Allen, Richard and Ira Bhaskar. “Pakeezah: Dreamscape of Desire.” Projections, vol. 3, no. 2, 2009, pp. 20-36

This article describes how Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah distils the idioms of the historical courtesan film, poised as they are between the glorification of courtesan culture and lamenting the debased status of the courtesan; between a nostalgic yearning for the feudal world of the kotha and a utopian desire to escape from it. The article argues that Pakeezah self-consciously defines the particular “chronotope,” or space-time, of the historical courtesan genre by showing that nothing less than a transformation of the idioms of that genre is required to liberate the courtesan from her claustrophobic milieu—whose underlying state is one of enervation and death—into the open space and lived time of modernity.

Anandhi S. “Women’s Question in the Dravidian Movement C. 1925-1948.” Social Scientist, vol. 19, no. 6, 1991, pp. 24-41

Anandhi’s essay addresses the Self Respect Movement in India in terms of its relationship with women and patriarchy, “how the movement perceived the women’s question and in what manner it tried to resolve it.” The essay describes the stances taken by Periyar in challenging patriarchy before examining the practical achievements and legacy of the movement. Anandhi concludes that “while the Self Respect Movement challenged patriarchy, it failed to create a new anti-patriarchal consciousness even among its own followers.”

Introduction

“The Suyamariathai Iyakkam (Self Respect Movement) which was
launched by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker in 1926, in an effort to
democratise the Tamil Society, has been the theme of historical
research by several non-Marxist and Marxist scholars.1 In their
writings the movement has been characterised in different ways-
revivalist, pro-British, secessionist, anti-Brahmin etc.

A striking feature of the existing studies on the Self Respect
Movement is their silence on its consistent struggle against women’s
oppression and its attempt to dismantle the ubiquitous structure of
patriarchy in Tamil society. Although Marxist scholars like N. Ram
and Arulalan have briefly dealt with this aspect of the movement, a
detailed systematic treatment of the same is yet to be done. This
silence is significant because the question of women’s emancipation was
one of the central themes in the political agenda of the Self Respect
Movement,3 especially during its early phase.

The present paper is a modest attempt to fill this void in the current
scholarship on the Self Respect Movement which is a result of writing
history from the male point of view. The paper therefore addresses
itself to the question of how the movement perceived the women’s
question and in what manner it tried to resolve it.”

Anandhi, S. “Representing Devadasis: ‘Dasigal Mosavalai’ as a Radical Text.” Economic and Political Weekly 26.11/12. 1991, pp. 739-746.

Introduction

During the 1930s, the Tamil speaking areas of the Madras presidency witnessed a debate on the ‘devadasi’ system. ‘ The debate was triggered off by a bill on devadasi abolition introduced in the Madras legislative council in 1930. In the course of the debate, devadasis were stereotyped and essentialised either as the protectors of art and culture or as unchaste women. This process of essentialising was common to both the supporters and the opponents of the devadasi system and this had resulted, as one would expect, in a denial of the devadasis their role as subjects.

This brief paper analyses, against the background of this debate, a novel written by Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, a devadasi who demonstrated her will to break away from the ‘dasi’ system and militantly took up women’s issues as part of the early Dravidian Movement. The novel, Dasigal Mosavalai Allathu Mathi Petra Minor [The Teacherous Net of Devadasis or the Minor Grown Wise, Madras, 1936], deals specifically with the lives and struggles of devadasis and, as we shall see in the course of the paper, it was not only located in the political milieu of the devadasi debate, but departs radically from the parameters of the debate and asserts in its own way devadasis as subjects. This radicalism of the novel is what the present paper attempts to bring out by means of contrasting the novel with the devadasi debate.

The paper is divided into six sections. The first section provides a synoptic summary of the history as well as certain sociological aspects of the devadasi system in Tamil areas. The second section analyses the devadasi debate; the third section gives a brief account of the political career of Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, who authored the novel in question; the fourth section brings out certain salient features of the novel and provides a synopsis of its contents; the fifth section analyses how the devadasis were represented in the novel. The sixth and the concluding section compares the novel with the devadasi debate so as to show how the novel departs from the debate.

Bautze, Joachim K. “Umrao Jan Ada: Her carte-de-visite.” Prajnadhara: Essays on Asian Art, History, Epigraphy and Culture, edited by Gerd Mevissen and Arundhati Banerji, Kaveri Books, 2009, pp. 137-152.

Bautze’s essay examines the famous literary courtesan Umrao Jan, identifying the approximate point in history during which Umrao Jan would have lived and demonstrating how courtesans in Lucknow would have looked at that time. Of particular note is the selection of historical photographs displayed at the end of the essay, particularly of courtesans and ta’waifs, and the accompanying descriptions that Bautze provides of each, giving a visual demonstration of how a courtesan like Umrao Jan would have appeared in late 19th century Lucknow.

Bhatia, Nandi. “The Courtesan as ‘Virangana’ in Contemporary Historical Drama: Tripurari Sharmas San Sattavan ka Qissa; Azizun Nisa.” Performing Women/Performing womanhood. Theatre, Politics, and Dissent in North India. Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 100-115.

In this article, Bhatia examines the erasure of courtesans in Indian historical drama, focusing on dramatic depictions of the 1857 mutiny and contrasting the attention afforded to women such as the Rani of Jhansi and dalit viranganas (war heroines) with the relative invisibility of courtesan figures, arguing that “the courtesan faces neglect from both elite and subaltern reconstructions of the female heroes of 1857.” Bhatia goes on to examine Tripurari Sharma’s play, San Sattavan ka Qissa: Azizun Nisa, which explores the role of Azizun Nisa, a courtesan and prominent combatant in the 1857 mutiny; by placing the focus on the courtesan figure, Sharma challenges and complicates the dominant narratives and myths surrounding 1857, alongside nationalist constructions of femininity.

Cushman, Ellen and Shreelina Ghosh. “The Mediation of Cultural Memory: Digital Preservation in the Cases of Classical Indian Dance and Cherokee Stomp Dance.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 45, no. 2, 2012, pp. 264-283.

Cushman and Ghosh explore the practice of digital preservation of cultural practices and memories, using the examples of classical Indian dance and Cherokee stomp dance to examine the potential complexities and risks of digitally preserving such practices. Cushman and Ghosh outline how digital preservation can distort and decontextualize the very practices it intends to preserve, emphasizing the importance of recognizing these risks and developing best practices for digital preservation.

Dave, Ranjana. “A Walk Down Memory Lane: Searching for Tawaifs and Beauty in the Lanes of Old Delhi.” Scroll.in., 2017.

