This is a chapter from the edited collection Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’. In this chapter, Dwyer primarily examines the “view of the Indian Muslim as Other and not an authentic Indian citizen, by looking at India’s ‘other’ national cinema, the so-called ‘Hindi’ film.” Her essay centers on how the meaning of the words “Hindu” and “Hindustan” are manipulated by forms of nationalism, Hindutva in particular, to be conflated with the idea of the Hindu: “a person following certain beliefs and practices; and the othering of the Muslims: their treatment and representation in Hindi film over the decades. She spends the last section of her chapter discussing “the courtesan film”—how the prevalent courtesan figure found in all Indian cultural texts seeps into Hindi films, informing us of the “‘othering’ not only of the Muslim but of the Muslim women in particular.” Dwyer notes that the courtesan figure who “pours out her grief for the love she is denied in tears, poetry, and dance,” although a romantic, tragic figure, becomes an agential source of power spanning all films. Drawing parallels with the ghazal and other historical dimensions emerging from linear history, she discerns this genre of courtesan film as a space for nostalgia for a “lost Islamic world.”
From the abstract:
“British representations of courtesans, or nautch-girls, is an emerging area of study in relation to the impact of British imperialism on constructions of Indian womanhood. The nautch was a form of dance and entertainment, performed by courtesans, that originated in early Indiancivilizations and was connected to various Hindu temples. Nautch performances and courtesanswere a feature of early British experiences of India and, therefore, influenced British genderedrepresentations of Indian women. My research explores the shifts in British perceptions of Indianwomen, and the impact this had on imperial discourses, from the mid-eighteenth through the latenineteenth centuries. Over the course of the colonial period examined in this research, the Britishincreasingly imported their own social values and beliefs into India. British constructions ofgender, ethnicity, and class in India altered ideas and ideals concerning appropriate behaviour,sexuality, sexual availability, and sex-specific gender roles in the subcontinent. This thesis explores the production of British lifestyles and imperial culture in India and the ways in which this influenced their representation of courtesans. During the nabob period of the eighteenth century, nautch parties worked as a form of cultural interaction between Indian elites and British East India Company officials. However, over the course of the nineteenth century the nautch and nautch-girls became symbolic to the British of India’s ‘despotism’ and ‘backwardness,’ as well as representative of the supposed dangers of miscegenation and Eastern sensuality. By the midnineteenthcentury, nautch-girls were represented as commercial sex-workers and were subject to the increasing surveillance and medical intervention of the British colonial state. In addition, this representation perpetuated the belief of the British ‘saving’ Indian women as a way to justify the continuation of colonialism in India. My research explores how British conceptualizations of courtesans were fundamental to the justification of the imperial project in India, as well as representative of changing British perceptions of their own political and territorial power in the subcontinent.”
This article explores the manner in which Peero, a denizen of nineteenth century Punjab, in her 160 Kafis tries to communicate aspects of her own story and life through the diverse cultural resources at her command. The questions of self-representation and self-fashioning are central to this text, and Peero speaks of certain events in her life by relating sagas and evoking moods familiar in the cultural landscape of Punjab. Peero, self-confessedly a prostitute, and a Muslim, came to live in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Gulabdasi dera, a nominally ‘Sikh’ sect. This remarkable move, and her relationship with Guru Gulab Das, probably generated discord that pushed Peero into inserting her ‘self’ into the 160 Kafis. An attempt is made to read Peero’s crafting of her story, along with her silences, and bring out the nuances embedded in her text. The article also examines why Peero writes of her personal trauma and experience in the language of religious conflict between the ‘Hindus’ and the ‘Turaks’. This was particularly surprising as the Gulabdasi dera displayed eclecticism in its philosophical choices, and imbibed radical aspects of Vedantic monism. It also borrowed freely from hybrid religious sources including rhetoric familiar within the Bhakti movement, and the Punjabi Sufis’ anti-establishment mien.
Abstract from Sage Journals This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.
Abstract: This chapter unravels Piro’s 160 Kafis to show how a former Muslim prostitute, and then a novitiate in a marginally Sikh Gulabdasi establishment, fashioned a self by writing “autobiographical” verses. The transgression of her move from a brothel to a monastic establishment created a situation that pushed Piro into recounting the particular incident that she perceived as transformative in her life. She used her writing to justify her presence in the establishment and her closeness to her guru. The chapter unpacks the meanings of her metaphorical language, what she says, what she leaves unsaid, and what she merely suggests. The meanings of Piro’s obsessive invoking of Hindu-Muslim conflict is sought to be understood, and her recourse to and creative use of diverse Punjabi cultural imaginary is demonstrated. The cultural eclecticism of her sect and her writing, with its borrowings from Vedantic monism, Sikh inheritance, Punjabi Sufis’ antiauthority moods, and Bhakti devotion is delineated.
Abstract from Duke University Books. This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.
