From the abstract: “The paper purports to study the changing contexts of the thumri, a form of light vocal music that was the mainstay of the tawaifs and other courtesan communities of nineteenth century North India. The paper, through a critique of the scholarship on the performing arts, calls for a more serious engagement with the cultural practices of hereditary women performers, one that acknowledges the impact of technological renovation and the emergence of music institutions on the performance practices of the courtesans. More importantly, it charts the evolution of the musical form of thumri as an indispensable part of the repertoire of Kathak in the decades following the independence, to show how it was significantly influenced by the New Media that altered both its content and structure. The emergence of identifiably distinct repertoires of performance embodied in the gharanas of dance in this period and their appropriation of thumri as part of their articulation of a distinct aesthetic are explored as parallel concerns in the paper.”
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Summary: In this episode Schofield considers why Indian musicians and especially courtesans appear at all in the official records of the East India Company, and what this tells us about relations between the British colonial state and the Indian peoples whose worlds it was increasingly encroaching upon during the 1830s and 40s.
This podcast is available free online through Listen Notes.
Summary: This episode explores the musical history of Khanum Jan. Khanum Jan was a celebrity courtesan in the cantonment of Kanpur and the court of Asafuddaula of Lucknow in 1780s North India. Famed then for her virtuosic singing, dancing, and speaking eyes, Khanum became famous again in the twentieth century because of her close musical interactions with a remarkable Englishwoman, Sophia Plowden.
From the abstract:
“This thesis explores the interaction between Hindustani and Bengali musicians and their patrons over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the convergence of Braj, Persianate, and Bengali musical cultures in Bengal after 1856. I stress how their intersection in Calcutta directed the course of Hindustani music from late Mughal to late colonial forms, and cultivated a sense of custodianship among elite Bengalis over the heritage of Hindustan.
This thesis aims 1) to challenge the established narrative of total transformation from courtly musical patronage to a “modern” overtly “public” colonial sphere in the nineteenth century; 2) to draw attention to the importance of innovations in musical performance and epistemology in this period; 3) to engage a multilingual vernacular archive as evidence of the role of non-Bengali culture and connoisseurs in the formation of a Bengali cultural identity; and 4) to critique the historiography of “Muslim decadence” in late Mughal culture, and to qualify the marginalisation of Muslims in late nineteenth-century Hindu vernacular public spheres.
Chapter One introduces the main themes of the thesis and its historiographical context. Chapter Two reconstructs the geography of musical circulation between Hindustan and eastern India over the eighteenth century as a background for subsequent developments. Chapter Three re-evaluates late Mughal and Nawabi aesthetics in relation to musical patronage, with a focus on Wajid c Ali Shah (1822-1887), the last Nawab of Lucknow. Chapter Four reconstructs the Nawab’s court-in-exile in Calcutta (1856-1887) as a forum for innovation and interregional exchange. Chapter Five underlines the role of elite women in musical patronage, with a focus on the Queen of Lucknow, Khas Mahal, and her relationship to the gramophone recording artist Pyare Saheb. Chapter Six details how musicians from the Nawabi court found patrons in Bengal, and were instrumental to the cultivation of Calcutta’s music scene. Chapter Seven provides the first comprehensive critical reading of nineteenth-century Bangla writings on music (treatises and song collections). I conclude this thesis with a summary of how late Mughal musical knowledge and practices (in Hindustani, Persianate, and Bengali arenas) developed under colonialism, and complicate our sense of the formation of Indian “classical” music.”
Sardari Begum follows Tehzeeb, a young reporter covering the story of Sardari Begum, a popular singer and courtesan killed during a riot stemming from Muslim-Hindu tensions in Delhi. When Tehzeeb discovers her father among the mourners at Sardari Begum’s funeral, she comes to learn that the singer was her aunt, who was disowned by her family for learning music from a courtesan/sex worker—a dishonorable practice.
Despite resistance from her father (who despises Sardari Begum for being a courtesan) and her editor (who insists the story wouldn’t gain reader interest), Tehzeeb insists on covering Sardari Begum’s life story—not merely the violence that surrounded her death, and throughout the movie, audiences learn about the string of devious and exploitative men who have endangered Sardari throughout her life, the loving man she almost married, and her estranged daughter.
- This film presents an intricate history of Sardari, and in doing so, resists conforming to stereotypes (whether complimentary or disparaging). We at Courtesans of India encourage our readers to watch the full film, because our condensed notes below cannot capture the representation’s complexity.
- A thorough analysis of the representation of Sardari Begum in this film requires understanding of the historical and contemporary treatment of “Performing Women”/”Public Women” in India—a broad category that groups and marginalizes singers, courtesans, sex workers, nautch girls, and more. Dr. Nandi Bhatia has written an excellent book on the topic, specifically as it pertains to theatre and dissent.
