From the abstract: “In the past 70 years, certain kinds of Indian dance have been read as classical or aspirational, especially when performed by or associated with Hindu/high-caste people and in cosmopolitan spaces like Chennai or San Francisco. Inversely, certain dancers and dance techniques associated with those who stand apart from caste or religious status are dismissed as poor in quality, and not worthy of emulation. In this article, I examine how such logic operates through South Indian (Telugu) cinema, tourism, and transnational capitalist flows, and how it relies upon reductive and exclusionary notions of gender, caste, identity, and affect. In doing so, I consider how the same media, which validates and fetishizes certain gendered notions of the body, simultaneously offers new possibilities for challenging casteist and misogynistic hegemonies. Relying on queer and critical transnational feminist theory, in this article I explore how the fetishization of the low-caste courtesan dancer –a symbol for generations of South Indian expressive culture – has ultimately produced a site of resistance.”
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.”
From the abstract: “This article interrogates how and why courtesan identities are simultaneously embraced and disavowed by Brahman dancers. Using a combination of ethnographic and critical feminist methods, which allow the author to toggle between the past and the present, between India and the United States, and between film analysis and the dance studio, the author examines the cultural politics of the romanticized and historical Indian dancer— the mythical courtesan. The author argues that the mythical courtesan was called into existence through film cultures in the early twentieth century to provide a counterpoint against which a modern and national Brahmanical womanhood could be articulated. The author brings together a constellation of events that participated in the construction of Indian womanhood, especially the rise of sound film against the backdrop of growing anticolonial and nationalist sentiments in early twentieth-century South India. The author focuses on films that featured an early twentieth-century dancer-singer-actress, Sundaramma. In following her career through Telugu film and connecting it to broader conversations about Indian womanhood in the 1930s and 1940s, the author traces the contours of an affective triangle between three mutually constituting emotional points: pleasure, shame,
“Shi’i devotion and Urdu poetry both flourished in unique ways in the Deccan region, but did these cultural phenomena allow new creativity for women? This question can be addressed by examining the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai (AH 1181–1240/1768–1824), one of the most powerful figures in the court of the second Nizam of Hyderabad, Nizam ‘Ali Khan (r. 1762–1803), and the third Nizam, Sikandar Jah (r. 1803–29), as well as being mistress to their prime ministers of Iranian descent. She was one of the first women poets to compile a full divan of Urdu ghazals and was adept at music and dance. This essay examines the issue of gender in her poetry and personality. It argues that she wrote as a woman but in the poetic male voice. She wrote at a time when Urdu in the Deccan region was being altered to conform to Mogul standards with heavy “Persianization” of its diction. The essay asks whether Deccani Urdu was a feminine language before this reform, as argued by some literary historians of the Deccan. It then asks whether Mah Laqa Bai had a feminist agenda as a women poet of the eighteenth century, as charged by some feminist scholars of the Deccan. The essay concludes that Mah Laqa Bai’s concept of the feminine was shaped by her role as a dancing female devotee of Imam ‘Ali, rather than by linguistic structures or political ideologies.”
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?
Lucknow with its Nawabi court and its patronage of dance and music has been for over two centuries a center of the art of fine language and etiquette. This paper focuses primarily on the dancing women, tawaif, who performed outside the court in private salons or kothas. As highly accomplished women catering to the nobility, the tawaif enjoyed a high degree of financial independence and social prestige. After the establishment of the East India Company, the tawaif were solicited as entertainers for British social gatherings and later pushed into prostitution. The paper shows the decline of the tawaif as representatives of culture to mere social entertainers and subsequently as bazaar prostitutes surviving on the margins of society.
The trope of the courtesan is found in many Urdu-Hindi films from the earliest period of Indian cinema. The courtesan was essential to the film musical because her character could dance and sing when the more modest heroine could not. The courtesan could also express sexual desire, longing for freedom and independence, and choice in the matter of lovers. She expressed herself primarily through the medium of the mujra-ghazal, a musical set-piece derived from nineteenth-century century courtesan culture in northern India. This article traces the musical and dramatic trajectory of the trope of the courtesan with reference to two of the most famous courtesan films: Pakeezah (1972) and Umrao Jaan (1981).