Abstract from Project Muse
In this article the question of agency is explored in the autobiographical fragment of a nineteenth-century poetess of Punjab, Piro. In this “pre-modern” text Piro portrays an enormous sense of self-worth and presents herself as loquacious and active. She simultaneously adheres to the norms of her bhakti devotional world where the guru was held in high esteem and often displayed his elevated status through miraculous interventions in earthly matters. Piro refers to such a marvelous encounter at a moment of crisis in her own life, attributing her redemption to the miraculous powers of the guru. Between Piro’s depiction of self-worth and her self-abnegation in front of the guru, how does one read her agency? This article views western understanding of agency in the genre of autobiographies, and also follows the critique of the western liberal feminist positions on the issue. It underscores the significance of context to understand women’s agency in different cultures. This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source. Available free online from Project Muse
The middle decades of the nineteenth century in Punjab were a time of the disintegrating Sikh empire and an emerging colonial one. Situating her study in this turbulent time, Anshu Malhotra delves into the tumultuous life of a hitherto unknown woman, Piro, and her little-known sect, the Gulabdasis. Piro’s forceful autobiographical narrative knits a fanciful tale of abduction and redemption, while also claiming agency over her life. Piro’s is the extraordinary voice of a low-caste Muslim and a former prostitute, who reinvents her life as an acolyte in a heterodox sect. Malhotra argues for the relevance of such a voice for our cultural anchoring and empowering politics. Piro’s remarkable poetry deploys bhakti imaginary in exceptional ways, demonstrating how it enriched the lives of women and low castes. Malhotra’s work is also a pioneering study of the afterlife of Piro and the Gulabdasis, highlighting the cultural scripts that inform the stories that we tell and the templates that renew the tales we fabricate.
This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.
From the abstract:
“Mah Laqa Bai is one of Hyderabad’s most famous women. She was a poetess, singer and dancer, and political advisor during her time. She lived from 1768 until 1824 and was active during the era of the Second and Third Nizams (as rulers from the Asaf Jahi dynasty of Hyderabad state were known), and was one of the first women to author a full collection of Urdu ghazals (love poems).1 This chapter takes up the subject of Mah Laqa Bai and was originally written as a keynote address for the conference Dance Matters II. One of the questions this conference asked was, what remains of a dance when the performance is done? What are the traces of dance in the senses, memory, tradition or material objects?”
From the abstract:
Most scholars see the tawa’if either as an unchanging group of hereditary performers or as women engaged in the ‘oldest profession’ of prostitution. This thesis attempts to rethink these linear and separate histories of performers and prostitutes into a dynamic historical model across the long duree of the 1720s to the 1920s. Using multiple language sources I first show that a diverse group of slave girls, prostitutes and women performers made up the varied group of the tawa’if. To trace the continuities and difference in their lives across changing historical contexts of courtly culture and colonial cities, I use Stephen Greenblatt’s theoretical concept of self-fashioning and see these women as agents of their own identity-making. Delving into hierarchies of prostitution and performance, I argue that the most talented and astute amongst the tawa’if became courtesans and wealthy nautch girls through specific acts of self-representation.
Reading their acts in conjunction with their historical images in literary and visual representations, this history sees the tawa’if as historical actors in worlds of image-making. As subjects of courtly culture or urban leisure, the image of the tawa’if could signify both, courtly tradition and emerging modernities of city-life. Rethinking a straightforward history of the ‘decline’ of the ‘courtesan tradition’ since the late nineteenth century, I show that if some tawa’if were marginalised as prostitutes by colonial and reformist praxis, others became celebrity entertainers. Through their use of new technologies of print, photography and recording, and strategic political acts such as forming local caste associations, the tawa’if in this history will emerge to be acute observers and participants in the milieux of courtly cultures and emergent nation-space.
Plot Summary from Wikipedia
Emperor Akbar, who does not have a male heir, undertakes a pilgrimage to a shrine to pray that his wife Jodhabai will give birth to a son. Later, a maid brings the emperor news of his son’s birth. Overjoyed at his prayers being answered, Akbar gives the maid his ring and promises to grant her anything she desires.
The son, Prince Salim, grows up to be spoiled, flippant, and self-indulgent. His father sends him off to war, to teach him courage and discipline. Fourteen years later, Salim returns as a distinguished soldier and falls in love with court dancer Nadira, whom the emperor has renamed Anarkali, meaning pomegranate blossom. The relationship is discovered by the jealous Bahar, a dancer of a higher rank, who wants the prince to love her so that she may one day become queen. Unsuccessful in winning Salim’s love, she exposes his forbidden relationship with Anarkali. Salim pleads to marry Anarkali, but his father refuses and imprisons her. Despite her treatment, Anarkali refuses to reject Salim, as Akbar demands.
Salim rebels and amasses an army to confront Akbar and rescue Anarkali. Defeated in battle, Salim is sentenced to death by his father, but is told that the sentence will be revoked if Anarkali, now in hiding, is handed over to die in his place. Anarkali gives herself up to save the prince’s life and is condemned to death by being entombed alive. Before her sentence is carried out, she begs to have a few hours with Salim as his make-believe wife. Her request is granted, as she has agreed to drug Salim so that he cannot interfere with her entombment. As Anarkali is being walled up, Akbar is reminded that he still owes her mother a favour, as it was she who brought him news of Salim’s birth. Anarkali’s mother pleads for her daughter’s life. The emperor has a change of heart, but although he wants to release Anarkali he cannot, because of his duty to his country. He, therefore, arranges for her secret escape into exile with her mother, but demands that the pair are to live in obscurity and that Salim is never to know that Anarkali is still alive.
Questions to consider
- What is the audience encouraged to believe prevented Anarkali from obtaining a happy ending? Challenging her station? Akbar?
- In what ways is the audience encouraged to view Akbar’s choices as being just? In what ways is the audience encouraged to question his choices? Ultimately, does the film support or challenge Akbar? Does it support or challenge Salim?
- At the end of the movie, after Anarkali’s banishment, the state of India declares that Akbar has an unwavering sense of justice, yet Anarkali, Anarkali’s mother, Salim, and Akbar’s wife regard him as cruel. Who do we believe? Does the film reconcile these two conflicting sides to create a coherent, singular sense of justice? Does it try to?
