Frances Pritchett’s site about Umrao Jan Ada explores the Urdu novel that inspired the famed Umrao Jaan film in depth. It includes a full English translation of the novel side-by-side with the Urdu original, links to glossaries explaining Urdu words in English, links to scholarship about the novel, and a lovely collection of photographs and illustrations of nautch girls.
This article traces the gradual shift in connotation for the words ganewali and tawaif through the path of ganewalis and tawaifs both historical and fictional. However briefly, it touches upon courtesans such as Umrao Jaan and Begam Samru, as well as the activism of tawaifs. Readers may notice that it is limited in its references/citations.
From the Introduction
Despite its lip service to secular ideals, Indian cinema in general has contributed significantly to the celebratory construction of Hindu nationalist discourse. It has done so by reviving precisely those tenets of social organization and gender politics which have been invoked by the nationalist discourse and which are derived from Hindu mythology. It is notable, however, that a specific genre within Indian cinema—the Muslim film—reverses the binarism of Hindu and Muslim identities. This genre represents the Muslim not as masculine, fundamentalist, and separatist, but rather as feminine, exotic, and seductive. This apparent anomaly has been explained by Faisal Devji in his recent essay, “Hindu/Muslim/Indian.” Devji argues that the latter “benign” construction of the Muslim in popular texts fulfills a dual function for Hindus. First, it counters the putative threat of the Muslim, who is commonly viewed as the “enemy within.” Second, the representation of the Muslim woman as a figure of romance in literature and film “elicit[s].. pleasure in the shape of a rape fantasy.” Devji reads this fantasy as a mock punishment meted out to the Muslim whose presence not only reactivates the painful memory of the partition, but who is also believed capable of re-enacting that violent history….
I shall extend Devji’s argument by illustrating that, in a specific subgenre of the Muslim film—the tawaif or courtesan film—not only does the representation of the Muslim woman as a tawaif seduce her Hindu audiences (by, in effect, “asking for” her rape), but the focal point at which this occurs is during certain key scenes in which the tawaif unveils herself to the pro-filmic and, by extension, to the film audience. What Devji’s argument does not address is the popularity of the tawaif film with its equally devoted Muslim audience. Nor can the argument that the film extracts a public confession from the Muslim imaginary for the internalized “guilt” of being different within an aggressive homogenizing national culture, explain that appeal.
I will argue via Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan that the tawaif film interpellates “Hindus” and “Muslims” into different subject positions by employing different textual strategies.
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).
This thesis is available for free online through Barnard College’s Dance Department.
Ward’s thesis explores the ways in which the tawa’if figure in 4 major Bollywood films—the nameless tawai’f of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Chitralekha of Devdas, Umrao Jaan of Umrao Jaan, and Sahib Jaan of Pakeezah—”retell the story of Muslims in colonial and postcolonial India,” particularly in terms of displacement and marginalization. Ward contextualizes her analyses using the historical background of pre-colonial tawa’ifs and of partition.
One of the most famous courtesan stories to come out of India, Umrao Jaan follows the many heartbreaks and tragedies of a young girl named Amiran, who, after being kidnapped and sold to a brothel, rises to becoming the famous Lucknow courtesan, Umrao Jaan. Some of the film’s songs are now considered classics of Bollywood cinema and its popularity helped to spawn a 2006 remake.
The Umrao Jaan film is based on the Umrao Jaan Ada novel. In the novel’s introduction, the author claims, perhaps for artistic effect, that the story is a real memoir relayed to him by a real person.
Questions to Consider
- What does Umrao’s talent for writing poetry indicate about the film’s “idea” of courtesans? Are all courtesans hidden, unappreciated talents, or is Umrao exceptional?
- Can a courtesan be “forgiven” from the film’s perspective? Can a courtesan “deserve” a husband? Does the film subscribe to the views of courtesans as “dirty and fallen” women, or does it challenge them?
- Which of Umrao Jaan’s qualities could suggest she “deserves” forgiveness and/or companionship? Do other courtesans “deserve” these things? Do less talented courtesans? Do willing courtesans?
- What dimensions of sympathy does the film create for Umrao? Is the sympathy respectful? Paternalistic? Who do we lack sympathy for? Why?
- Does the film imply tragedy is in store for all courtesans, or just Umrao? How culpable are courtesans in their fate, according to this film?
Tawaifs and Kidnapping
We encourage our readers to think carefully about Umrao Jaan’s kidnapping. What happens to the public understanding of a marginalized group when arguably the most influential story about that group images their community leaders as cruel kidnappers? What effects could this understanding have on real-world people? If many tawaifs intentionally joined kothas to escape terrible circumstances—a situation described in the quotes below—what could happen to their refuge when the well-meaning public mistakes those individuals’ refuge from despair as always and only a source of despair? Is sympathy always helpful? Is “saving” always heroic?
Consider the following quotes from “Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India” by Veena Oldenberg:
It is popularly believed that the chaudharayan [chief courtesan]’s most common mode of recruitment has always been kidnapping; that the tawa’if were linked to a large underground network of male criminals who abducted very young girls from villages and small towns and sold them to the kothas or nishatkhanas (literally, pleasure houses). This belief was fueled, if not actually generated, by Lucknow’s famous poet and litterateur, Mirza Hadi Ruswa, in his Umrao Jan Ada. The novel first appeared in 1905, was an immediate success, and was translated into English in 1961. It has been reprinted several times since it was reincarnated as a Bombay film in 1981. The influence this novel has exerted on the popular imagination is enormous; it is the single most important source of information on courtesans of Lucknow, and by extension, the entire profession as it was practiced in the nineteenth century, in Northern India.(264)
One of the older courtesans I interviewed, who had known Ruswa personally, gave the book a mixed review. She commended Ruswa for understanding the mentality of the courtesan but blamed him for inventing characters such as the “evil kidnapper” and the exploitative madame who became the stuff of later stereotypes.(265)
Kidnapping may have been (and perhaps still is) one of the methods by which girls find their way into the tawa’if households, but it is certainly not the most common. From my interviews with the thirty women, who today live in the Chowk area of Lucknow, and whose ages ranged from thirty-five to seventy-eight, a very different picture emerged. In recording the life stories of these women, who spanned three generations, I found that the compelling circumstance that brought the majority of them to the various tawa’if households in Lucknow was the misery they endured in either their natal or their conjugal homes….
Not one claimed that kidnapping had been her experience, although they had heard of such cases….
The problem, according to Saira Jan, a(266)
plump woman in her early forties, who recounted her escape from
a violent, alcoholic husband at length and with humor, was that
there were no obliging kidnappers in her mohalla (neighborhood).
“Had there been such farishte [angels] in Hasanganj I would not
have had to plot and plan my own escape at great peril to my life
and my friends, who helped me.”‘