Questions to Consider
- Sardari Begum is a thumri singer, but is she a courtesan? Is she a nautch girl? Is she a sex worker? Why do some characters speak about her as if she is? Where do these categories diverge? Where do they overlap?
- Is the audience exposed to any other performing women? Are we encouraged to view performing women (including thumri singers, courtesans, nautch girls, etc.) as generally good and talented, or only certain types? Is Sardari Begum the exception or the norm?
- What does this film do with the trope of the deceptive courtesan who profits from unsuspecting men?
- In what ways do Sardari Begum and Tehzeeb try to emancipate themselves and those around them from the confines of their subject position? Do they succeed? Why or why not? Is emancipation possible?
- Is Sardari Begum a strong-minded activist? Is she a contributor to her daughter’s oppression? Can she be both?
- Can we, the audience, forgive Sardari Begum for pushing her daughter into her own career and away from the marriage she desires? Can we forgive the mother lambasted by Sardari Begum for refusing a non-Muslim husband for her daughter? Which of these mothers were trying to protect their daughters? Which were trying to control their daughters? Can it be both?
- Why is it significant that Sardari Begum is dead throughout the film? Who is telling her story? Who is interpreting it? Is Sardari voiceless?
- What was the nature/source of the riot during which Sardari Begum was killed? What does that nature suggest about Sardari Begum’s relationship with the culture around her?
- When Sadiq tries to influence Sardari’s image to be more sexualized, she says “To sing lewd songs like nautch girls is not for me!” How is the audience encouraged to view nautch girls? Does the film defend all female performers, or only those who are “untouched and pure”? Who defines purity? Is the audience encouraged to agree with Sardari’s views on sexuality or to question them?
- What role do Muslim-Hindu conflicts play in this film? Is Sardari Begum party to these conflicts? Is the audience encouraged to support her role in inter-faith weddings?
Exploitative vs. Generous
- Many of the noteworthy men in Sardari Begum exploit, deceive, and control the women around them.
- Hemraj seeks a kind of ownership over Sandari Begum and her art, insisting that she only perform for “those who could truly appreciate it”—him and his upper-class acquaintances.
- Sadiq attempts to control all aspects of Sardari’s career: he convinces her to leave her hometown, insists she quietly smile at auditions and let him do the talking, attempts to influence her to make more openly sexual music, and controls her finances behind her back, making investments and land purchases in his own name. Sandari to leave her home town, insists she quietly smile at auditions and let him do the talking, and controlled her finances behind her back, making investments and land purchases in his name. When Tehzeeb interviews Sadiq, he claims he doesn’t know why Sardari left him, claiming that she simply became critical of him upon losing her “mental balance.”
- Mark claims he’ll leave his wife for Tehzeeb, but ultimately never does. He demeans and rejects Tehzeeb’s ideas for news articles.
- Contrastingly, Sandari Begum is consistently represented as generous.
- When her brother Jabbar asks her for a loan for Tehzeeb’s education, she gives it to him as a gift
- When she hears her father is ill, she insists on sending him a generous sum, despite believing he wouldn’t want to see her in person
- In her younger days, she shared her earnings with her Jabbar and the community
- When Jabbar, Tehzeeb’s father and Sardari’s brother, demeans and dismisses Sardari as “any other prostitute,” Tehzeeb openly resists patriarchal ideology:
- She attempts to focus the conversation on Sardari’s talents
- She says, “I think [Sardari Begum] was an independent-minded woman, and our society cannot stand such women.”
- She asks, “All a woman can be is a good wife, an ideal daughter, or a self-sacrificing mother, isn’t it?”
Who Upholds the Patriarchy?
- In some flashbacks, Sardari Begum is seen arguing with a young bride’s mother and a priest, insisting that the bride should be allowed to marry who she chooses. The mother, contrastingly, regards choosing her daughter’s husband to be her own right. Both the mother and the priest reject the daughter’s choice of husband for being non-Muslim.
- Sakina, Sardari’s daughter, tells Tehzeeb that Sardari, who believed marriage would take away her daughter’s freedom, refused to allow Sakina access to her choice in romantic partners, discouraged her from marrying, and pushed her into a life of music without considering her opinion on the matter. In a flashback, Sardari rips up love letters from Sakina’s love interest, stating that “the best music comes from a heart that is untouched and pure.”
- When Sadiq pushes Sardari Begum to take on sexually-charged songs, Sardari responds, “To sing lewd songs like nautch girls is not for me!”
In this study, criss-crossing discourses – written, visual, and aural – are brought together in an effort to shed light on a section of the tawa’if (traditional courtesan) community in contemporary North India. As a kind of companion text to my point-of-view documentaries Guria, Gossip, and Globalization and Chandni’s Choice, I present an overview of the NGO Guria. This organization works to empower tawa’ifs to reclaim their liminality as artists, able to move back and forth between their own profoundly socially marginalized community and mainstream society, a privilege they enjoyed historically but have virtually lost in the present day. I have juxtaposed this with an exegesis of talk, including gossip, about and by these performers and their music. This includes issues of their gossip- and media-driven legacy that have led to their current position, often dangerously vulnerable, in the global marketplace. Finally, I examine the life of a teenage member of a musical matriarchy whose foremothers have been somewhat successful at continuing to traverse the borderlands between various levels of society.
