This article is available for free from the Sarai journal website.
What does Begum Samru have to do with a cinema in Delhi?
Begum Samru’s palace was the site of many a nautch (dance performance) where the Indian and British elite of late Mughal Delhi would gather to watch the skilled singing and dancing of professional tawaifs (courtesans) in the heart of the Old City. The Mughal ruler Shah Alam (1759-1806) acknowledged Begum Samru as his esteemed protector, and the military strategists of the East India Company considered her crucial to theirterritorial ambitions. Her acquisition of tremendous political, military and economic clout has been documented. Her talent at diplomacy and her political wiles have been noticed, as have her instincts for survival and success.
Yet, none of these accounts
acknowledge the fact that she began her professional life as a young tawaif (courtesan) in Delhi. But in the elite enclaves where the nautch played out, there was always an awareness of the presence of a non-elite element in this play of pleasure and desire, the commodification of sexuality as/and spectacle: “No nautchni is expected to wear longer than three or four years, after which she exercises her art among the lowest of the low”.
Two centuries later, the grounds of her palace have become the crowded, bustling Bhagirath Place, the centre for the film distribution trade in Delhi, where over 100 film distribution companies operate. Brian Larkin, who has worked extensively on visual culture in colonial and postcolonial Nigeria, while writing on cinema viewing in Northern Nigeria follows the historian and philosopher of modernity, Walter Benjamin, in viewing fantasy as the energy stored in the concreteness of objects.
My essay, drawing upon earlier work done by researchers of the Publics and Practices in the History of the Present (PPHP) project at Sarai, and my own fieldwork, attempts to look at the fantasy shaping the cinema viewing spaces of contemporary Delhi, a fantasy which has more in common with the Indo-British ‘gentry’ attending the nautch at Begum Samru’s palace than mere coincidence. My attempt is to establish parallels between these two phenomena, in terms of the ‘desirable’ audience for the display of sexuality and experience of pleasure, and to map a history of the imagination
of the ‘gentry’, a widely prevalent term in the Delhi cinema trade for an upper-class audience. This essay will map a rough and not-quite-ready historical trajectory of the city’s cinemas. The focus is on practices within and outside the law; of changing laws and shifting transgressions; of changing land use patterns, and of dispossessions that define the cinema today; a map of cinema that mirrors the larger transformations of the city. A map that increasingly represents “objects that were once new and symbolized modern life but whose historical moment has passed [and have] become inadvertent but dense signifiers in social structure”.