This article is available for free online at Scroll.in: https://scroll.in/magazine/849681/a-search-for-tawaifs-in-old-delhi-reveals-a-present-thats-not-always-comfortable-with-the-past

Dave’s article describes the history and movement of courtesans from Old Delhi to New Delhi, noting how few and far between the tangible traces of courtesans’ history in Old Delhi have become, and the vast difference in cultural and social attitudes towards courtesans before and after their relocation to GB Road, the red-light district of New Delhi. Dave notes that even in GB Road the presence of famous courtesans like Maya Devi have faded away, and makes note of “how the past slips away.”

De Bruin, Hanne M. “Naming a Theatre in Tamil Nadu.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 17, no. 1, 2000, pp. 98–122

In this article, Hanne M. de Bruin examines the issues surrounding the name for the folk theatre of Tamil Nadu, India — usually known as terukkuttu (one of several possible spellings), but which some now prefer to call kattaikkuttu. De Bruin’s position as a theatre researcher not only gives her firsthand insights based on her own participation in the debate but, as she notes, also clouds the issues because of her status as a foreign scholar. In her essay, De Bruin closely examines the sociopolitical ramifications of the naming problem.

Devdas. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bansali, Mega Bollywood Pvt., 2002.

In this 2002 film adaptation of the 1917 novel of the same name, the protagonist Devdas is about to return home after 10 years of law school in England. Devdas’s mother, Kaushalya Mukherjee, tells her poor neighbour Sumitra, who is overjoyed. Sumitra’s daughter Paro and Devdas are loving childhood friends. Both families believe Devdas and Paro will get married, but Devdas’s conniving sister-in-law reminds Devdas’s mother, Kaushalya of Paro’s “inappropriate” maternal lineage of nautch girls.

Heartbroken by his family’s rejection of Paro, Devdas leaves his parents’ house and takes refuge at a brothel, where he becomes an alcoholic and where a good-hearted tawaif named Chandramukhi falls in love with him. Eventually he becomes desperate to return to Paro, but a number of tribulations stand in the way of Devdas, Paro, and Chandramukhi’s ideals.

Notable Elements

  • Develops a positive sisterhood between Chandramukhi and Paro, rather than following the common film trope of situating women as hostile or antagonistic to one another
  • Challenges the Mukherjees’ arrogance about their wealth as well as their double-standards about tawaifs: “Aristocrats’ lust creates the bastards they scorn!” “You [rich people] act high and mighty, but you sell your daughters for bride prices!” “The money you flash around lays at harlots’ feet!”

Questions to consider:

  • If the film in some ways tries to challenge anti-nautch attitudes; what is the significance of the fact that the lowest points of Devdas’s life occur in a brothel, or that mostly evil men go to see tawaifs?
  • Numerous characters shame women for their supposed sexuality. Overall, does it appear like the film to some degree condones this shaming?
  • What dimensions of sympathy do we have for Devdas? What about Paro? How culpable are they in their fates?

Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, “Nautch girl dancing with musicians accomp. Calcutta, India”

Photo shows a female dancer standing between two musicians, one with drums and the other with a stringed instrument. Physical description: 1 photographic print.

English: Title: Nautch girl dancing with musicians accomp. Calcutta, India

Abstract: Photo shows a female dancer standing between two musicians, one with drums and the other with a stringed instrument. Physical description: 1 photographic print.

Notes: Title from caption card and item.; Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection (Library of Congress).; No. 216.; LOT subdivision subject: India.

By Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fruzetti, Lina and Rosa Maria Perez. “The Gender of the Nation: Allegoric Femininity and Women’s Status in Bengal and Goa.” Etnografica, vol. 6, no. 1, 2002, pp. 41-58.

Abstract

This joint paper is the outcome of collaborative efforts through joint teaching and joint publication. Our central aim is to compare the nationalist period in India – when gender was endorsed both as an ideal and an ideological program, to the post-independence era. Our comparative analysis tries to understand the status and social role of women after Indian independence, when they were drawn into the nationalist movement through their participation in the mission of cleansing the earth-land, the mother land. Adopting an anthropological and historical approach to women in Bengal and Goa, we are theoretically concerned with postcolonial gender construction, and the meaning of “woman” within contemporary national constructs of the personhood.

G. Somasekhara. “Satyagrahi: Moulding Public Opinion in Early 20th Century.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 9, 2003, pp. 866-67

Somasekhara’s essay traces the history of “Satyagrahi,” founded in the 1920s – a Telugu journal that Somasekhara claims played a pivotal role not merely in espousing the cause for freedom, but also launched fearless crusades in favour of eradicating persistent social evils of the time. His essay addresses the journal’s response to many of these issues in turn, eventually concluding that Satyagrahi “supported many noble causes which were all inextricably interlinked with the national movement…[t]he cumulative affect of all this was national resurgence and a national awakening among the people.”

Godiwala, Dimple. “The Sacred and the Feminine: Women Poets Writing in Pre-Colonial India.” Atenea, vol. 27, no. 1, 2007, p. 53+.

This article is available for free online via The Free Library.

From the Introduction

This article explores the poetry of Indian women poets writing since 600BCE. The idea of freedom, love and desire in the work of poets writing in Pali, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati and Telegu reveals the jouissance experienced and expressed by Indian women in pre-colonial times. The critical framework used is culled from the most ancient texts of Indian theory.”

Topics and Notable Excerpts

  • The inconsistency of female sexuality within pre-colonial Indian patriarchy. From pgs. 53-54: As Richard Brubaker puts it, ‘India knows both the sacredness of order and the sacredness that abandons order’ (Brubaker in Hawley & Wulff 204), endowing the sacred, which is always female, with a complex polarity quite different from the western patriarchal binary divide implicit in the nominal sacer (which, in a later period, splits to denote the oppositions of the sacred and the profane). Thus the sacralization of the normative sexual relations in the dharmic order prescribes male hierarchy over the female, making the insubordination of the female decidedly adharmic, or breaking the bounds of duty. Yet, on precisely this account, breaking the bounds may be a powerful agent of moksha, or liberation from material bondage/salvation, which is the highest state to which the human being can aspire (See Brubaker in Hawley & Wulff 204-209).
  • Briefly discusses the roles of pre-colonial devadasis and tawaifs

  • Takes care to differentiate pre-colonial Indian patriarchal ideology from that which is familiar to even well-educated Western feminists (in other words, it emphasizes that not all patriarchies look the same or promote the same beliefs) 