From the Introduction
Memories of Lucknow’s pre-rebellion cultural heritage are nowadays often recalled through its tawa’if bazi or ‘courtesan culture’. This heritage has been carried into the present through a bevy of films, stories, anecdotes, social customs, linguistic idioms, images, and music and dance repertoires. A number of studies have also brought to life the culturally-complex and socially-hierarchical world of these courtesans and their significant contributions to the cultural heritage of North India. Generally the importance of the contribution made by women performers to the development of Hindustani music has been gaining interest, and long overdue recognition. Nevertheless, articulation of this recognition has been hampered by the marginal position assigned to the tawa’if in mainstream history….
This paper explores three aspects of Lucknow’s tawa’if bazi that are generally not a part of either musical or historical discussions. One of these concerns the disenfranchisement of the regional military labour market in, and around, Awadh in the late eighteenth century and how this might be connected to a subsequent, and significant, increase in tawa’if activity in Lucknow. Another deals with the nature of the social connections between the tawa’if and her musical accompanists. A further point involves the role of tawa’if as active agents in the promotion and spread of the Shi’a ideology promulgated by Awadh’s political administration. My aim in raising these considerations is to further understanding of the nuances of Lucknow’s tawa’if bazi—how it came about and the influence it had on the development of contemporary Hindustani music and dance.
From the Introduction
“…. While various authors make connections between Indian and Egyptian music and dance, none go quite so far as to place bayadères in the Carthage of Didon’s time. If Berlioz really wanted to avoid anachronism, he should, to use his own words, have “étudié la question” and “gone into it” further. But authenticity was presumably not Berlioz’s primary objective. In conceiving the ballets to be performed in Didon’s Carthage, he surely did not begin with historical accounts of the ancient world, for his first impulse was to emulate the bayadères he had seen in Paris sixteen or seventeen years earlier. Similarly, my concern here is not with ancient Indian dance rituals or the Carthaginian slave trade. Rather, I will pursue the relationship between Berlioz’s dances and his contemporary models—an investigation that nevertheless must deal with the same questions of authenticity and anachronism.
Authenticity and anachronism are, of course, two of the fundamental issues of exoticism, and in negotiating the gap between Indian temple and French theater, between ancient Carthage and contemporary Europe, or, more broadly, between historical/anthropological veracity and operatic convention, Berlioz is engaging in a discourse very familiar in the nineteenth century. As recent studies of musical exoticism have ably demonstrated, this dis-course typically tended to privilege the second party in each of the above pairings—i.e., nineteenth-century European operatic convention— for exoticism inevitably reflects the host culture more than the culture supposedly being depicted.
In this context, Berlioz’s bayadères could be seen as almost a textbook case of exoticism. The distinction between the two sides of the traditional oppositional pairings is heightened, for we have an instance of real bayadères encountered in the flesh by a composer who persistently proved resistant to the charms of genuine exotic music, and whose musical exoticism has been memorably described as “nugatory”—with the potent but rare exception of the act IV ballet itself. Rather than simply dismissing Berlioz’s ballet as mere exoticism I will explore the tension of this dialectic, for such an exploration enriches our understanding of Les Troyens and informs our responses to modern productions of Berlioz’s opera—productions whose aesthetics reconfigure in interesting ways the issues of authenticity and anachronism.”
This article is available to read for free through SOAS Research Online.
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.
Gupta’s article, largely drawing from Saba Dewan’s documentary The Other Song, examines the prominence of the courtesan figure in popular culture and briefly outlines the shifting attitudes towards tawaif music and dance through the 19th and early 20th century. Gupta notes how social attitudes forced some artists to reinvent themselves and distance themselves from their pasts, as well as how certain songs had words and lyrics rewritten to be less suggestive and more ‘respectable.’
“Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India, edited by Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Davesh Soneji, explores the formation of classical traditions in the performing arts of South India. Through ten articles by leading scholars in the field, the volume describes the shifts involved in what reformers termed the “revival” of traditions: from temples to concert halls; from hereditary, lower-caste performers to upper-caste outsiders; from guru-shishya relationships to formal curricula; and from ritual practice to aesthetic experiences… it argues for new understandings of both agency and hegemony in classicization projects. In terms of agency, authors identify a broader set of actors as central to the process; instead of just Brahmin, middle-class reformers, the articles draw attention to the role of former devadasis (women who performed ritual temple dances) in creating, reforming, and preserving dance culture, and that of professional musicians in standardizing musical performance and notation.”
Source: Abigail McGowan (2009) Performing Pasts: Reinventing the
Arts in Modern South India, History: Reviews of New Books, 37:4, 151-151