- While Anarkali’s character may be fictitious, Akbar was a real Emperor. How might his status as a respected historical figure shape, inform, or restrict Akbar’s presentation?
- How is Anarkali’s complicity and submission with her station (such as when she, however longingly, resists Salim because he is “above” her, or when she doesn’t try to dodge an arrow to fulfill her role as a piece of art) used to represent her as a respectable character? Does her challenge to Akbar contribute to or undermine that representation? What problems can arise when complicity and submission are viewed as respectable for one cultural category, but not for another?
- What beliefs and values make Bahar into a villain? In what ways does Bahar contrast with Anarkali?
- In 1946, All India Radio (the national public radio broadcaster of India) banned performers belonging to courtesan cultures from participating in national radio and film, allowing only performers from “educated and respectable families” (Lelyveld 119). This influential policy was still in effect upon Mughal-E-Azam’s release. How might this policy and the ideologies that upheld it shape, inform, or restrict Anarkali’s representation as a tawaif/courtesan? Listen carefully: is she even referred to as such?
After a crime lord leaves a courtesan, Sultana, in the home of the unsuspecting Dawood and threatens to kill him if anything happens to her, Dawood must pretend she is his new bride. Dawood, who is forming a romance with a local author writing a book about a courtesan, must carefully conceal Sultana’s identity while avoiding unsavoury circumstances. Despite Dawood’s resistance, a romance develops, and the two must ensure Sultana’s escape from the crime lord and ensure a happy ending.
Questions to Consider
- A common theme of the Bollywood courtesan genre is courtesans wishing to escape their lives into “respectable” heterosexual marriages (see Poonam and Hubel to learn more.) This is certainly true of Tawaif’s ending, but is Sultana’s courtesan life not considered “respectable”? Does the film respect Sultana herself? Does it respect her work? Can they be separated?
- Dawood is very interested in Poonam’s book about courtesans, but looks down upon the real courtesan, Sultana. Who else consumes media representations about courtesans while disrespecting the people upon which those representations are based? What might the film be suggesting here about representation and consumption?
- Was Sultana respectable before she was married? If so, how does the marriage serve to influence opinions of Sultana—those of the audience and the other characters?
- Several scenes suggest that Sultana believes her work is shameful. For example, while staying with Dawood, Sultana refuses to sleep on the wedding bed the landlady had intended for her son, believing that as a courtesan, she is “unworthy” of lying on such a bed, or even of marriage in general. From where do we believe Sultana absorbed this opinion? Is this opinion of courtesans shared by the other characters? Is it shared by the film?
- Does Sultana have a say in the work she does? In the world of this film, do other courtesans? Would Sultana’s happy ending be accessible to a courtesan who liked or chose her work? Does this film appear to believe that courtesans can like their or choose their work?
- In what ways could viewing courtesans as innocent victims of circumstance (e.g: trafficking, poverty) help them? In what ways could that view pose a risk?
From the Introduction
“This chapter addresses three films – Bhumika (The Role; 1976); Mandi (Marketplace; 1983); and the eponymous Sardari Begum (1996)…. [A] continuity of interests and ideological investments link the … three films … including: each film’s focus on a female protagonist and subject; her conscious and unconscious efforts to emancipate herself from the debilitations of her gender, class, and caste oppression; and, finally, for the purposes of my argument, her function as a figure through whom women’s relationship to the hegemonic values and ideological agendas of the Indian nation- in-the- making are assessed and interrogated. The nation remains, then, a salient frame of reference for grasping the ideological investments of these Benegal films….
The performing women… represent professions, identities, and cultural repertoires that flourished under, and were indelibly associated with, a feudal order, but which were delegitimized, marginalized, even excised from the self-definitions and constitutive narratives of the new Indian nation. “Women performers,” Singh notes, “were kept out of the frame of the nation in the making” (see epigraph; 2007: 94). By focusing on protagonists who belong to professions and identities that are devalued and marginalized in the new Indian nation, these three later films, I argue, “unsettle” (Singh’s term) the processes through which the Indian nation constituted itself, thereby also unsettling an unambiguously negative assessment of feudal social and cultural arrangements. Thus, [these] films undertake a more fundamental interrogation regarding India’s nation- formation itself – what the nation deliberately excludes in order to become a nation.
This article is available for free online at DailyO.
This article features an expansive excerpt from Aslam Mahmud’s book, Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude. It discusses the expectations of Awadh’s courtesans, their average days, and their sexual services. The article also includes beautiful, high-resolution photographs of early tawaifs from the Amit Ambalal collection.
This article is available for free online through the Leiden University Repository: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/12710
From the Introduction – Modern Courtesans
People today speak nostalgically about the golden age of courtesans, when their company was much appreciated and an accepted part of aristocratic life. Nevertheless, the current practice of this seductive art as found in today’s brothels (kotha) is despised, while its practitioners are considered outcasts operating on the margins of society. Of course there is great variety in India’s red-light districts: from child prostitutes to call girls in modern city bars and women who still use the mujarewali tradition of dancing and singing as part of their seductive technique. Their daily lives and their nighttime practices place them in a twilight zone, serving a male clientele without regard to caste or religion.
Some artists and researchers say that traditional mujarewali no longer exist, as the artistic expressions of today’s courtesans are in no way comparable to those of bygone days. Still, although their techniques have changed, these women perform the arts of seduction, and their customers visit them not only for their public services, but to return to an earlier time, to leave behind the cares of today and of the future.