  • Concisely summarizes a vast history of openly-sexual poetry written by Indian women, and details, through a brief discussion of 18th century Telugu Courtesan Muddupalani’s erotic epic Radhika Santwanam, how this history came to be obscured. Pgs. 60-61: “It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries, under British rule, that the response to women’s writing underwent an ideological change. With the now-famous ban on the 18th century Telegu poet Muddupalani’s erotic epic, Radhika Santwanam, the government considered women writing on the subject of desire and sex objectionable, improper and obscene…. In contemporary western terms, the sexual inversion practised by Muddupalani on the traditional relations between male and female lovers–making the woman’s sensuality and sexuality central to the poem which also speaks of her taking the initiative in love-making, making her satisfaction and her pleasure the focus of the work of literature–may seem startling, but is well in keeping with the ancient tradition of Indian women poets’ verse of pleasure and sexual freedom. However, the foreign ideology which dominated this period in India silenced the centuries-old voices of women intellectuals who had written of freedom, love, desire and sexual jouissance from ancient times with no censure from their societies…. It was with the imposition of a rigidly Victorian sexuality that they lost their independent status, as court patronage was withdrawn under the new rulers, throwing women artists into poverty and homelessness.”

Gupta, Trisha. “Bring on the Dancing Girls.” Tehelka, no 6, vol 44. November 7, 2009.

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.’

Jha, Shweta Sachdeva. “Eurasian Women as Tawa’if Singers and Recording Artists: Entertainment and Identity-Making in Colonial India.” African and Asian Studies 8 (2009): 268-287.

From the abstract: “Scholarship on Eurasians has often addressed issues of migration, collective identity and debates around home. Women performers however do not find themselves discussed in these histories of
Eurasian peoples in India. This paper aims to account for individual agency in shaping one’s
identity within the meta-narratives of collective identity of migrant peoples. I focus on two
Eurasian women entertainers in the colonial cities of Benares and Calcutta who chose to forget
their mixed-race past to fashion successful careers using new identities as tawa’if singers and
actors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This, I shall argue, was possible within
the wider context of emergent colonial modernities in colonial India. By choosing micro-level
case histories of these celebrity entertainers, I want to argue for including popular culture as an
arena of identity-making within histories of migration and gender. To engage with popular culture,
I shall extend our perception of historical ‘archive’ to include a varied set of materials such
as biographical anecdotes, discographies, songbooks, and address the fields of poetry, music and
history. Through this project I hope to rethink ideas of gender, culture and agency within wider
debates of migration and identity-making.”

Jordan, Kay K. From Sacred Servants to Profane Prostitute: A History of the Changing Legal Status of the Devadasis in India, 1857- 1947. Manohar, 2003.

From Israel Selvanayagam’s review in Implicit Religion: “This book represents a most thoroughgoing account of the system and practice of Devadasi in India and of the process of banning it through legal debates and
legislation…The book traces the changes in the social, religious, and legal status of the devadasis, with particular reference to changes in government policy toward those temple maids that exemplify the trends toward modernization and secularization from the start of direct British rule in 1857. At the same time, to keep
the study comprehensive, the author, with the help of medieval records of kingly patronage, descriptions by foreign travellers and contemporary traces, starts with the pre-colonial era, in which there was a striking interaction between kings and devadasis as both of them had derived their social position and cultural importance from their relationship to the sacred…Apart from presenting a dynamic period in Indian history with reference to the notable problem of the Devadasi system, the book supplies a few hints of a better understanding of the dynamics of Indian cultural history and the globalized culture of neo-colonialism today.”

Source: Selvanayagam, Israel. “Review of From Sacred Servant to Profane Prostitute: A History of the Changing Legal Status of the Devadasis in India, 1857-1947 by Kay K. Jordan” Implicit Religion [Online], 9 25 Sep 2007

Kannabiran, Kalpana. “Judiciary, Social Reform, and Debate on ‘Religious Prostitution’ in Colonial India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 30, no. 43, 1995, pp. WS59-WS69

From the introduction: “This study of the devadasi institution was undertaken with a two-fold purpose. First, it was an attempt to understand the relationship, and shifts in it, among women, religion and the state in pre-colonial and colonial south India. The second purpose was to try and disentangle this complex process, specifically to see how far the projects of colonialism, reform and revival were based on an understanding of the material reality of the practice.”

Kesavan, Mukul. “Urdu, Awadh, and the Tawaif: the Islamicate roots of Hindi Cinema.” Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State in India. Edited by Zoya Hasan, Westview, 1994, pp. 244-257.

Kesavan’s essay explores the relationship between Hindi cinema and what Kesavan calls “Islamicate” culture, referring “not directly to the religion, Islam, itself but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and Muslims.” Kesavan notes three key links between Islamicate culture and cinema, notably Urdu, Awadh (the setting of, among many texts, Umrao Jaan) and the cinematic figure of the tawaif.

Khubchandani, Lata. “Song Picturization and Choreography.” Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema. Eds. Gulzar, Govind Nihalani, and Saibal Chatterjee. Encyclopaedia Britannica (India), 2003, pp. 197-208

Lata’s piece describes the history and evolution of music and of dance choreography in Hindi cinema, from the earliest silent films to modern works, exploring influential figures and the evolution of various trends and artistic innovations, their effects on how choreography was conceived and treated, and how these different approaches to choreography affect works of Hindi cinema as an artistic whole.

Knight, Douglas M. Balasaraswati: Her Life and Art. Wesleyan UP, 2010.

From Judith Judson’s review in the Journal of Dance Education: “Douglas Knight has given us an exhaustive biography of the illustrious bharata natya dancer T. Balasaraswati. An American percussionist, Knight is also her son-in-law, and his is an insider account of a career that triumphed over formidable social and political difficulties.

Knight has presented the story from the point of view of Bala and her adherents, because her loyalties were given to the principles that had shaped her upbringing. She came from a devadasi family, one of many south Indian families dedicated to temple service as musicians and dancers. These families handed down their art within their own clans, and Bala’s had a heritage of at least five generations of traditional Tamil musical and dance professionalism, closely associated with a royal court. Her mother and grandmother were almost legendary for musical skill. However, the matriarchal and matrilineal traditions of these families were alien to those outside their province, and the devadasis were often stigmatized by accusations of prostitution. Because of Western opposition to the concept of temple dancing, and because traditional royal patronage had almost vanished as the courts became impoverished, the devadasi families had lost most of their time-honored support, and many were forced to scramble for a living in any way they could. These conditions not only caused the loss of a great part of their long-established informed audiences, but aggravated the negative opinions of would-be reformers. Bala’s career therefore was opposed by those who were at first against the very idea of reviving a once vital south Indian dance form, and then, in the name of stamping out prostitution, in preventing its traditional families of practitioners from performing at all.”

