Abbas, Ghulam. “Anandi.” Translated by G.A. Chaussée. The Annual of Urdu Studies. Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2003, https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/18349.

This story is available for free online through the University of Wisconsin’s digital library. In ‘Anandi’, Ghulam Abbas dissects the hypocrisy of a society that hides behind a facade of self-righteousness but derives secret pleasures from what it declares taboo. Summary from Desi Writer’s Lounge.

Abbas, K.A. “Flowers for Her Feet.” An Evening in Lucknow: Selected Stories, edited by Suresh Kohli. Harper Perennial, 2011, pp 10-35.

Summary: ‘Flowers for Her Feet’ is a short story in which the sexual exploitation of a girl is depicted. Chandra, the dancing girl is harassed and exploited by all, especially the economic elite as the rich people think that women are commodities which can be bought or sold for money.

Summary from Sahapedia.

Amar Prem. Directed by Shakti Samanta, performances by Sharmila Tagore, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Abhi Bhattacharya, Madan Puri, Shakti Films, 1972.

Summary: A village woman, Pushpa, is thrown out by her husband and his new wife. Pushpa is abandoned by her mother and sold into a Calcutta brothel by her village-uncle. During her time there Pushpa attachments with a local businessman who becomes a regular and exclusive visitor, and her widowed neighbour’s young son.

Chander, Krishan. “A Prostitute’s Letter: To Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Qai-e-Azam Jinnah.” Translated by Haris Qadeer. River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction, edited by Ruchira Gupta. Speaking Tiger Publishing, 2016, pp 184-190.

Abstract: This epistolary short story is written from the point of view of an unnamed sex worker and describes the plight of two girls, one Hindu and the other Muslim, both traumatized by the deaths of their families and placed into sex work following the partition of India and Pakistan.

Dewan, Saba. Tawaifnama. Context, 2019.

            Summary from the New India Foundation

            This is a history, a multi-generational chronicle of one family of well-known tawaifs with roots in Banaras and Bhabua. Through their stories and self-histories, Saba Dewan explores the nuances that conventional narratives have erased, papered over or wilfully rewritten.

In a not-so-distant past, tawaifs played a crucial role in the social and cultural life of northern India. They were skilled singers and dancers, and also companions and lovers to men from the local elite. It is from the art practice of tawaifs that kathak evolved and the purab ang thumri singing of Banaras was born. At a time when women were denied access to the letters, tawaifs had a grounding in literature and politics, and their kothas were centres of cultural refinement.

Yet, as affluent and powerful as they were, tawaifs were marked by the stigma of being women in the public gaze, accessible to all. In the colonial and nationalist discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this stigma deepened into criminalisation and the violent dismantling of a community. Tawaifnama is the story of that process of change, a nuanced and powerful microhistory set against the sweep of Indian history.

Dhar, Debotri. The Courtesans of Karim Street. Niyogi Books, 2018.

Summary

An anonymous letter. The promise of a redgold tree. And Dr. Megan Adams sets off on a ten thousand mile journey. From the scenic suburbs of Princeton and poorer neighborhoods in New Jersey, America, onwards to India, to New Delhi’s opulent enclaves and the narrow bazaars of the old city, Megan’s travel plucks her from the politics of American academia to bring her face to face with the lurking shadows of an untold past. On an entirely different journey is Naina, a young Indian woman who must navigate the stony, impenetrable divide between the old and new sides of Delhi every day. Inheritor of an ancient tradition that pre-dated India’s colonized history, she can still hear the music of the sarangi and the tinkling whisper of anklets. The stories of the two women, their cultures, their pasts and postcolonial presents, collide. And a saga unfolds, of love, loss and liberation, of timeless friendships, and of impossible choices.

Summary from author’s website.

Duva, Anjali Mitter. Faint Promise of Rain. She Writes Press, 2014.