From the Introduction – Courtesan Films
The Bollywood film industry, with 900 releases annually, is among the largest in the world. Many film producers’ works feature both historical courtesans and their present-day representatives…. The introduction of sound in the 1930s gave birth to a tradition of films featuring embedded music and dance
sequences. Of these, the courtesan genre includes such well-known examples as DevDas (1955) Pakeeza (1971) and Umrao Jan (1981). Early courtesan films idealized the beauty and artistic skills of the historical mujarewali and portrayed prostitutes restored to social respectability through marriage. The narratives were interspersed with song and dance sequences similar to what we assume to have been traditional mujara practice.
This article is available for free online through the University of Manchester Library.
After contextualizing the common discursive question in the article’s title, Evans briefly explains that Western colonization eroded devadasis’ cultural roles and the public’s perspective of those roles. She goes on to attempt to answer the question, “Who are the contemporary devadasis?” by discussing the struggle over a cultural identity for the “post-devadasi:” the devadasi that exists when their once-integral practice of temple dancing is outlawed.
Readers should take care to note that this article was written in 1998, and thus may not represent the experiences of today’s devadasis.
From the Introduction
The contemporary devaddsis have been subject to sociological and anthropological representations. Conversely, the devadasis’ own accounts . . . are often discrepant with those who study or attempt to reform them . . .The question ‘whose experience, whose representation?’ is posed. Even though the representations are generally context-sensitive, studies of the contemporary devadasis have mainly focused on the gendered dimension of the devadasi-hood, that is, the devadasi as synonymous or reducible to a common prostitute.
It is puzzling why the label ‘prostitution’ is so persistently attached to the contemporary devaddsi. One explanation is that the generic term ‘devaddsi’ is applied to any woman associated with theogamy (principally the cult of Yellamma-Renuka) in Karnataka, overlooking the diversity of her ritual statuses as the ‘chaste’, ‘degraded’ and ‘pious’ wife of Siva Jamadagni. A closer examination reveals that only the ‘degraded wife’ (sule muttu) is associated with commercial prostitution. Another explanation is that such a misappropriation of the term ‘devadasi’ may reflect a secularized sociological perspective which represents the devadasis as predominantly exploited rather than empowered. This perspective is reflected in the newspaper reports in which the Yellamma-Renuka temple is portrayed as a ‘recruiting centre’ for prostitutes. An increasing social and sociological concern for women’s issues in contemporary Indian society arguably makes the sociological perspective a valid representation of the contemporary devadasi as an exploited sex worker, especially if she comes from
rural scheduled caste communities. Nevertheless, as Trivedi discovered, the issue is more complex, and devadasis were found to be ‘sacred’, ‘clandestine’ or ‘commercial’ prostitutes, with the first category dominant in Karnataka. But even though a context-sensitive representation to a point, a secular-cum sociological perspective tends to gloss over the ritual aspect which, when we hear the voices of the devadasis, appears to be an important aspect of their experience.
This dissertation examines coming of age, sexuality and relationships, social reform, and HIV/AIDS among a unique group of female sex workers, the Devadasis, in rural areas of the South Indian state of Karnataka. Former temple servants, religious functionaries, and courtesans in the medieval to early Colonial period (c. 10th-19th century), over time the Devadasis have lost their wealthy patrons and attendant socio-religious status. While often equated with commercial sex workers, many Devadasis continue to practice age-old ceremonies and customs. However, many aspects of these sex workers’ lives are misunderstood. A combination of qualitative methods was used during this research; mainly participant-observation, interviews (individual, group, life-histories), and workshops with participants were coordinated to ensure their participation in the process and feedback on study results. Among the most important findings is the alternative model of child prostitution that emerged from the data. Contrary to standard portrayals of the young as victims of a degraded trade, Devadasi girls discussed some positive aspects of prostitution, such as their ability to support their families, providing income to participate in peer activities, and becoming an adult. The common assumption about sex workers as sexually detached and incapable of forming important unions was also challenged, as many Devadasis enjoy meaningful sex with their long-term lovers or partners, who are central to the women’s socio-emotional and economic well-being. Their response to state-level social reform movements aimed at “rescuing” them from prostitution reveals a pragmatic understanding of these campaigns not often considered in the literature, with the women incorporating these programs into their sex work earnings to maximize their position in a demanding economic environment. Similarly, their involvement in the formation of Collective organizations in order to develop a sense of empowerment in their fight against HIV/AIDS reveals the women’s ability to mobilize and politicize their demands. The results of this dissertation are relevant to the emerging research on global sex work, especially in relation to the issues of childhood, sexuality, and relationships, and they present new data on the Devadasis about coming of age, changes in the system over time, social reform, and HIV/AIDS.
This 1983 docudrama examines an enclosed area of Mumbai known as Pavan Pool, a low-income apartment community home to many courtesans. The film explores their daily lives and showcases their performances. Notably, much of the work is scripted: its three interview subjects (a landlord, a retired courtesan and a frequent patron) are all played by actors whose lines were written by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The landlord speaks about the working conditions at the compound, the retired courtesan speaks about how the tawaif practice has changed over time, and the patron speaks about his relationship with and perception of courtesans and their art. The scripted interviews are presented alongside footage of the real residents and performers of Pavan Pool, but videos of the real residents speaking amongst each other are not subtitled.
While the footage of tawaifs’ performance may be useful and interesting to our readers, the dramatization of the documentary draws some interesting ethical questions.
We highly recommend reading Geeta Thatra’s “Contentious Socio-Spatial Relations: Tawaifs and Congress House in Contemporary Bombay/Mumbai” alongside viewing this documentary.