Source: Judson, Judith. “Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life.” Journal of Dance Education 11.2 (2011): 68-9

Kohli, Namita. “In the company of the tawaif: Recreating the magic with darbari kathak.” Hindustan Times, 27 Aug 2016.

This piece profiles Kathak performer Manjari Chaturvedi and her project to recreate kathak dances once performed by courtesans, as part of her show “The Courtesan – An Enigma.” Kohli discusses some of the negative stereotypes surrounding courtesans and their representation in Bollywood and wider media, contrasting them with Chaturvedi’s research and attempts to build a more accurate, nuanced and dignified portrayal of courtesans and their role in art and history. As Chaturvedi herself notes, “I had to do this for her, and for all the other tawaifs who deserve that dignity.”

Kugle, Scott. When Sun Meets Moon: Gender, Eros, and Ecstasy in Urdu Poetry. University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

From JSTOR:

“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.”

Kugle, Scott. “Mah Laqa Bai and Gender: The Language, Poetry, and Performance of a Courtesan in Hyderabad.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30 no. 3, 2010, pp. 365-385. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/430302.

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.”

Kugle, Scott. “Mah Laqa Bai: The Remains of a Courtesan’s Dance.” Dance Matters Too: Markets, Memories, Identities, edited by Pallabi Chakravorty and Nilanjana Gupta, Routledge India, 2018, pp.15-35

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?”

Leonard, Karen. “Political Players: Courtesans of Hyderabad.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 50, no. 4 (2013), pp. 423-48

From the abstract: “Important recent works on the Mughal state and women in the Indo-Muslim world have not considered courtesans or tawa’ifs, the singing and dancing women employed by Indo-Muslim
states and nobles, to be significant participants in politics and society. Drawing on detailed
archival data from late nineteenth century Hyderabad state and other historical materials,
I argue that courtesans were often elite women, cultural standard-setters and wielders of political
power. Women whose art and learning gained them properties and alliances with powerful
men, they were political players in precolonial India and in the princely states. They successfully
negotiated administrative reforms in princely states like Hyderabad, continuing to secure protection
and patronage while in British India they began to be classified as prostitutes. Colonial
and modern India have been less than kind to courtesans and their artistic traditions, and more
research needs to be done on the history of courtesans and their communities.”

Meduri, Avanthi. Nation, Woman, Representation: The Sutured History of the Devadasi and Her Dance. Dissertation, New York University, 1996.

Summary

From page xiii:

“‘Nation, Woman, Representation: the Sutured History of the devadasi and her Dance’ examines the complex interplay of national and international events, the impact of Western modernization on the life and artistic practices of a class of South Indian women known as devadasis or temple-dancers…the traditional practice was radically transformed in the late nineteenth and twentieth century practices of Indian nationalism when devadasis and their artistic practices began to be idealized and hailed as the quintessential signs, symbols and metaphors of the ancient Indian nation. If the devadasis were derided as temple prostitutes in the 1890s, their artistic practices were reclaimed in the 1920s, and described by A.K. Coomaraswamy and Annie Besant, as the immortal dance of Shiva. The artistic practices were subsequently aestheticized and renamed in the ideological metaphor and name of India, that is, as Bharatanatyam, the national dance of India. The transmogrification of many names into the one name of Bharatanatyam manifested itself as an unprecedented cultural phenomenon in the history of Indian nationalism because five master-discourses— colonialism, Orientalism, internationalism, Indian nationalism, plus another indigenous discourse, which I identify as the local, artistic history of the devadasi— came to be imbricated in the cultural reconfigurations effected first in the 1890s, repeated in the 1920s. I shall here… describe how selected traces from the artistic history of the nineteenth century were carefully reclaimed, reassembled, and sutured on to the visual bodies of living devadasis and middle-class women in the twentieth practices of cultural nationalism.”

Mitra, Royona. “Living a Body Myth, Performing a Body Reality: Reclaiming the Corporeality and Sexuality of the Indian Female Dancer.” Feminist Review, no. 84, 2006, pp. 67-83

From the introduction: “This paper investigates the dilemma that has been projected upon Indian female dancers’ bodies by contemporary Indian audiences when female desire occupies the centrality of a performance and projects the female body as sexual, articulate and independent of the discipline and propriety of classicism. Locating this dilemma in the nationalist construction of Indian womanhood and femininity as ‘chaste’, this paper adopts Victor Turner’s notions of liminal and liminoid phenomenon and Brechtian defamiliarization technique as a feminist strategy to construct a framework within which the contemporary Indian dancer can reclaim her sexuality in performance. To investigate the complex nationalist trope of chaste Indian womanhood, and to analyse the subversion of this trope by placing agency on the female body as sexual, I locate my argument in the discussion of The Silk Route: Memory of a Journey by Kinaetma Theatre, UK, which was performed in Kolkata in August 2004.”

Nair, Janaki. “The Devadasi, Dharma and the State.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 29, no. 50, 1994, pp. 3157-167

From the introduction: “If the sphere of the family was the one over which the nationalist elite declared their sovereignty, both reform and resistance toward reform in that domain were born of the antagonism between the coloniser and the colonised. However, in large princely states such as Mysore forms of state legality remained independent of this particular dynamic. The process of modernisation was initiated by the bureaucracy itself. This article delineates one aspect of this modernising process that signalled shifts in the definition of domestic and non-domestic sexuality, giving specific attention to the legal-administrative measures surrounding the gradual disempowerment of devadasis attached to muzrai temples.”

Orchard, Treena. A Painful Power: Coming of Age, Sexuality and Relationships, Social Reform, and HIV/AIDS Among Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural Karnataka, India. Dissertation, University of Manitoba, 2004.