Item songs are big-budget dance sequences in Bollywood and arresting examples of how bodies of dancing women in Bollywood, with fusion of traditional and contemporary dance genres construct new sites of sexual desire and identity in India. While these spaces of articulation are not immune to the circulation of female bodies in a globalized Indian economy these dancers do have the opportunity to convey a different kind of femininity than what has been allowed in Indian popular culture. Milder censorship, the MTV-revolution, the political-economy of making dance videos, the granting of industry-status to Bollywood and the exponential growth of the cosmetics industry are all fundamental to the changes. This article is a mapping of Bollywood dancers with an eye to Indian myths about dancing women, apsaras and devadasis, and an analysis of trends that allow rupture and re-articulation of dances and the ideologies they produce. The article employs a combination of dance and film studies analysis.
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?
Grounded in the methodologies of New Historicism, New Criticism, Subaltern Studies, and Colonial Discourse Analysis, this dissertation explores English women‘s fictions of the nautch girl (or Indian dancing girl) at the turn of the century. Writing between 1880 to 1920, and within the context of the women‘s movement, a cluster of British female writers—such as Flora Annie Steel, Bithia Mary Croker, Alice Perrin, Fanny Emily Penny and Ida Alexa Ross Wylie—communicate both a fear of and an attraction towards two interconnected, long-enduring communities of Indian female performers: the tawaifs (Muslim courtesans of Northern India) and the devadasis (Hindu temple dancers of Southern India). More specifically, the authors grapple with the recognition that these anomalous Indian women have liberties (political, financial, social, and sexual) that British women do not. This recognition significantly undermines the imperial feminist rhetoric circulating at the time that positioned British women as the most emancipated females in the world and as the natural leaders of the international women‘s movement. The body chapters explore the various ways in which these fictional devadasis or tawaifs test imperial feminism, starting with their threat to the Memsahib‘s imperial role in the Anglo-Indian home in the first chapter, their seduction of burdened Anglo-Indian domestic women in the second chapter, their terrorization of the British female adventuress in the third chapter, and ending with their appeal to fin-de-siècle dancers searching for a modern femininity in the final chapter. My project is urgent at a time when imperial feminism is becoming the dominant narrative by which we are being trained to read encounters between British and Indian women, at the expense of uncovering alternative readings. I conclude the dissertation by suggesting that the recovery of these alternative readings can be the starting point for rethinking the hierarchies and the boundaries separating First World from Third World feminisms today.
From the Introduction
This paper focuses on films about courtesans and compares these with films of a similar nature made in the West…. For this study, I have selected three films, all made after 1950, whose main protagonists are courtesans…. The films are Mughal-e-Azam (directed by K. Asif, 1960) that tells the story of Anarkali, a famous courtesan in the court of the great Moghul Emperor, Akbar; Pakeezah (directed by Kamal Amrohi, 1971) which is fictional; and Umrao Jaan (directed by Muzaffar Ali, 1981), an account of a famous courtesan of Lucknow in the mid-nineteenth century.
As a basis of comparison, I have selected three (post-1950) Western films, Can Can (directed by Walter Lang, 1960), Pretty Woman (directed by Gerry Marshall, 1990) and Dangerous Beauty or The Honest Courtesan (directed by Marshall Herkowitz, 1997).
This essay focuses on the ways in which Indian immigrant women actively engage and interpret Indian cinema. Employing an ethnographic approach, the analysis moves between readers’ readings and film texts in order to locate how Indian cinema mediates the constitution of gendered identities in the diaspora. Keeping alive the sense of agency, this study demonstrates that Indian women viewers/readers simultaneously comply with and resist the dominant patriarchal representations that saturate Indian cinema.