Questions to Ask About Courtesans of Bombay and Other Documentaries
- This documentary was commissioned by BBC Channel 4. It was made by British people for British consumption. How might this funding and purpose affect the documentary’s content?
- Given that this film’s subtitled speech—the speech understandable to an English-speaking British audience—is entirely scripted, can this film be accurately called a documentary? Is it drama? Is it both?
- To what degree do the Pavan Pool courtesans appear to be involved in constructing the film’s narrative? Whose insights are included and whose are left out?
- What real-life political impacts can documentaries have on the groups they feature? What ethical problems should documentary filmmakers consider when telling stories about marginalized groups? Could the Pavan Pool courtesans benefit from this film? Could the film cause them harm?
- The landlord consistently presents the Pavan Pool courtesans as naïvely causing their own financial ruin: according to him, they keep hoping for an improbable film contract, they fight each other over cheating men, and some cling to outdated and unprofitable traditions. What does this representation suggest about the courtesans? Are viewers encouraged to believe the landlord is well-informed and truthful? What other reasons might exist for why the courtesans are struggling? How could this representation impact the audience’s view of these courtesans’ agency?
From the abstract: “Important recent works on the Mughal state and women in the Indo-Muslim world have not considered courtesans or tawa’ifs, the singing and dancing women employed by Indo-Muslim
states and nobles, to be significant participants in politics and society. Drawing on detailed
archival data from late nineteenth century Hyderabad state and other historical materials,
I argue that courtesans were often elite women, cultural standard-setters and wielders of political
power. Women whose art and learning gained them properties and alliances with powerful
men, they were political players in precolonial India and in the princely states. They successfully
negotiated administrative reforms in princely states like Hyderabad, continuing to secure protection
and patronage while in British India they began to be classified as prostitutes. Colonial
and modern India have been less than kind to courtesans and their artistic traditions, and more
research needs to be done on the history of courtesans and their communities.”
Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans of Bombay Cinema is an important piece of scholarship detailing the representation of tawaifs in Hindi cinema and how these representations shape and were shaped by the culture in which they were produced. Throughout the course of writing this book, Vanita closely studied over 200 films; we encourage encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this valuable book for themselves or their libraries.
A substantial excerpt from this book can be found on The Daily O.
This summary was obtained from the Speaking Tiger website.
“Acknowledging courtesans or tawaifs as central to popular Hindi cinema, Dancing with the Nation is the first book to show how the figure of the courtesan shapes the Indian erotic, political and religious imagination. Historically, courtesans existed outside the conventional patriarchal family and carved a special place for themselves with their independent spirit, witty conversations and transmission of classical music and dance. Later, they entered the nascent world of Bombay cinema—as playback singers and actors, and as directors and producers.
In Ruth Vanita’s study of over 200 films from the 1930s to the present—among them, Devdas (1935), Mehndi (1958), Teesri Kasam (1966), Pakeezah (1971), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Ahista Ahista (1981), Sangeet (1992) and Ishaqzaade (2012)—courtesan characters emerge as the first group of single, working women depicted in South Asian movies. Almost every female actor—from Waheeda Rehman to Rekha and Madhuri Dixit—has played the role, and compared to other central female roles, these characters have greater social and financial autonomy. They travel by themselves, choose the men they want to have relations with and form networks with chosen kin. And challenging received wisdom, in Vanita’s analysis of films such as The Burning Train (1980) and Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), courtesan characters emerge as representatives of India’s hybrid Hindu-Muslim culture rather than of Islamicate culture.
A rigorously researched and groundbreaking account of one of the less-examined figures in the study of cinema, Dancing with the Nation is also a riveting study of gender, sexuality, the performing arts and popular culture in modern India.”
In this book, Moti Chandra compiles an enormity of information about ancient Indian courtesans organized into certain periods/locations and their literatures. By the sheer number of places and locations, Chandra’s book resists a singular or one-dimensional reading of the life of ancient Indian courtesans.
From the Preface
“The institution of courtesans in ancient India in its social setting has not yet received as much attention from scholars as it deserves. Courtesans in ancient India did not merely serve the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and ars amoris. Around them moved interesting characters such as rich merchants, bankers, and the vitas (rakes). In this way a courtesan became an important part of Indian society. So far as literature is concerned, courtesans, in spite of their perfidies, were considered an urban institution which gave an impetus to arts and the life of luxury….
The institution of courtesans is a distinguished feature of developed urban society and, therefore, in Vedic and post-Vedic literature, though the courtesans are mentioned casually, we hardly know much about their life and accomplishments. In Buddhist literature, however, we are face to face with the highly developed institution of courtesans…. In Jain literature as well, courtesans have received attention and their achievements have been noted…. In the Mauryan period, however, the organization of the courtesans became highly complex and the state devised a set of rules which governed their conduct….
However, the best account of courtesans is obtained in the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana which goes into great details in drawing a very correct picture of the institutions of courtesans, the clients who visited them, the low characters who either helped the courtesans and their clients and hangers on, their amusements, the picnic parties to which they proceeded with their lovers, periodic festivals in which they participated, their acts of piety and virtue and vices.”