Abstract

This dissertation examines coming of age, sexuality and relationships, social reform, and HIV/AIDS among a unique group of female sex workers, the Devadasis, in rural areas of the South Indian state of Karnataka. Former temple servants, religious functionaries, and courtesans in the medieval to early Colonial period (c. 10th-19th century), over time the Devadasis have lost their wealthy patrons and attendant socio-religious status. While often equated with commercial sex workers, many Devadasis continue to practice age-old ceremonies and customs. However, many aspects of these sex workers’ lives are misunderstood. A combination of qualitative methods was used during this research; mainly participant-observation, interviews (individual, group, life-histories), and workshops with participants were coordinated to ensure their participation in the process and feedback on study results. Among the most important findings is the alternative model of child prostitution that emerged from the data. Contrary to standard portrayals of the young as victims of a degraded trade, Devadasi girls discussed some positive aspects of prostitution, such as their ability to support their families, providing income to participate in peer activities, and becoming an adult. The common assumption about sex workers as sexually detached and incapable of forming important unions was also challenged, as many Devadasis enjoy meaningful sex with their long-term lovers or partners, who are central to the women’s socio-emotional and economic well-being. Their response to state-level social reform movements aimed at “rescuing” them from prostitution reveals a pragmatic understanding of these campaigns not often considered in the literature, with the women incorporating these programs into their sex work earnings to maximize their position in a demanding economic environment. Similarly, their involvement in the formation of Collective organizations in order to develop a sense of empowerment in their fight against HIV/AIDS reveals the women’s ability to mobilize and politicize their demands. The results of this dissertation are relevant to the emerging research on global sex work, especially in relation to the issues of childhood, sexuality, and relationships, and they present new data on the Devadasis about coming of age, changes in the system over time, social reform, and HIV/AIDS.

O’Shea, Janet. “”Traditional” Indian Dance and the Making of Interpretive Communities.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, 1998, pp. 45-63.

Janet O’Shea explores the differences between the main styles of South India’s bharata natyam dance form and explains the rivalries within this artistic world. Her article compares the kalakshetra style associated with Rukmini Devi and the Tanjore court style of Balasaraswati, examining the differences and similarities between these legendary artists as well. Of special interest is the discussion of how Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati viewed the place of eroticism (sringara) in bharata natyam. O’Shea proceeds to explain the contributions of the devadasis to the development of bharata natyam, moves along to a treatment of the problems of authority and authenticity, and covers other important topics, including the search for a historical origin for bharata natyam.

Pakeezah. Directed by Amrohi Kamal, Mahal Pictures Pvt. Ltd., 1972.

In this famed courtesan movie, the protagonist Sahibjaan is born to a tawaif, Nargis, who was desperate to escape courtesan life but who was spurned by her lover’s family. Nargis dies in childbirth, and Sahibjaan’s aunt, Nawabjaan, raises Sahibjaan as a tawaif, where she learns to be an excellent and alluring singer and dancer. One night, an unknown poet leaves a poem at Sahibjaan’s feet while she sleeps. She does, eventually, meet him, and, stunned by her beauty and innocence, he renames her “Pakeezah”—meaning “pure”—and proposes to elope with her to take her away from courtesan life. But many painful trials await.

Questions to think about:

  • What does Pakeezah’s purity indicate about the film’s “idea” of tawaifs? Can any tawaif be pure, or is Pakeezah exceptional?
  • Can a tawaif be “forgiven” from the film’s perspective? Can a tawaif escape?
  • What dimensions of sympathy does the film create for Pakeezah? Is the sympathy respectful? Paternalistic?
  • Does the film imply tragedy is in store for all courtesans, or just Pakeezah? How culpable are courtesans in their fate?

Parker, K. M. “‘A Corporation of Superior Prostitutes’: Anglo-Indian Legal Conceptions of Temple Dancing Girls, 1800-1914.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, 1998, pp. 559-663.

From the Introduction: “This paper explores changing Anglo-Indian legal conceptions of the temple dancing girls of peninsular India between 1800 and 1914. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, temple dancing girls constituted corps of unmarried temple servants who had been dedicated to temple deities as young girls through rites resembling Hindu marriage ceremonies; they performed a range of ritual services, derived incomes from endowments associated with their offices and enjoyed considerable prestige within ‘traditional’ Hindu society as ‘eternally auspicious’ women ‘married’ to temple deities. By the early twentieth century, temple dancing girls had been criminalized as ‘prostitutes’; strong legal foundations had been established for their complete suppression as a viable group within Hindu society. This dramatic change was produced in large part through the incremental efforts of the Anglo-Indian judiciary, which enjoyed almost unfettered discretion in shaping legal conceptions of temple dancing girls between 1800 and 1914. The legal conceptions of temple dancing girls discussed in this paper are constructed principally through appellate opinions, influential legal treatises, statutes and legislative documents. Although no claim of priority is made on behalf of such materials, it is hoped that the insights they provide will complicate the historiography of social reform relating to women in colonial India.”

Pati, Biswamoy. “Of Devadasis, ‘Tradition’ and Politics.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 30, no. 43, 1995.

Pati’s 1995 article covers the controversial reports of Orissa’s Jagannatha temple holding interviews to select a devadasi. While defenders of the temple argue that the issue is one of maintaining tradition, Pati frames the situation as a case of gender injustice and the exercise of patriarchal authority.

Paxton, Nancy L. Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947. Rutgers UP, 1999.

[From Amazon.ca Description]:

“Nancy Paxton asks why rape disappears in British literature about English domestic life in the 1790s and charts its reappearance in British literature about India written between 1830 and 1947. Paxton displays the hybrid qualities of familiar novels like Kipling’s Kim and Forster’s A Passage to India by situating them in a richly detailed cultural context that reveals the dynamic relationship between metropolitan British literature and novels written by men and women who lived in the colonial contact zone of British India throughout this period.

Drawing on current feminist and gender theory as well as a wide range of historical and cultural sources, Paxton identifies four different “scripts” about interracial and intraracial rape that appear in novels about India during the period of British rule.  Surveying more than thirty canonized and popular Anglo-Indian novels, Paxton shows how the treatment of rape reflects basic conflicts in the social and sexual contracts defining British and Indian women’s relationship to the nation state throughout the period.  This study reveals how and why novels written after the Indian Uprising of 1857 popularized the theme of English women victimized by Indian men.  Paxton demonstrates how all these novels reflect unresolved ideological and symbolic conflicts in British ideas about sex, violence, and power.”

Peterson, Indira and Devesh Soneji, eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. Oxford UP, 2007.

“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

Ramanujan, A.K. et. al., eds and trans. When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others. U of California P, 1994.

This book is available to read for free online at the University of California Press E-Books Collection.

Publisher’s Summary

“These South Indian devotional poems show the dramatic use of erotic language to express a religious vision. Written by men during the fifteenth to eighteenth century, the poems adopt a female voice, the voice of a courtesan addressing her customer. That customer, it turns out, is the deity, whom the courtesan teases for his infidelities and cajoles into paying her more money. Brazen, autonomous, fully at home in her body, she merges her worldly knowledge with the deity’s transcendent power in the act of making love.

This volume is the first substantial collection in English of these Telugu writings, which are still part of the standard repertoire of songs used by classical South Indian dancers. A foreword provides context for the poems, investigating their religious, cultural, and historical significance. Explored, too, are the attempts to contain their explicit eroticism by various apologetic and rationalizing devices.”