Summary from publisher’s website

It is 1554 in the desert of Rajasthan, and a new Mughal emperor is expanding his territory. In a family of Hindu temple dancers a daughter, Adhira, must carry on her family’s sacred tradition. Her father, against his wife and sons’ protests, insists Adhira “marry” the temple deity and give herself to a wealthy patron. But after one terrible evening, she makes a brave choice that carries her family’s story and their dance to a startling new beginning. Told from the perspective of this exquisite dancer and filled with the sounds, sights and flavors of the Indian desert, Faint Promise of Rain is the story of a family and a girl caught between art, duty, and fear in a changing world.

Farooqi, Musharraf Ali. Between Dust and Clay. Freehand Books, 2014.

Summary: In an old and ruined city, emptied of most of its inhabitants, Ustad Ramzi, a famous wrestler past his prime, and Gohar Jan, a well-known courtesan whose kotha once attracted the wealthy and the eminent, contemplate the former splendor of their lives and the ruthless currents of time and history that have swept them into oblivion.

Summary from Goodreads.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. “The God and the Bayadere: an Indian Legend.” Goethe’s Works, vol. 1 (Poems). Edited by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen. Rpt. in the Online Library of Liberty. pp. 213-215. Accessed April 25, 2021.

This poem is available free online through the Online Library of Liberty.

            Summary: This poem follows Mahadeva, lord of the earth, and his ascension to earth for a day where he meets a bayadere (temple dancer). This poem is very loosely based off tales of Parvati and Shiva.

Kipling, Rudyard. “On the City Wall.” Soldiers Three and In Black and White. Penguin, 1993. pp 153-173.

Summary:

Lalun, a beautiful and talented woman, lives and entertains along the city way of Lahore. Visited by many men, one named Wali Dad is especially friendly. Wali Dad has had an English education and feel uncomfortably places between the European and English worlds. As the story continues, the reader gets an introduction to a leader Khem Singh, someone who may disrupt British rule in India. Khem Singh has been imprisoned though, but escapes. A riot breaks out and Lalun helps an old man out of the riot through her window. She asks the narrator to assistance getting him through the city safely, and he agrees, only to later realize it is Khem Singh. He returns the man to captivity and the rebellion ceases.

Summary from Wikipedia.

Kolanad, Gitanjali. The Girl Made of Gold. Juggernaut, 2020.

Summary: Thanjavur, the 1920s. One night, the young devadasi Kanka disappears and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated.

Summary from Goodreads.

Malhotra, Anshu. Piro and the Gulabdasis. Oxford UP, 2017.

The middle decades of the nineteenth century in Punjab were a time of the disintegrating Sikh empire and an emerging colonial one. Situating her study in this turbulent time, Anshu Malhotra delves into the tumultuous life of a hitherto unknown woman, Piro, and her little-known sect, the Gulabdasis. Piro’s forceful autobiographical narrative knits a fanciful tale of abduction and redemption, while also claiming agency over her life. Piro’s is the extraordinary voice of a low-caste Muslim and a former prostitute, who reinvents her life as an acolyte in a heterodox sect. Malhotra argues for the relevance of such a voice for our cultural anchoring and empowering politics. Piro’s remarkable poetry deploys bhakti imaginary in exceptional ways, demonstrating how it enriched the lives of women and low castes. Malhotra’s work is also a pioneering study of the afterlife of Piro and the Gulabdasis, highlighting the cultural scripts that inform the stories that we tell and the templates that renew the tales we fabricate.

This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.

Malhotra, Anshu. “Bhakti and the Gendered Self: A Courtesan and a Consort in Mid Nineteenth Century Punjab.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 46, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1506–1539, doi:10.1017/S0026749X11000837.