Although this work is very thoroughly researched and informative, The World of Courtesans is not without its biases. In “Re-Inscribing the Indian Courtesan: A Genealogical Approach” (see our citation and download the .pdf here), Meenal Tula and Rekhal Pande observe that Chandra speaks of courtesans’ sexuality in a demeaning and even anxious way. They argue that in doing so, The World of Courtesans “contains, disciplines, and ‘silences the courtesan subject,'” common features of scholarship on the devadasis. Consider the following quote:
“Moti Chandra, in his study The World of Courtesans (first published in 1976), attempts to provide a compilation of the various kinds of roles played by the courtesan women since the Vedic period. He talks about their sexual, ritual and sacred roles and, citing various sources, catalogues the various terms that have been employed for the courtesans over the ages—ganika, khumbhadasi—and the hierarchies between these various terms. At the same time, the book is framed by a narrative that sees courtesans as women who ‘served the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and arsamoris.’ At the same time, while Moti Chandra sees these women as morally base and ‘living the life of shame’, he nonetheless reveals a deep anxiety towards the ‘crafty’ and ‘worldly-wise’ ways of these women: ‘…courtesans tempt(ed) their lovers, perhaps depriving the rich Aryans of a part of their possessions in cattle and gold.’ Further, Chandra seeks to configure the courtesan women primarily according to their sexual function, seeing it as the sole aspect that ‘explains’ all dimensions of the courtesan, sexual, cultural and political. In this sense, Moti Chandra’s history of the courtesan women does not explore the complexities of the inter-relationships between these women and the extant patriarchal structures, even though it is a ‘women’s history’.”
Table of Contents
- Courtesans in Vedic, Pauranic, and Smiti Literatures
- Courtesans in Buddhist Literature
- Courtesans in Jain Literature
- Courtesans in the Mauryan Period
- Courtesans in the Kamasutra and Natyasastra
- Courtesans in the Gupta Period
- Courtesans and Goshthi in Sanskrit Drama
- Courtesans in Mediaeval Kashmir
- Courtesans in Mediaevil Times in Other Parts of India
- Courtesans in South India
This video depicts a talk by Manjari Chaturvedi discussing her life and experience with sufi kathak dancing and addressing some of the negative responses she has received due to kathak’s association with courtesans. Chaturvedi also recounts her partnership with Zareena Begum, sometimes referred to as India’s ‘last living courtesan,’ and the controversy she faced in working with a professed courtesan.
This piece profiles Kathak performer Manjari Chaturvedi and her project to recreate kathak dances once performed by courtesans, as part of her show “The Courtesan – An Enigma.” Kohli discusses some of the negative stereotypes surrounding courtesans and their representation in Bollywood and wider media, contrasting them with Chaturvedi’s research and attempts to build a more accurate, nuanced and dignified portrayal of courtesans and their role in art and history. As Chaturvedi herself notes, “I had to do this for her, and for all the other tawaifs who deserve that dignity.”
This video shows clips of a performance of the show “The Courtesan – An Enigma,” featuring Manjari Chaturvedi performing Darbari Kathak, billed as the “dance of the Courtesan.” In addition to the performance of the dance itself, the show includes several narrated stories about courtesans, and the video concludes with Chaturvedi discussing the history and representation of the courtesan, arguing that courtesans have been pushed aside in historical narratives and twisted into a negative concept, and that we must reexamine history and the role courtesans have played throughout.
Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she is pleased to offer this and many of her other scholarly works at her SelectedWorks page.
In 1947, after over 50 years of agitation and political pressure on the part of a committed group of Hindu reformers, the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional female temple dancers of South India. It was called the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act. Despite having the wholehearted support of the Indian women’s movement of the time, the Act represented the imposition of androcentric values on a matrifocal and matrilineal tradition, a tradition which had for centuries managed to withstand the compulsions of Hindu patriarchy. The devadasis were eventually forced to give up their profession and their unusual way of life. But the dance itself was not lost. It was, instead, reconstructed as a national treasure. One of the consequences of the 1947 Act is that, today in India and all over the world, the temple dance, once exclusively performed by devadasis, is dominated by women of the upper castes. What I intend to do in the following pages is to explore the much suppressed history of the devadasis through a reading of R.K. Narayan’s novel The Man-Eater of Malgudi. It might seem strange to readers that I should press this wonderfully funny book into the service of my historical rescue because it is generally interpreted as a story about two male characters, Nataraj and Vasu. These characters are frequently understood as antagonists, with Nataraj symbolizing the harmony that Narayan is supposed to prefer and Vasu the chaos he apparently dislikes. There are alternative explanations.
This article is available for free online through the website of Columbia University’s Professor Emerita Frances W. Pritchett.
From the Introduction:
In a departure from the conventional perspective on this profession, I would argue that these women, even today, are independent and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male-dominated world; they celebrate womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender ofthe larger society of which they are part. Their way of life is not complicitous with male authority; on the contrary, in their own self-perceptions, definitions, and descriptions they are engaged in ceaseless and chiefly nonconfrontational resistance to the new regulations and the resultant loss of prestige they have suffered since colonial rule began. It would be no exaggeration to say that their “life-style” is resistance to rather than a perpetuation of patriarchal values.
In this famed courtesan movie, the protagonist Sahibjaan is born to a tawaif, Nargis, who was desperate to escape courtesan life but who was spurned by her lover’s family. Nargis dies in childbirth, and Sahibjaan’s aunt, Nawabjaan, raises Sahibjaan as a tawaif, where she learns to be an excellent and alluring singer and dancer. One night, an unknown poet leaves a poem at Sahibjaan’s feet while she sleeps. She does, eventually, meet him, and, stunned by her beauty and innocence, he renames her “Pakeezah”—meaning “pure”—and proposes to elope with her to take her away from courtesan life. But many painful trials await.
Questions to think about:
- What does Pakeezah’s purity indicate about the film’s “idea” of tawaifs? Can any tawaif be pure, or is Pakeezah exceptional?