Poets and Padams

When God Is a Customer is a collection of Telugu erotic devotional poetry, mostly short lyrical poems called padams, translated into English. Poems attributed to Annamaya, Sarangapani, Rudrakhavi, one anonymous author, and most prominently, Ksetrayya were selected for translation.

Telugu padams were originally performed by professional dancers and musicians, such as devadasis, whose patrons included courts, temples, and wealthy men. Padams are highly erotic, mostly feature female speakers, and often illustrate lover’s quarrels, infidelity, sensual longing, and sulking; these romantic conflicts long served as a metaphor for humans devoting themselves to the divine.

From the Introduction: Questions to Guide Interpretation

“From its formative period in the seventh to ninth centuries onward, South Indian devotional poetry was permeated by erotic themes and images. In the Tamil poems of the Saiva Nayanmar and the Vaisnava Alvars, god appears frequently as a lover, in roles inherited from the more ancient Tamil love poetry of the so-called sangam period (the first centuries A.D.)….

A historical continuum stretches from these Tamil poets of devotion all the way to Ksetrayya and Sarangapani, a millennium later. The padam poets clearly draw on the vast cultural reserves of Tamil bhakti, in its institutional as well as its affective and personal forms. Their god, like that of the Tamil poet-devotees, is a deity both embodied in temple images and yet finally transcending these icons, and they sing to him with all the emotional and sensual intensity that so clearly characterizes the inner world of medieval South Indian Hinduism….

[A]nd perhaps the most conspicuous attribute of this refashioned cosmology is its powerful erotic colouring. As we seek to understand the import of the Telugu padams translated here, we need to ask: What is distinctive about the erotic imagination activated in these works? How do they relate to the earlier tradition of South Indian bhakti, with its conventional erotic components? What changes have taken place in the conceptualization of the deity, his human devotee, and the intimate relationship that binds them? Why this hypertrophy of overt eroticism, and what does it mean to love God in this way?” (9-10)

Interpreting the Padams: The Courtesan’s Role

This section briefly summarizes and interprets the courtesan figures in When God Is a Customer by rewording and condensing a portion of the book’s Introduction. In its entirety, the Introduction also explores the God-customers’ roles, situates the poems in their historical contexts, and assists readers in the act of reading by exploring padams’ traditional themes and structural elements. We highly recommend that interested scholars read the Introduction in full.

Intriguingly, most of the speakers and characters in the poems of When God Is a Customer are courtesans. They are strong-willed and can be self-possessed, often brazenly playing power games with their God-lovers in search of their fee. The book’s introduction examines one such courtesan in “The Madam to a Courtesan”, a poem by Ksetrayya, on pages 14-16. Here, readers see the God-customer Muvva Gopala/Lord Krishna hapless and awkward, wandering the streets of the courtesan colony, unable to find the courtesan he lusts for; she has taken his money, but not given him her address. An older courtesan, the speaker, chides her for her haughtiness:

Woman! He’s none other
than Cennudu of Palagiri.
Haven’t you heard?
He rules the worlds.

When he wanted you, you took his gold—
but couldn’t you tell him your address?
Some lover you are!
He’s hooked on you.

     And he rules the worlds

I found him wandering the alleyways,
too shy to ask anyone.
I had to bring him home with me.
Would it have been such a crime
if you or your girls
had waited for him by the door?
You really think it’s enough
to get the money in your hand?
Can’t you tell who’s big, who’s small?
Who do you think he is? (14-15)

Like the courtesan spoken to in the excerpt above, many of When God Is a Customer’s speakers plainly lack wonderment at their God-lovers’ ruling powers: in an anonymous padam, a courtesan insists her God can “enter [her] house only if [he has] the money” (39), asserting some level of dominance; in “A Woman to Her Lover” by Ksetrayya (33), the lovers laugh as a pet parrot mimics the courtesan’s moans, then bemoan the morning for interrupting their lovemaking—a remarkably “down to earth” moment, given that Muvva Gopala “rules the worlds” (14).

As the introduction observes, a power dynamic that posits the courtesan speaker as having the upper hand against or being on an even playing field with the God figure reverses that which is commonly seen in earlier Tamil bhakti models of devotional poetry. An eighth-century bhakti by Nammalvar on page 10 serves as an example of such a model, imaging a powerless woman heart-wrenched by her god-lover’s all-consuming absence. Unable to sleep on a black, rainy night, she spends her hours resenting her heart, her “sins,” and her womanhood.

The tormenting, lonely, helpless atmosphere of Nammalvar’s work is a far cry from both the bright playfulness that so often colours the lovers’ conflicts in Ksetrayya’s poems and the physical unity—often through orgasm—that resolves them. Indeed, the figure of the courtesan, sensual and autonomous, allows for a type of devotional work that, as the book’s introduction observes, is concerned more with union than with separation:

It should now be clear why the courtesan appears as the major figure in this poetry of love. As an expressive vehicle for the manifold relations between devotee and deity, the courtesan offers rich possibilities. She is bold, unattached, free from the constraints of home and family. In some sense, she represents the possibility of choice and spontaneous affection, in opposition to the largely predetermined, and rather calculated, marital tie. She can also manipulate her customers to no small extent, as the devotee wishes and believes he can manipulate his god. But above all, the courtesan signals a particular kind of knowledge, one that achieved preeminence in the late medieval cultural order in South India. Bodily experience becomes a crucial mode of knowing, especially in this devotional context: the courtesan experiences her divine client by taking him physically into her body. (18)

Who is Ksetrayya?

A very interesting article by Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, “Ksetrayya: The making of a Telugu poet”, has called the popular and scholarly assumptions about the padam poet into question. Kamath argues that rather than a historical figure from the village of Muvva, Ksetrayya could be a literary persona constructed into a Telugu bhakti poet-saint through the course of three centuries of literary reform, and that rather than being written by a single male author, Ksetrayya’s poetry could be the work of multiple authors, including courtesans themselves.

Sachdeva, Shweta. In Search of the Tawa’if in History: Courtesans, Nautch Girls and Celebrity Entertainers in India (1720s-1920s). 2008. University of London, PhD Thesis.

