Dedh Ishqiya, Abhishek Chaubey, Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures, 2014.

Directed by Abhishek Chaubey, Dedh Ishqiya is a comedy-thriller film and the sequel to the much acclaimed Ishqiya (2010). Revolving around the adventures of two ‘lovable’ rogues, Dedh Ishqiya, uses the charm of an old-world romance and Urdu poetry to create a gripping narrative of human folly.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Begum Jaan, Srijit Mukherji, Vishesh Films, 2017.

“The back-drop is Partition. The sub-continent has been newly divided and Begum Jaan’s brothel is located on both sides of the Radcliffe line – that is one half falls in India and the other in Pakistan. When authorities from both countries try to throw them out, the Begum and her girls refuse to move” (Chopra, Anupama. Film Companion).

Available to watch on Amazon Prime Video

Waheed, Sara. “An Archive of Urdu Feminist Fiction and Bombay’s “Gaanewalis.”” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 49, No. 10, 2014. 25-27.

From the article:

“The allusions of the Hindi film Dedh Ishqiya successfully combine Urdu feminist fiction with a history of Mumbai’s studio culture. At its heart is a plot line that is 72 years old and based upon the Urdu short story Lihaf about a homoerotic relationship between two women. The emergence of female voice in the heyday of the Indian nationalist movement – both in terms of its commodification through radio and other new media as well as through collective political assertions by feminist critics – is narrated anew within Dedh Ishqiya.”

Anasuya, Shreya. “Chup Chup Aahein Bharna Kya: India Has Often Appropriated, Seldom Appreciated, Its Courtesan Culture.” The Swaddle, 2019.

This article draws attention to the pejorative treatment of “traditional female performers and courtesans” in the fabric of mainstream Indian cultural discourse. The article talks about how courtesans have been at the forefront of music, dance, poetry, theatre, and film in the country, yet have seldom been appreciated or even acknowledged,  and often conflated with  sex workers. Anasuya further discusses how this marginalization has seeped into public discourse: she discusses it in light of the Indian films that often portray the tawaif as a “tragic figure in need of rescue.”

From the article: “The complex history of the courtesan has great bearing on any of us today who want to understand how gender currently works in India, and even for those of us who live and love outside of the structures that are prescribed for us – queer people, single people, people fighting for the right to marry outside caste or religion, people fighting for the recognition of live-in relationships as legitimate ways of making a home with someone. This intricate history, still relatively unacknowledged in public conversations, is one deeply powerful place from which to have all of these conversations.”

Sharma, P. Muralidhar. “Poetry, Performance, and the Courtesan: Changing Contours of the Thumri in Kathak.” Caesuare: Poetics of Cultural Translation, Vol.2, Issue 1, 2017.

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.”

Thoban, Sitara. “Locating the Tawa’if Courtesan-Dancer: Cinematic Constructions of Religion and Nation.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 2021.

From the article: “The development of the Hindi/Urdu cinema is intimately connected to the history of artistic performance in India in two important ways. Not only did hereditary music and dance practitioners play key roles in building this cinema, representations of these performers and their practices have been, and continue to be, the subject of Indian film narratives, genres, and tropes. I begin with this history in order to explore the Muslim religio-cultural and artistic inheritance that informs Hindi/Urdu cinema, as well as examine how this heritage has been incorporated into the cinematic narratives that help construct distinct gendered, religious, and national identities. My specific focus is on the figure of the tawaif dancer, often equated with North Indian culture and nautch dance performance. Analyzing the ways in which traces of the tawa’if appear in two recent films, Dedh Ishqiya and Begum Jaan, I show how this figure is placed in a larger representational regime that sustains nationalist formations of contemporary Indian identity. As I demonstrate, even in the most blatant attempts to define the Indian nation as “Hindu,” the “Muslimness” of the tawaiif—and by extension the cinema she informed in ways both real and representational—is far from relinquished. The figure of the “Indian” dancer—manifested variously in the image of the devadasi, the tawa’if, and the bayadère—has long captured imaginations on both sides of the colonial divide. Although often conflated under the catch-all category of nautch, these different incarnations also encode notions of religio-cultural difference, particularly in the wake of the calcification of religious boundaries in modern South Asia. I explore the homogenization of the figure of the nautch dancer in other forms of cultural production elsewhere, but in this paper, I wish to focus specifically on representations of the tawaif in “Indian” cinema, and their relation to the construction of specific national subjectivities. While the question remains as to how such a “national” cinema should be defined given the history of British imperialism in India, the subsequent Partition of the subcontinent, the postcolonial resurgence of Hindu nationalism, and the contemporary globalization of the Hindi film industry, I show below how the very instability of the “national” is assuaged by this cinema’s contribution to the ongoing process of nation formation. Focusing attention on the role the tawaif is made to play in this project of stabilization, the outlines of the “nation” are brought into sharp relief.”

Putcha, Rumya. “Gender, Caste, and Feminist Praxis in Transnational South India.” South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 17, Issue 1, 2019. 61-79.

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.”

Dwyer, Rachel. “Representing The Muslim: The ‘courtesan film’ in Indian popular cinema.” Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’, Routledge, 2019. 78-92.

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.”

Putcha, Rumya. “Dancing in Place: Mythopoetics And The Production Of History In Kuchipudi”

From the abstract: “In the twenty-first century, the term “kuchipudi” refers to a style of dance, a South Indian classical genre which, to the untrained eye, is indistinguishable from its better known cousin, bharatanatyam. After India achieved Independence from the British in 1947, kuchipudi came to be known as a dance style synonymous with the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi’s metonymic status reveals a broader logic of linguistic, geographically grounded identitarianism; indeed, the dance known today as kuchipudi is said to hail from a physical place called Kuchipudi, an otherwise nondescript farming village located about fifty kilometres southeast of Vijayawada in central Andhra Pradesh.”

Howard, Grace. Courtesans in Colonial India Representations of British Power through Understandings of Nautch-Girls, Devadasis, Tawaifs, and Sex-Work, c. 1750-1883. 2019. University of Guelph, M.A. dissertation.

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.”

Putcha, Rumya. “The Mythical Courtesan: Womanhood and Dance in Transnational India”

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,