- Can a tawaif be “forgiven” from the film’s perspective? Can a tawaif escape?
- What dimensions of sympathy does the film create for Pakeezah? Is the sympathy respectful? Paternalistic?
- Does the film imply tragedy is in store for all courtesans, or just Pakeezah? How culpable are courtesans in their fate?
From the Introduction
“Sumita Chakravarty claims that ‘courtesan films’ constitute a separate genre, with a specific style of narration and plot development. But rather than focusing on the internal dynamics of these films, I want in this paper to link representations of the tawa’if with issues surrounding the postcolonial condition and consciousness, including their role in mediating the conflicting narrations of the nation. Within this rubric, a special focus will be placed on gender and Muslim-minority positioning in post-Pakistan India, because tawa’ifs represented in Bollywood are often Muslim, and even when not, they can be linked to certain tropes of Muslim cultural identity and historiography.
With these focal points noted, I argue in what follows that the tawa’if is a signifier whose gendered meaning, far from being fixed, is brought to the service of different post-Independence discourses that attempt to construct the nation’s narrative and the Muslim’s positioning within it. Bollywood cinema, as an institution that reaches India’s masses, provides a concrete platform through which the tawa’if-as-signifier can be examined. To approach this discussion, I first outline a ‘theoretical trajectory’ that includes feminist, post-colonial and post-structural thought. Next, I explore the cultural location of tawa’ifs within their social and historic contexts, with a special emphasis on the city of Lucknow in which courtesan films are often set. I then discuss important themes in Bollywood representations of tawa’ifs, highlighting their contradictory representations through their conflicted relationships to agency. This leads into an examination of how the tawa’if can be interpreted by different and conflicting discourses to produce and sometimes challenge narratives of the nation.”
Cited in the Introduction
Chakravarty, Sumita. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987. U of Texas P, 1993.
From the Introduction
“The Indian courtesan pervades precolonial art, literature, mythology, texts on rituals, polity, pleasure, and law books in the three major religions founded on Indian soil. Yet as much as she captivates, she also eludes. Why? Because her actions, her character, her mystique, are relayed to us by outsiders to her world, or to traditional India. Her own voice has remained faint until fairly modern times. This essay introduces different voices that describe the Indian courtesan over a vast stretch of history. What becomes clear is that two options for power were open to the precolonial Indian woman: that of the sexually liberated and educated courtesan or the pure, sexually controlled, uneducated wife.”
- Though the introduction (perhaps misleadingly) focuses on the courtesan/wife binary, the main thrust of this chapter is that courtesans are the “keepers of culture” in precolonial India. The “Keepers of culture” concept is described as follows: “It was the courtesans who sustained high culture in Lucknow, the kingdom’s capital. They kept alive the distinctive manners of Lucknow society and were instrumental in the development of Kathak dance and Hindustani music.”
- Srivinasan focuses mainly on two types of pre-colonial Indian courtesans: ganika, secular and well-educated courtesans often associated with royal courts, and devadasis, courtesans dedicated to temples as God’s mortal wives.
- Srivinasan resists a one-dimensional view of courtesans by providing simple definitions of multiple types of courtesans and discussing differences in their access to education, their places of work, etc.
- Modern Western readers, who are often saturated in anti-sex-work images and ideologies that shame and criminalize prostitutes, may be interested to learn about the “high culture” expectations of the ganika: on page 162, Srivinasan outlines how the Kamasutra, arguably the most famous ancient book about human sexual behaviour, details over 60 arts in which a ganika should be proficient (including singing, dancing, decorating, tailoring, and even architecture); for mastering these arts, the ganika ought to receive “a seat of honour in the assembly of men”—the ability to discourse with men as their equal. Srivinasan also observes that the Artharashtra, an ancient text on Indian polity, regarded the ganika’s training as an investment of the state.
From the introduction: “In [this essay], I examine how a group of North India’s tawa’if (courtesans-low-status professional women musicians and dancers) are adapting to changing musical patronage in the twenty-first century, using their music and dance as a tool for empowerment. Juxtaposing ethnographic accounts with qualitative analysis of performance practices and oral narratives of several professional women musicians and a few men who hail from provincial cities and towns in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, I open up exploration of a number of issues….
The English word ‘courtesan’ fails to capture the diversity of this community in South Asia, which runs the gamut from highly trained and refined court musicians/dancers/poets to street performers who entertain at festivals and weddings, instead creating a discursive stereotyping or ‘totalizing’…. One of the aims of this essay is to unpack the terms ‘courtesan’ and ‘prostitute’ and notions about them through an ethnography of the performance process and event as well as narratives about (and by) the performance, the performers, and the patrons. Another is to examine the relations of production among the performers and the Guria administration, in particular Ajeet Singh. In doing so, I open up the question, albeit in a preliminary way, of how the cultural integrity of the ‘courtesan tradition,’ identified through its continued cultivation and renewal of a body of repertory and performance practices consisting of a variety of genres that originate from several historical points (feudal, colonial, post-feudal, and postcolonial), may be challenged in the Guria frame by expectations of authenticity and/or respectability informed by dominant Indian middle-class values.”
- Guria refers to NGO Guria Sewi Sansthan (“Doll help/service collective”), which dedicates itself to the upliftment of tawa’ifs and sex workers through the preservation and “festivalization” of tawa’if performance traditions.