From the abstract:

Most scholars see the tawa’if either as an unchanging group of hereditary performers or as women engaged in the ‘oldest profession’ of prostitution. This thesis attempts to rethink these linear and separate histories of performers and prostitutes into a dynamic historical model across the long duree of the 1720s to the 1920s. Using multiple language sources I first show that a diverse group of slave girls, prostitutes and women performers made up the varied group of the tawa’if. To trace the continuities and difference in their lives across changing historical contexts of courtly culture and colonial cities, I use Stephen Greenblatt’s theoretical concept of self-fashioning and see these women as agents of their own identity-making. Delving into hierarchies of prostitution and performance, I argue that the most talented and astute amongst the tawa’if became courtesans and wealthy nautch girls through specific acts of self-representation.

Reading their acts in conjunction with their historical images in literary and visual representations, this history sees the tawa’if as historical actors in worlds of image-making. As subjects of courtly culture or urban leisure, the image of the tawa’if could signify both, courtly tradition and emerging modernities of city-life. Rethinking a straightforward history of the ‘decline’ of the ‘courtesan tradition’ since the late nineteenth century, I show that if some tawa’if were marginalised as prostitutes by colonial and reformist praxis, others became celebrity entertainers. Through their use of new technologies of print, photography and recording, and strategic political acts such as forming local caste associations, the tawa’if in this history will emerge to be acute observers and participants in the milieux of courtly cultures and emergent nation-space.

Saeed, Fouzia. Taboo! The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area. Oxford UP, 2002.

From Oxford University Press“This book is a journey of discovery into the famous red light district of the Shahi Mohalla (the Royal Bazar), or Heera Mandi (the market of diamonds). The phenomenon of prostitution coupled with music and dance performances has ancient roots in South Asia. The areas where the practice is centered have given birth for centuries to many well-known performing artists. The areas are hubs for creative productions as well as nurture the talents of poets, singers, actors, and the gurus, musicians and composers of classical music…In order to provide an understanding of the traditional practices of prostitution the book attempts to capture a more realistic picture of the phenomenon through the lives of the people who live in the Shahi Mohalla, the musicians, the prostitutes and their pimps, managers and customers…The book also highlights the contributions that the inhabitants of the Shahi Mohalla have made to our society and to the world of art at large. By breaking these myths that surround the practice of traditional prostitution, the book helps eradicate a blind spot in our understanding of the power relations associated with gender roles throughout our society.”

Sethi, Sunil. “Madam sings her blues.” India Today, 1983.

This article is available for free online at India Today: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/maya-devi-the-doyenne-of-the-dancing-girls-and-most-celebrated-of-g.b.-road-madams/1/371434.html

This 1983 article features an interview with Maya Devi, a successful tawaif with a career stretching back to 1946, providing a profile of her life and career and the changes in social and cultural attitudes towards tawaifs over four decades. While Maya Devi treats the position of tawaif and its history with reverence and pride, she also argues that contemporary attitudes towards tawaifs, and the declining incomes that accompany them, risk killing their way of life, predicting “[y]our children may never see a tawaif.”

Shah, Purnima. “State Patronage in India: Appropriation of the ‘Regional’ and ‘National’. Dance Chronicle, vol. 25, no. 1, 2002, pp. 125-141

This article explores the state-sponsored dance festivals that emerged in 1950s India and their role in ‘elevating’ certain regional dances and performances to the status of ‘classical.’ Shah explores how this designation of ‘classical’ status acted as a form of appropriation, claiming regional traditions as part of a national identity and shifting ownership of dance traditions away from temples and devadasis to the social elite, altering the dances to fit more ‘classical’ ideals in the process. Shah describes several dances, in both their traditional and classical forms, to illustrate this process of decontextualization and appropriation.

Shah, Svati P. “Brothels and Big Screen Rescues” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2013, pp. 549-66.

In this article, Shah creates a genealogy of documentary films on prostitution in India in order to extrapolate on her previous critique of the documentary Born into Brothels. Harnessing this method, she argues that the historical and political landscape which brought about such institutions as the International Center for Photography are integral to understanding these films. Shah critiques the discourse of “intervention, rescue and rehabilitation” depicted in the visual representation of Indian prostitution and concludes with an appeal for a broader critique of the “new cinematic canon on prostitution” in India.

Singh, Lata. “Courtesans and the 1857 Revolt: Role of Azeezun in Kanpur.” Indian Historical Review, vol. 34, no. 38, 2007, pp. 58-78

Singh’s article examines the role of the courtesan Azizun Nisa in the 1857 Revolt, a figure largely ignored or deemphasized in many historical accounts, relating it to a wider trend of dismissing the political and historical contributions of courtesans.  Singh claims that “[b]y looking at the role of courtesan, an attempt is made to revisit dominant versions of historical truth and relocate the ‘loose’ subjects of colonial history into their proper roles in anti-colonial struggles too.”

Singh, Lata. “Visibilizing the ‘Other’ in History: Courtesans and the Revolt.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 42, no. 19, 2007, pp. 1677-1680

By bringing the figure of the courtesan into a political space that is denied and invisibilised in the nationalist discourse as a result of its search for respectability, this article attempts to explore the public roles of courtesans. In a play that foregrounds courtesan Azizun Nisa who participated in the 1857 revolt, playwright Tripurari Sharma ruptures the dominant bourgeois discourse. Azizun Nisa is neither the “respectable” mother nor wife, the quintessential inspirational figures in the nationalist discourse. The play disrupts the trope of “mother India” that dominated anti-colonial and middle-class nationalist thought.

Soneji, Davesh, ed. Bharatanatyam: A Reader. Oxford UP, 2010.

From Amazon.com: “A dynamic, living cultural practice of modern South Asia, Bharatanatyam is widely recognized as one of the world’s fastest-growing dance forms. This reader brings together some of the most important essays on Bharatanatyam written over the last two hundred years. Drawing from history, dance studies, women’s studies, religious studies, and ethnomusicology, this reader shows how this dance form has generated complex social histories and varied aesthetic practices. The comprehensive Introduction provides a broad understanding of the historical, socio-political, and aesthetic issues in Bharatanatyam alongside a contextual mapping of the sources.”

Soneji, Davesh. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. Print.

From the publisher’s website: “Unfinished Gestures presents the social and cultural history of courtesans in South India who are generally called devadasis, focusing on their encounters with colonial modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…combining ethnographic fieldwork with historical research, Davesh Soneji provides a comprehensive portrait of these marginalized women and unsettles received ideas about relations among them, the aesthetic roots of their performances, and the political efficacy of social reform in their communities…narrating the history of these women, Soneji argues for the recognition of aesthetics and performance as a key form of subaltern self-presentation and self-consciousness.”

Soneji, Davesh. “Living History, Performing Memory: Devadasi Women in Telugu-Speaking South India.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 30-49.