Abstract:

Bhakti is viewed as a movement that is subversive of orthodoxy, and inverts the societal norms prescribed by the dharmashastras. This paper looks at the Bhakti movement’s long history and transformations into the nineteenth century in Punjab. If womanly dharma within the normative tradition is defined by sexual containment through marriage and wifehood, the accumulated Bhakti legends and hagiographies are examined to see the place of the prostitute in it, and the limits of its revolutionary potential are brought to the fore. By looking at the writings of the Muslim prostitute Piro who comes to live in the establishment of a ‘ Sikh’ guru Gulab Das, in Chathianwala near Lahore during the period of Ranjit Singh, this paper attempts to read Piro’s use of Bhakti legends and imagery to build support for her unusual step. The imbrication of the Gulabdasis in hybrid practices that borrowed elements from advaita, Bhakti and Sufi theologies is also delineated. The paper shows Piro’s engagement with the radical potential of Bhakti, but also maps her move towards social conformity—the paradox that makes her look at herself simultaneously as a courtesan and as a consort. Abstract from JStor: This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.

Malhotra, Anshu. “Miracles for the Marginal?: Gender and Agency in a Nineteenth-Century Autobiographical Fragment.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 25 no. 2, 2013, p. 15-35. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jowh.2013.0017.

Abstract from Project Muse

In this article the question of agency is explored in the autobiographical fragment of a nineteenth-century poetess of Punjab, Piro. In this “pre-modern” text Piro portrays an enormous sense of self-worth and presents herself as loquacious and active. She simultaneously adheres to the norms of her bhakti devotional world where the guru was held in high esteem and often displayed his elevated status through miraculous interventions in earthly matters. Piro refers to such a marvelous encounter at a moment of crisis in her own life, attributing her redemption to the miraculous powers of the guru. Between Piro’s depiction of self-worth and her self-abnegation in front of the guru, how does one read her agency? This article views western understanding of agency in the genre of autobiographies, and also follows the critique of the western liberal feminist positions on the issue. It underscores the significance of context to understand women’s agency in different cultures. This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source. Available free online from Project Muse


Malhotra, Anshu. “Performing a Persona: Reading Piro’s Kafis.” Speaking of the Self: Gender, Performance, and Autobiography in South Asia. Anshu Malhotra & Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Editors. Duke University Press, 2015. doi.org/10.1215/9780822374978-009.

Abstract: This chapter unravels Piro’s 160 Kafis to show how a former Muslim prostitute, and then a novitiate in a marginally Sikh Gulabdasi establishment, fashioned a self by writing “autobiographical” verses. The transgression of her move from a brothel to a monastic establishment created a situation that pushed Piro into recounting the particular incident that she perceived as transformative in her life. She used her writing to justify her presence in the establishment and her closeness to her guru. The chapter unpacks the meanings of her metaphorical language, what she says, what she leaves unsaid, and what she merely suggests. The meanings of Piro’s obsessive invoking of Hindu-Muslim conflict is sought to be understood, and her recourse to and creative use of diverse Punjabi cultural imaginary is demonstrated. The cultural eclecticism of her sect and her writing, with its borrowings from Vedantic monism, Sikh inheritance, Punjabi Sufis’ antiauthority moods, and Bhakti devotion is delineated.

Abstract from Duke University Books. This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.

Malhotra, Anshu. “Telling Her Tale? Unravelling a Life in Conflict in Peero’s Ik Sau Saṭh Kāfiaṅ. (one Hundred and Sixty Kafis).” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 46, no. 4, SAGE Publications, 2009, pp. 541–78, doi:10.1177/001946460904600403.

Abstract:

This article explores the manner in which Peero, a denizen of nineteenth century Punjab, in her 160 Kafis tries to communicate aspects of her own story and life through the diverse cultural resources at her command. The questions of self-representation and self-fashioning are central to this text, and Peero speaks of certain events in her life by relating sagas and evoking moods familiar in the cultural landscape of Punjab. Peero, self-confessedly a prostitute, and a Muslim, came to live in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Gulabdasi dera, a nominally ‘Sikh’ sect. This remarkable move, and her relationship with Guru Gulab Das, probably generated discord that pushed Peero into inserting her ‘self’ into the 160 Kafis. An attempt is made to read Peero’s crafting of her story, along with her silences, and bring out the nuances embedded in her text. The article also examines why Peero writes of her personal trauma and experience in the language of religious conflict between the ‘Hindus’ and the ‘Turaks’. This was particularly surprising as the Gulabdasi dera displayed eclecticism in its philosophical choices, and imbibed radical aspects of Vedantic monism. It also borrowed freely from hybrid religious sources including rhetoric familiar within the Bhakti movement, and the Punjabi Sufis’ anti-establishment mien.