From the Introduction: “Given their well-established socioeconomic as well as musical moorings, why did the courtesan’s art and agency disappear [after India’s purity/anti-nautch movement] rather than metamorphose into a different practice, just as the salons themselves had emerged from court performances? In other words, how viable was these women’s agency? Did Indian courtesans need courts for their art to survive? True, the salon successfully replaced the court. But did its courtly ritual require the validating presence of courts and aristocratic patronage? Could the courtesans’ art not be transplanted onto the concert stage, like the classical art of the male singers who were their masters? Or was the barrier to bourgeois respectability insurmountable for these women? Was it the official condemnation of courtesans’ morals and their banishment from government patronage at All India Radio that erased their art? Or did their music not measure up to the reformist canon of classical music? Under what conditions did a very few exceptional courtesans continue to perform on the public concert stage, and to what musical effect? ”
Burckhardt Qureshi asks many other insightful questions in her introduction. Put as succinctly as possible (at the risk of obscuring the chapter’s complexity), Burckhardt Qureshi aims to identify which social and musical conditions courtesans were able to transcence before the practice as outlawed, to question the viability of courtesans’ agency and independence within patrilineal/patriarchal Indian society but without feudal (and male) patronage, and to explore whether courtesans could and can produce and reproduce themselves as professional musical performers.
From the introduction: “This study of the devadasi institution was undertaken with a two-fold purpose. First, it was an attempt to understand the relationship, and shifts in it, among women, religion and the state in pre-colonial and colonial south India. The second purpose was to try and disentangle this complex process, specifically to see how far the projects of colonialism, reform and revival were based on an understanding of the material reality of the practice.”
This article is available for free online at Scroll.in: https://scroll.in/magazine/849681/a-search-for-tawaifs-in-old-delhi-reveals-a-present-thats-not-always-comfortable-with-the-past
Dave’s article describes the history and movement of courtesans from Old Delhi to New Delhi, noting how few and far between the tangible traces of courtesans’ history in Old Delhi have become, and the vast difference in cultural and social attitudes towards courtesans before and after their relocation to GB Road, the red-light district of New Delhi. Dave notes that even in GB Road the presence of famous courtesans like Maya Devi have faded away, and makes note of “how the past slips away.”
Bautze’s essay examines the famous literary courtesan Umrao Jan, identifying the approximate point in history during which Umrao Jan would have lived and demonstrating how courtesans in Lucknow would have looked at that time. Of particular note is the selection of historical photographs displayed at the end of the essay, particularly of courtesans and ta’waifs, and the accompanying descriptions that Bautze provides of each, giving a visual demonstration of how a courtesan like Umrao Jan would have appeared in late 19th century Lucknow.
From The introduction: “Though the 2015 Met Museum exhibition Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy focuses mainly on the sultans of south-central India, art history reveals to us that the Deccan world was also notable for its strong female characters. Two stand out among them as particularly remarkable: Chand Bibi, the sixteenth-century queen of Ahmadnagar; and Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, the eighteenth-century poetess of Hyderabad.”
This webpage provides a concise yet detailed account of the most interesting facets of courtesan and poetess Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s life as well as some beautiful images. We learn Mah Laqa Bai Chanda was impressively wealthy and a lover of literature: she commissioned a great library of arts and sciences, as well as sponsoring many poems.
Left: Right: Portrait of Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, ca. 1800. Hyderabad. Hyderabad Archaeological Museum. Photograph by Antonio Martinelli; accessed on Metmuseum.org.
Singh’s article examines the role of the courtesan Azizun Nisa in the 1857 Revolt, a figure largely ignored or deemphasized in many historical accounts, relating it to a wider trend of dismissing the political and historical contributions of courtesans. Singh claims that “[b]y looking at the role of courtesan, an attempt is made to revisit dominant versions of historical truth and relocate the ‘loose’ subjects of colonial history into their proper roles in anti-colonial struggles too.”
By bringing the figure of the courtesan into a political space that is denied and invisibilised in the nationalist discourse as a result of its search for respectability, this article attempts to explore the public roles of courtesans. In a play that foregrounds courtesan Azizun Nisa who participated in the 1857 revolt, playwright Tripurari Sharma ruptures the dominant bourgeois discourse. Azizun Nisa is neither the “respectable” mother nor wife, the quintessential inspirational figures in the nationalist discourse. The play disrupts the trope of “mother India” that dominated anti-colonial and middle-class nationalist thought.
The hereditary women performers of north India, called ‘nautch girls’ by the colonial British, and courtesans or tawa’ifs by today’s scholars, played a central role in the performance of music and dance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Substantial recent scholarship has focused on their songs, poems and cultural history; consequently, this article addresses choreography, the missing part of their performance practice. Through a detailed examination of dance descriptions in nineteenth-century treatises and comparison of this material with colonial iconography and travel writings, Walker offers new research about nineteenth-century female performance, placing its practice in historical context and speculating about its evolution and change.
- Check out Walker’s book on kathak dance here!
In this article, Bhatia examines the erasure of courtesans in Indian historical drama, focusing on dramatic depictions of the 1857 mutiny and contrasting the attention afforded to women such as the Rani of Jhansi and dalit viranganas (war heroines) with the relative invisibility of courtesan figures, arguing that “the courtesan faces neglect from both elite and subaltern reconstructions of the female heroes of 1857.” Bhatia goes on to examine Tripurari Sharma’s play, San Sattavan ka Qissa: Azizun Nisa, which explores the role of Azizun Nisa, a courtesan and prominent combatant in the 1857 mutiny; by placing the focus on the courtesan figure, Sharma challenges and complicates the dominant narratives and myths surrounding 1857, alongside nationalist constructions of femininity.