Notable Excerpt (pp. 44-45)
The image that most directly counters the purity/sanctity model of Indian womanhood in cinema is that of the courtesan. Chakravarty (1993) comments that the courtesan, as historical character and cinematic spectacle, is one of the most enigmatic figures to haunt the margins of Indian cultural consciousness. Socially decentered, she is yet the object of respect and admiration because of her artistic training and musical accomplishments. The courtesan is an ambiguous/romantic figure in multiple senses. She embodies both Hindu and Muslim social graces and represents what Chakravarty calls “female power-cum-vulnerability”. Rekha’s most memorable roles have involved playing the courtesan directly or indirectly. In Silsila she plays the role of the “other woman,” which is echoed in variations in Basera (1985). In Mukadaar ka Sikandar she plays a bazaar entertainer in love with the tortured hero played by Bachchan, again blurring the boundaries between real/reel life, fiction/fantasy as film gossip and text intersect. In Utsaav, she plays Vasantsena, the legendary courtesan of ancient India, whose life is narrated in the classical Sanskrit play of the fourth century A.D. entitled Mirchchakatika (The Little Clay Cart). However, it is in Umrao Jaan (198 1), which Chakaravarty (1993) calls the quintessential courtesan film of Indian cinema, where she plays both desiring subject and desired object and reveals the contested nature of the feminine in the collective Indian imaginary.
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.
In the aftermath of 1857, urban spaces and cultural practices were transformed and contested. Regional royal capitals became nodes in a new colonial geography, and the earlier regimes that had built them were recast as decadent and corrupt societies. Demolitions and new infrastructures aside, this transformation was also felt at the level of manners, sexual mores, language politics, and the performing arts. This article explores this transformation with a focus on women’s language, female singers and dancers, and the men who continued to value their literary and musical skills. While dancing girls and courtesans were degraded by policy-makers and vernacular journalists alike, their Urdu compositions continued to be circulated, published, and discussed. Collections of women’s biographies and lyrics gesture to the importance of embodied practices in cultivating emotional positions. This cultivation was valued in late Mughal elite society, and continued to resonate for emotional communities of connoisseurs, listeners, and readers, even as they navigated the expectations
and sensibilities of colonial society.
This article challenges some of the arguments of Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s “Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India.” Put simply, Oldenburg argues that devadasis performed “covert subversion of a male-dominated world [by] resisting and inverting the rules of gender.” Sharma, contrastingly, argues that devadasis found economic and social success by operating within the socially-constructed bounds of acceptable labour. We encourage our readers to read both articles!
This research paper discusses two groups of professional women who had a distinct place in the sexual economy of the period under review. By analyzing the actions and situations of prostitutes and the devadasis (literally meaning servants of God) in terms of a broader context of relationships, I consider the sexual-services and the entertainment provided by them as a meaningful labor, which got integrated at both the social and cultural levels. I have looked at how and to whom the prostitutes and the devadasis sold their labor, and how they related to other women, to men, and to various social systems. The study of these professionals shows different strands of Indian culture and one could state that the world of entertainment, to which these professions belonged, itself is a cultural reproduction of society. Specifically, it is my view that the prostitutes were sought after for their physical attraction, but elegance and élan were to an extent constitutive elements of their profession. In the case of devadasis who were the custodians of the arts of singing and dancing and whose dedicated status made them a symbol of social prestige, I would say that while the economic/professional benefits were considerable, they did not lack social honor either. The essay shows that the women who were part of this set-up, a set-up which thrived on the commercialization of women’s reproductive labor, had those skills and expertise which eventually get appropriated by politico-economic structures. This gives a better insight into the politics of human relations.
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?
“Women historiography has been one of the major concerns of the feminist movement particularly since 1960s. Looking at the figure of the courtesan in India—its histories, representations, repression and re-emergence, the paper seeks to problematize discourses of both Universalist and minority history writing that have been built around these women. In the context of Post-Colonial theory, and in the light of the dynamic nature of the categories of Truth, Power, Knowledge, and Discourse, the paper seeks to salvage Foucault’s methodology of writing a genealogical history as opening new avenues within the history of the courtesan in India in particular and women’s history writing in general.”
