonymous padam, a courtesan insists her God can “enter [her] house only if [he has] the money” (39), asserting some level of dominance; in “A Woman to Her Lover” by Ksetrayya (33), the lovers laugh as a pet parrot mimics the courtesan’s moans, then bemoan the morning for interrupting their lovemaking—a remarkably “down to earth” moment, given that Muvva Gopala “rules the worlds” (14).

As the introduction observes, a power dynamic that posits the courtesan speaker as having the upper hand against or being on an even playing field with the God figure reverses that which is commonly seen in earlier Tamil bhakti models of devotional poetry. An eighth-century bhakti by Nammalvar on page 10 serves as an example of such a model, imaging a powerless woman heart-wrenched by her god-lover’s all-consuming absence. Unable to sleep on a black, rainy night, she spends her hours resenting her heart, her “sins,” and her womanhood.

The tormenting, lonely, helpless atmosphere of Nammalvar’s work is a far cry from both the bright playfulness that so often colours the lovers’ conflicts in Ksetrayya’s poems and the physical unity—often through orgasm—that resolves them. Indeed, the figure of the courtesan, sensual and autonomous, allows for a type of devotional work that, as the book’s introduction observes, is concerned more with union than with separation:

It should now be clear why the courtesan appears as the major figure in this poetry of love. As an expressive vehicle for the manifold relations between devotee and deity, the courtesan offers rich possibilities. She is bold, unattached, free from the constraints of home and family. In some sense, she represents the possibility of choice and spontaneous affection, in opposition to the largely predetermined, and rather calculated, marital tie. She can also manipulate her customers to no small extent, as the devotee wishes and believes he can manipulate his god. But above all, the courtesan signals a particular kind of knowledge, one that achieved preeminence in the late medieval cultural order in South India. Bodily experience becomes a crucial mode of knowing, especially in this devotional context: the courtesan experiences her divine client by taking him physically into her body. (18)

Who is Ksetrayya?

A very interesting article by Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, “Ksetrayya: The making of a Telugu poet”, has called the popular and scholarly assumptions about the padam poet into question. Kamath argues that rather than a historical figure from the village of Muvva, Ksetrayya could be a literary persona constructed into a Telugu bhakti poet-saint through the course of three centuries of literary reform, and that rather than being written by a single male author, Ksetrayya’s poetry could be the work of multiple authors, including courtesans themselves.

Scobie, Claire. The Pagoda Tree. Penguin Group Australia, 2013.

Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree was written alongside a very useful dissertation paper entitled “The Representation of the Figure of the Devadasi in European Travel Writing and Art from 1770 to 1820 with specific reference to Dutch writer Jacob Haafner.” Please see our citation for that paper, including a link to download the paper for free, by clicking here.

Summary from the Penguin website

Tamil Nadu, southern India, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples in the ancient city of Tanjore.

Like her mother before her, she is destined to become a devadasi, a dancer for the temple. On the day of her initiation, a stranger arrives in town. Walter Sutcliffe, a black-frocked clergyman, strives to offer moral guidance to the British troops stationed in Tanjore, but is beset by his own demons.

When the British tear apart her princely kingdom, Maya heads to the steamy port city of Madras, where Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman, is entranced from the moment he first sees her.

The Pagoda Tree takes us deep into the heart of a country struggling under brutal occupation. As East and West collide, Walter Sutcliffe unknowingly plays the decisive card in Maya’s destiny.

Sengupta, Nandini. The King Within. Harper Collins, 2017.

Summary

373 AD. In the thick forests of Malwa, an enigmatic stranger gallops into an ambush attack by bandits to rescue a young courtesan, Darshini. His name is Deva and he is the younger son of Emperor Samudragupta. That chance encounter, first with Deva and later with his two friends, the loyal general Saba Virasena and the great poet Kalidas, forges a bond that lasts a lifetime. From a dispossessed prince, Deva goes on to become one of the greatest monarchs in ancient India, Chandragupta Vikramaditya. But the search for glory comes with a blood price. As Chandragupta the emperor sets aside Deva the brother, lover and friend, to build a glorious destiny for himself, his companions go from being his biggest champions to his harshest critics.

Summary from author’s website.

Shah, Hasan. The Dancing Girl. Translated by Qurratulain Hyder. New Directions, 1993.

Google Books Description

Written in 1790, Hasan Shah’s autobiographical romance, The Dancing Girl, is remarkable for both its lyrical prose and its fine recreation of a time, a place, and a culture – India in the 1780s, a tolerant, affable era before the full establishment of British colonial rule. The Dancing Girl tells of the doomed love of Hasan Shah (aide-de-camp to a British officer) and Khanum Jan (a courageous and gifted dancer of the courtesan caste) whose secret marriage could not prevent their separation. At Khanum Jan’s death, her grief-stricken husband turned his raw emotion into a surprisingly modern, first-person narrative “without realizing,” as leading Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder observes in the foreword to her translation (from the 1893 Urdu translation of the original Persian), “that he had become a pioneer of the modern Indian novel.”

Sharma, Tripurari. “A Tale from the Year 1857: Azizun Nisa.” Translated by Tutun Mukherjee and A.R. Manzar. Staging Resistance: Plays by Women in Translation, edited by Tutun Mukherjee. Oxford University Press, 2005, pp 120-181.

Abstract: This play tells the story of Azizun Nisa, a courtesan who left her profession during the 1857 Sipahi revolt to become a soldier and fight the British.

Vanita, Ruth. Memory of Light. Penguin, 2020.

Summary

Preparations for King George the Third’s fiftieth birthday gala are in full swing in Lucknow. As poets and performers vie to be part of the show, Chapla Bai, a dazzling courtesan from Kashi, briefly enters this competitive world, and sweeps the poet Nafis Bai off her feet. An irresistible passion takes root, expanding and contracting like a wave of light. Over two summers, aided by Nafis’s friends, the poets Insha and Rangin, and Sharad, himself in love with a man, they exchange letters and verses, feeding each other the heady fruit of desire. When Chapla leaves for home, they part with the dream of building a life together. Can their relationship survive the distances?

From publisher’s website.