Abstract from Sage Journals This paper also includes translations of the poems discussed and as such has been indicated as both a primary and a secondary source.

Mandi. Directed by Shyam Benegal, performances by Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Shabana Azmi, and Amrish Puri, Blaze Entertainment, 1983.

Summary: This film is a satirical comedy which looks at politics and prostitution. Based on a classic Urdu short story Aanandi by writer Ghulam Abbas, the film narrates the story of a brothel, situated in the heart of a city, an area that some politicians want for its prime locality.                                        

Summary from Wikipedia.  

Manto, Saadat Hasan. “A Girl from Delhi.” Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition. Translated by Khalid Hasan, Penguin Random House India, 2011, pp 94-100.

Abstract: This short story follows Nasim Ahktar, a Muslim Nautch girl in Delhi, and her move to Pakistan after the partition of India.

Minai, Cassidy. “Kalavantulu/Devadasi Dances in the Films Muddu Bidda and Periyar (an Ode to Davesh Soneji’s Latest Book.)” Cinema Nritya, cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.com/2012/08/ kalavantuludevadasi-dances-in-films.html#more. March 1, 2021.

Available free online.

            Description from website: This website works to bring light to classical and traditional Indian dances in the cinema of India; unearthing rare archival clips and academic research on South Asian dance.

Narayan, R.K. The Guide. Penguin, 1958.

Summary: Formerly India’s most corrupt tourist guide, Raju—just released from prison—seeks refuge in an abandoned temple. Mistaken for a holy man, he plays the part and succeeds so well that God himself intervenes to put Raju’s newfound sanctity to the test.

Summary from BookFrom.net

Narayan, R.K. The Man-Eater of Malgudi. Penguin, 1961.

Summary

This is the story of Nataraj, who earns his living as a printer in the little world of Malgudi, an imaginary town in South India. Nataraj and his close friends, a poet and a journalist, find their congenial days disturbed when Vasu, a powerful taxidermist, moves in with his stuffed hyenas and pythons, and brings his dancing-women up the printer’s private stairs. When Vasu, in search of larger game, threatens the life of a temple elephant that Nataraj has befriended, complications ensue that are both laughable and tragic.

Summary from Goodreads.

Natarajan, Srividya. The Undoing Dance. Juggernaut Publications, 2018.

Summary

Kalyani comes from a lineage of famous devadasis, though there is no place for her talent in the Madras of newly independent India. The devadasis, once celebrated as artists, are shunned as ‘prostitutes’ in a modern country. In exchange for a comfortable life as the wife of a wealthy arts promoter, Kalyani has to keep her origins hidden and abandon her mother, Rajayi. When a Bharatanatyam dancer from the city sets out to record Rajayi’s dance repertoire on film, the carefully wrapped-up past threatens to unravel.

Summary from Goodreads.

Neti, Leila. “Imperial Inheritances: Lapses, Loves and Laws in the Colonial Machine.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 1 Aug 2013. pp. 197-214. doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2013.798914.

Abstract

This essay examines eighteenth- and nineteenth-century inheritance laws in India in order to analyse the intersections between state power, heteronormative reproductivity and colonial structures of race. In particular, I focus on the case of Troup et al. v. East India Company, which involves the estate of Begum Sumroo, one of the wealthiest women in colonial India. I explore the ways in which the normativization of western notions of inheritance, allied with reproductive heterosexuality, worked to undergird the racialized expansion of Empire. I argue that, by law, inheritance and gain came to be reinforced as heteronormative (in its definition, procreative) and patriarchal virtues under colonial rule. Begum Sumroo’s place within this legal scheme poses serious challenges to the logic of colonial inheritance. I use the Begum’s case to expose the mechanisms through which, in order for colonial rule to take effect, sexual normativity was heightened to secure the goals of territorial expansion, thus yoking the notion of private property to various controls over bodily and sexual privacy. I read the Sumroo case as an instance of counter-colonial juridical claims to inheritance and possession that in their violent suppressions reveal the brutality of British power and the illogic – racial and sexual – of early colonial governance. 