“The courtesan has been a key figure in the articulation of deep anxieties that have constituted the experience of an ‘Indian’ modernity. Produced through a complex entanglement of practices and re-significations of social meaning over the course of the 20th century, it is perhaps not surprising that the figure of the courtesan seems to be an enduring object of attention across varied domains of colonial (and now, post-colonial) law, economics and hygiene, from ‘canonical’ nationalist literature to popular culture. Rather, what ought to be surprising is the relative invisibility of the courtesan in academic discourse, evincing little interest as a subject for critical historical study. Of the few studies that have been done, we find that a number of them seem only to reproduce notions deeply entrenched in the production of ‘woman’ as a subject/object of colonial modernity, in the process re-affirming the legitimacy of its violence.”
Noteworthy Critique of Moti Chandra’s The World of Courtesans (1976)
“We may begin by illustrating this point through a look at two histories of the courtesan and how they replicate a particular logic of containing, disciplining and ‘silencing’ the courtesan subject. 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’.”
Status seems to be associated on the whole with masculinity and auspiciousness on the whole with femininity. The case of the devadasis who do not marry offers an ideal case study for the understanding of auspiciousness since it is here not intermingled with status…. Purity and impurity underlie the hierarchy of caste. Thus the disjunction between auspiciousness and status predictable correlates with the disjunction between auspiciousness and purity. The maleness of purity can perhaps be seen reflected in the term uses for ‘pure spirit’, namely purusa, a word which can also have the meaning of ‘male person.’….”
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, Anna Morcom examines how European colonization helped to create forms of marginalization that are today upheld by mass media against marginalized Indian dancers such as female hereditary performers, bar dancers, and transgender and kothi dancers.
From Claire Pamment’s review:
“In her ambitious new monograph, Anna Morcom examines the mechanisms of cultural exclusion in colonial and postcolonial India that have eroded the livelihood, identity, and status of erotic dancers. While the South Asian reader may be familiar with the nineteenth-century anti-nautch campaigns against female hereditary performers, Morcom opens new territory in exploring how similar marginalzations continue to be played out in contemporary India. With a focus on present-day Mumbai bar dance girls and transgender female (kothi) performers, she brings ethnographic and archival research to trace out these communities’ artistic and hereditary lineages and current struggles against stigma, decline of traditional patronage, and direct bans. Like the historical tawa’if and devadasi courtesan dancers, these individuals are often branded as prostitutes, problems, or at best victims, and are isolated from their performer identities. Pitched as external to culture, they operate in the shadow of legitimate classical performing arts and now a middle-class Bollywood dance craze. Morcom offers an insightful reading of the colonial knowledge and categorization, nationalist bourgeois morality, and contemporary development rescue narratives that have produced these cultural exclusions, while also considering challenges to the binary topography of legitimate and illegitimate dance worlds.”
Pamment, Claire. “Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2015, p. 689+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/apps/doc/A428275487/AONE?u=lond95336&sid=AONE&xid=73fd8e4f. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
“Having been forced to dance in public as a courtesan, [Muni, the heroine of Hindi film Kismat] sees her situation as hopeless: ‘The world can turn a woman into a courtesan, but a courtesan can never become a woman.’ … Having been labelled tawaif, Muni can no longer hope for respectability; a happy ending—defined in the conventions of the Hindi cinema as the union of the heroine with the film’s hero—is no longer possible. Muni’s distinction between women and tawaifs is actually a distinction between the female character who, in the dictates of convention, is a respectable heroine (and therefore marriageable) and one who is a tawaif (and therefore not).”
In this article, Booth explores the traditional markers of heroines in Hindi cinema from the 1950s-1990s. As an introduction, he identifies an enormous list of these markers, including but not limited to the heroines’ chastity (as compared with her contradictory sexualized dancing), her honour of the hero’s parents, her level of assertiveness, and, most invariably, her marriage to the hero. Booth compares these markers to those of the Tawa’if cinematic roles both collectively and in specific films, analyzing how Tawa’if films attempted to explore and ameliorate cultural anxieties about gendered identity and sexuality. A Tawa’if, Booth observes, is at best often regarded as a “tragic heroine,” but not a traditional one.
