This tweet contains photographs of the British Museum’s copy of famed tawaif Mah Laqa Bai’s Divan of Chanda (called Diwan e Chanda in Urdu). Divan of Chanda is a manuscript collection of Mah Laqa’s 125 Ghazals, compiled and calligraphed by her in 1798. The photographs are credited to Sufinama, a web-based archive of Sufi poetry, and William Dalrymple, a historian.
This chapter addresses the issue of women and self-representation through the life of a wealthy courtesan and tawaif poet, Mah Laqa Bai “Chanda” (c. 1767–c. 1824) in the court of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hyderabad. Through her life history, the chapter analyzes the reemployment of “conventional” acts of imperial image making such as composition of poetry, public display of faith, and patronage of architecture and writers by royal women as a means of self-articulation. It will be shown how reading and writing poetry become significant acts of authorship and autobiographical articulation in the specific context of performance, modernity, and mobility in emerging princely cultures.
The tawa’ifs have long been compared to the mythological apsaras or devadasis (temple women) in medieval courts as women of the “oldest profession of prostitution and seduction.” Despite the ubiquitous tawa’if of Bombay cinema, writing the history of the tawa’if is a necessary exercise to trace their subjectivity and rethink grand narratives of colonial history and traditions in courtly cultures.
The subject of this chapter is Mah Laqa Bai “Chanda” (c. 1767-c. 1824), a wealthy tawa’if in the princely court of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Hyderabad. An experienced Urdu poetess, Mah Laqa Bai was the first woman to compile an entire volume or diwan of Urdu poetry in 1798 and a powerful courtesan. She earned revenue from her many jagir (gifted) lands and had an extensive library of manuscripts. A patron of poets and performers, Mah Laqa Bai resided in a grand haveli or palace, which was home to a large retinue of servants as well as a salon to upcoming performers, chroniclers, and poets.
Unlike contemporary understanding of the autobiography as a literary genre, the “autobiographical” articulations of tawa’ifs such as Mah Laqa Bai are not in the form of memoirs or diaries. In earlier courtly contexts, historians have shown how royal women such as queens employed imperial means of self-articulation through the use of public pageantry; traveling with large retinues; commissioning artists or painters; building inns, tanks, and mosques; or minting coins in their own image. Through the narration of Mah Laqa Bai’s life history in this chapter, we will explore the means through which tawa’ifs negotiated their position as courtesans or women of culture. Their reemployment of “conventional” acts of imperial image making such as composing poetry, architectural patronage, and commissioning chronicles will be shown as significant acts of authorship and autobiographical articulation in the context of emerging regional courts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the decline of Mughal control. While reading Mah Laqa Bai’s life history and that of her family from the time of her grandmother, we will focus on the lives of those generations of women who chose to become tawa’ifs. Their agency, it will be argued, lay in their attempt to transform their identity through deliberate “erasure” of their past history of displacement and the taking on of new names and movement to different courts or cities in search of livelihood.
“The two Muslim poets featured in Scott Kugle’s comparative study lived separate lives during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries in the Deccan region of southern India. Here, they meet in the realm of literary imagination, illuminating the complexity of gender, sexuality, and religious practice in South Asian Islamic culture. Shah Siraj Awrangabadi (1715-1763), known as “Sun,” was a Sunni who, after a youthful homosexual love affair, gave up sexual relationships to follow a path of personal holiness. Mah Laqa Bai Chanda (1768-1820), known as “Moon,” was a Shi’i and courtesan dancer who transferred her seduction of men to the pursuit of mystical love. Both were poets in the Urdu language of the ghazal, or love lyric, often fusing a spiritual quest with erotic imagery.Kugle argues that Sun and Moon expressed through their poetry exceptions to the general rules of heteronormativity and gender inequality common in their patriarchal societies. Their art provides a lens for a more subtle understanding of both the reach and the limitations of gender roles in Islamic and South Asian culture and underscores how the arts of poetry, music, and dance are integral to Islamic religious life. Integrated throughout are Kugle’s translations of Urdu and Persian poetry previously unavailable in English.”
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:
“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.”
An English translation of courtesan and poetess Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s (1768-1824) Urdu ghazal, “Hoping to Blossom (One Day) Into a Flower” appears as follows in Vol. 1 of Women Writing in India:
Hoping to blossom (one day) into a flower,
Every bud sits, holding its soul in its fist.
Between the fear of the fowler and (approaching) autumn,
The bulbul’s life hangs by a thread.
Thy sly glance is more murderous than arrow or sword;
It has shed the blood of many lover.
How can I liken a candle to thy (glowing) cheek?
The candle is blind with the fat in its eyes.
How can Chanda be dry lipped. O Saqi of the heavenly wine!
She has drained the cup of thy love.
- Note that “Saqi” translates to wine-server or wine-pourer; in Urdu poetry, “Saqi” may refer to a source of inspiration, or metaphorically to a deity who presides over the “temple” of drunkenness, or to the speaker’s beloved, or to God.
- A Bulbul is a Persian songbird that often represents a male lover.
- A rosebud (gul) conventionally symbolizes beauty or a sweetheart.
NOTES ABOUT GHAZALS
- In a Ghazal (this type of poem), couplets may or may not relate to each other thematically; rather, the connecting threads of the poem are typically found in the rhyme scheme. It is therefore difficult to capture the “essence” of a Ghazal in translation.
- Ghazals for Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s contemporaries made use of conventional images and symbols, which would develop layered meanings for listeners who heard many Ghazals.
- Note the dangerous connotations of the poem: conventionally-romantic images like rosebuds, flowers, and candles contrast with more dangerous terms like “fist,” “life [hanging] by a thread,” and “murderous” arrows and swords. How do these terms represent love and lovers?
- If Chanda (Mah Laqa Bai’s pen name) is “dry lipped”, what does this mean for her as a performer? If Saqi’s love is the wine of inspiration, might that influence how we view romantic love in the rest of the poem? How can we read this connection between Love, Danger, and Inspiration?
- Considering the Love-Danger-Inspiration connecting themes, what does the “bud,” which often symbolizes a sweetheart, want to blossom into? And what’s holding the bud or sweetheart back?
- Is Saqi, addressed in the fifth and final couplet, also being addressed in the third and fourth?