Qasim, Suraiya. “Where Did She Belong?” Translated by Mohammad Vazeeruddin. Stories About the Partition of India, vol. II. Edited by Alok Bhalla. Indus, 1994, pp 109-117.

Abstract: This short story is about Munni Bai, a tawaif of unknown parentage in Lahore in the days leading up to and directly following the Partition.

Schofield, Katherine, narrator. “A Bloody Difficult Woman: Mayalee Dancing Girl vs. the East India Company.” Histories of the Ephemeral, season 1, episode 2, 25 November 2018, www. listennotes.com/podcasts/histories-of-the/a-bloody-difficult-woman-V9Rb3-Wl2FL/. Accessed February 12, 2021.

This podcast is available free online through Listen Notes.  

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.

Schofield, Katherine, narrator. “The Courtesan and the Memsahib: Khanum Jan Meets Sophia Plowden at the 18C Court of Lucknow.” Histories of the Ephemeral, season 1, episode 1, 1 June 2018, www.listennotes. com/podcasts/histories-of-the/the-courtesan-and-the-vgSefIpYJCA/. Accessed February 12, 2021.

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.

Sengupta, Nandini. The King Within. Harper Collins, 2017.

Summary

373 AD. In the thick forests of Malwa, an enigmatic stranger gallops into an ambush attack by bandits to rescue a young courtesan, Darshini. His name is Deva and he is the younger son of Emperor Samudragupta. That chance encounter, first with Deva and later with his two friends, the loyal general Saba Virasena and the great poet Kalidas, forges a bond that lasts a lifetime. From a dispossessed prince, Deva goes on to become one of the greatest monarchs in ancient India, Chandragupta Vikramaditya. But the search for glory comes with a blood price. As Chandragupta the emperor sets aside Deva the brother, lover and friend, to build a glorious destiny for himself, his companions go from being his biggest champions to his harshest critics.

Summary from author’s website.

Sharma, Jyoti P. “Kothi Begam Samru: a tale of transformation in 19th-century Delhi.” Marg, A Magazine of the Arts, 1 June 2010. Rpt. in The Free Library. Accessed 15 Jan 2021.

This article is available free online through The Free Library

Abstract  

“This account by an East India Company officer tells of Begam Samru, an affluent and politically astute lady of rather ambiguous origins who lived in the 19th century. The account makes it amply clear that the Begam had cordial relations with the British who controlled Delhi and its outlying territories from 1803. Indeed, Lord Lake, the architect of the British victory over Delhi, was a frequent guest to the lavish entertainment soirees held at her residence there which were known for their splendid European style banquets, nautch sessions, and fireworks displays.” 

Sharma, Tripurari. “A Tale from the Year 1857: Azizun Nisa.” Translated by Tutun Mukherjee and A.R. Manzar. Staging Resistance: Plays by Women in Translation, edited by Tutun Mukherjee. Oxford University Press, 2005, pp 120-181.

Abstract: This play tells the story of Azizun Nisa, a courtesan who left her profession during the 1857 Sipahi revolt to become a soldier and fight the British.

Vanita, Ruth. Memory of Light. Penguin, 2020.

Summary

Preparations for King George the Third’s fiftieth birthday gala are in full swing in Lucknow. As poets and performers vie to be part of the show, Chapla Bai, a dazzling courtesan from Kashi, briefly enters this competitive world, and sweeps the poet Nafis Bai off her feet. An irresistible passion takes root, expanding and contracting like a wave of light. Over two summers, aided by Nafis’s friends, the poets Insha and Rangin, and Sharad, himself in love with a man, they exchange letters and verses, feeding each other the heady fruit of desire. When Chapla leaves for home, they part with the dream of building a life together. Can their relationship survive the distances?

From publisher’s website.