Booth makes two specific arguments in his research, summarized below:
“First, based on some of the foundational theories of feminist and feminist film, critique, I argue that tawaifs are a distinct gender within the Indian narrative world and that the woman-tawaif transformation is not one way. The tawaif-woman transformation is also possible, as a number of films have demonstrated. Second, incorporating ideas from Indian folklore studies, I seek to demonstrate that, despite their superficially exploited images, tawaifs as protagonists are both heroic and masculine within the understandings of Indian folklore types. Throughout, I examine the narrative factors surrounding such gendered constructions and transformations and argue that these represent an unspoken form of social negotiation between film producer and consumer, that not only establish the gender specifics of the character, but that also allow such apparently transgressive characters to be redeemed.”
Although constituting what might be described as only a thimbleful of water in the ocean that is Hindi cinema, the courtesan or tawa’if film is a distinctive Indian genre, one that has no real equivalent in the Western film industry. With Indian and diaspora audiences generally, it has also enjoyed a broad popularity, its music and dance sequences being among the most valued in Hindi film, their specificities often lovingly remembered and reconstructed by fans. Were you, for example, to start singing “Dil Cheez Kya Hai” or “Yeh Kya Hua” especially to a group of north Indians over the age of about 30, you would not get far before you would no longer be singing alone.’ Given its wide appeal, the courtesan film can surely be said to have a cultural, psychological, and ideological significance that belies the relative smallness of its genre. Its meaning within mass culture surpasses its presence as a subject. And that meaning, this chapter will argue, is wrapped up not only in the veiled history of the courtesans, a history that Hindi cinema itself has done much to warp and even erase, but in the way in which the courtesan figure camouflages a deep-seated anxiety about female independence from men in its function as a festishized “other” to the dominant female character, the wife or wife-wannabe, whose connotation is so overdetermined in mainstream Indian society that her appearance in Hindi cinema seems mandatory.
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.
While devadasis are not protagonists in this play, they are nevertheless thematically central: pre-Indian independence, Bharatanatyam was largely performed by devadasis, but the devadasi practice was shamed and outlawed during the Indian nationalist movement as an effort to appeal to colonial conceptions of gender and civility. (Indeed, Amritlal forbids Jairaj from learning dance from a local Devadasi.) This careful exclusion and suppression of female public performers and their associated traits informs much of Amritlal’s character, and by extension, much of the play’s conflict.
Consider the following questions:
- Amritlal, once an activist for the cause of freeing India from British occupation, nevertheless enforces strict binary gender roles. Do these seemingly-contradictory political stances mean Amritlal used to be progressive and is now conservative? Can he be both at one time?
- To what degree can Amritlal be forgiven for his sexism if sexism helped to achieve India’s independence? Similarly, to what degree should women and other marginalized groups be expected to bear oppression in the name of progress? Can progress ever be simple, linear, and teleological?
- In presenting Bharatanatyam as a worthy art form for all genders and non-devadasi dancers, does the narrative appear to validate the devadasi practice, devadasis themselves, and/or devadasis’ artistic skills? Alternatively, is the dance form separated from the devadasis? What assumptions are made about devadasis, if any?
“This thesis examines the representation of the lives and performances of tawa’if and rudali in South Asian cinema to understand their marginalization as performers, and their significance in the collective consciousness of the producers and consumers of Indian cultural artifacts. The critical textual analysis of six South Asian films reveals these women as caste-amorphous within the system of social stratification in India, and therefore captivating in the potential they present to achieve a complex and multi-faceted definition of culture. Qualitative interviews with 4 Indian classical dance instructors in Portland, Oregon and performative observations of dance events indicate the importance of these performers in perpetuating and developing Indian cultural artifacts, and illustrate the value of a multi layered, performative methodological approach. These findings suggest that marginality in performance is a useful and dynamic site from which to investigate the processes of cultural communication, producing findings that augment sole textual analysis.”
This is an excellent text for the beginning scholar of Tawa’ifs because there is extensive contextualization: just some of the many sections of the thesis include definitions and contextual information; thematization of films including classism, gender, fatalism, ambivalence, and mysticism; and detailed summaries of major tawa’if films, including Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan (1981 and 2006), Rudaali, and Devdas (1955 and 2002).
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.