From the Introduction: “Whereas in public culture devadasis oscillate in and out of sets of historical and moral discourses in which they embody a highly contested subject position, in their homes, contemporary devadasis embrace fragments of the past by remembering (and in some cases re-enacting) precisely those aspects of their identity which they can no longer express or display in public. Their music and dance repertory, extra-domestic sexuality, devotional lives, lack of menstrual taboo in their community, and experiences during the anti-devadasi movement in the early part of the twentieth century figure prominently in these private journeys of recollection. During my fieldwork with devadasi communities in coastal Andhra, I have had the good fortune of being able to observe and document some of these private journeys of recollection that take place spontaneously, often at late hours of the night amidst nostalgic longings. These plunges into the nourishing reservoirs of memory are clearly not merely fleeting nor are they simply retrospective narrations.

In the latter part of this essay, I chart these journeys, noting that they are embodied memories. They are an invaluable source for the ethnographer, and provide insights into devadasi culture that cannot be found elsewhere. I focus specifically on some of the most characteristic performance genres of the Andhra devadasi repertory to examine the ways in which these acts of recollection nurture identity. I show that these journeys of memory also highlight the disjunctures between past and present. They resist at tempts to erase or deny the past. In this essay, I argue that identity can be produced through acts of memory, and that devadasis in coastal Andhra wistfully and nostalgically elaborate upon identity to affirm their subjectivity in the present.”

Srinivasan, Amrit. “Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 20, no. 44, 1985, pp. 1869-1876

This paper describes the changes that affected an artist community of Tamil Nadu in the wake of the reform agitation concerning the idiosyncratic life style of a section of its women-the devadasis. The first part reconstructs the devadasi system as it prevailed prior to the 1947 Madras Devadasis Act. The second half describes the effect of these reforms on the social, religious and domestic status of the devadasis. The anti-nautch campaign led to the suppression of the regional dance tradition which had been sustained by the devadasi, while simultaneously the art was being revived in its ‘pure form’ as Bharat Natyam. Srinivasan argues that the paradox of the emergence of two parallel equally vociferous reform and revival movements can only be understood by examining the colonial context and native political activity. While the reformers presented the Hindu temple dancer as a ‘prostitute’ in order to do away with her, the revivalists presented her as a ‘nun’ in order to incarnate her afresh.

Srinivasan, Priya. Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor. Temple UP, 2011.

From Temple University Press

A groundbreaking book that seeks to understand dance as labor, Sweating Saris examines dancers not just as aesthetic bodies but as transnational migrant workers and wage earners who negotiate citizenship and gender issues.

Srinivasan merges ethnography, history, critical race theory, performance and post-colonial studies among other disciplines to investigate the embodied experience of Indian dance. The dancers’ sweat stained and soaked sari, the aching limbs are emblematic of global circulations of labor, bodies, capital, and industrial goods. Thus the sweating sari of the dancer stands in for her unrecognized labor.

Srinivasan shifts away from the usual emphasis on Indian women dancers as culture bearers of the Indian nation. She asks us to reframe the movements of late nineteenth century transnational Nautch Indian dancers to the foremother of modern dance Ruth St. Denis in the early twentieth century to contemporary teenage dancers in Southern California, proposing a transformative theory of dance, gendered-labor, and citizenship that is far-reaching.

Srinivasan, Priya. “The Nautch women dancers of the 1880s: Corporeality, US Orientalism, and anti-Asian immigration laws.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, vol. 19, no. 1, 2009, pp. 3–22

In this essay, Srinivasan suggests that paying attention to nineteenth century transnational Indian women performers as temporary, cultural laborers in the US reveals the ambiguities of immigration law and citizenship. Srinivasan takes the crucial performances and experiences of the 1881 Indian Nautch Dancers who arrived on New York Stages to perform in Augustin Daly’s show ‘‘Zanina’’ to examine discrimination, anti-Asian sentiment, and exclusion laws long before the oft-cited 1923 court case that de-naturalized Indians from US citizenship. Srinivasan argues that attending to Indian women’s performances in the nineteenth century offers gendered insight into exclusion laws and demonstrates their ambiguity in ways that focusing on Asian male laborers (as has been the predominant focus of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century research on Asian labor) alone occludes.

Sriram,V. The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. East West, 2007.

From Amazon.caThe term ‘Devadasi’ evokes a mystical past, replete with devotion, and dedication of girls to deities, refrains of soaring music and sensuous dances that attracted the patronage of kings and commoners. The preservation and transmission of the arts largely rested with the Devadasis and they had a strong presence in South India, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though the intellectual elite, the wealthy and the famous, encouraged and supported the Devadasi system, it fell into disrepute, causing public outcry and government reforms, which led to its gradual decline. Bangalore Nagarathnamma was an icon of that age, highly skilled in the arts and well regarded by connoisseurs of music. She was an exceptional woman, much ahead of her times, a champion of the rights of the Devadasis and of women in general. Her devotion to the poet-composer, Tyagaraja, is legendary and she is best known as the architect and benefactor of the shrine over his Samadhi in Tiruvayyaru. In this book, the rise and fall of the Devadasi tradition is intertwined with the life and times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. From small beginnings, Nagarathnamma rose to become a stellar figure in the cultural firmament of Madras of the 1920s and 30s. This work is a tribute to her indomitable spirit and her unrelenting efforts to perpetuate the memory of her patron saint, Tyagaraja.

Tambe, Anagha. “Reading Devadasi Practice through Popular Marathi Literature.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 44, no. 17, 2009, pp. 85-92

This paper examines the popular Marathi literary works that are centred on the devadasi practice prevalent in Maharashtra and looks at its day-to-day practice. In contrast to the devadasis attached to the temple, those from the lower castes, especially the dalits, neither have any right in the temple nor do they have any space to pursue artistic skills. The pattern involving these women who operate in the hierarchical division of labour within the village, as determined by caste, in continuities and discontinuities with those selling sexual labour in urban brothels, is also explored in the analysis

Umrao Jaan. Directed by Muzaffar Ali. Integrated Films, 1981.

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
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.”‘

(266)

Van Rij, Inge. “There Is No Anachronism: Indian Dancing Girls in Ancient Carthage in in Berlioz’s Les Troyens.” 19th Century Music, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2009, pp. 3-24.

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.”

Viswanathan, Lakshmi. Women of Pride: The Devadasi Heritage. Roli, 2008.

From Google BooksDevadasi, raja dasi or kutcheri dasi – devadasis have acquired a variety of definitions and roles over the years. Women of Pride studies, in depth, the devadasi tradition and its transformation into a living cultural phenomenon in the context of Hindu tradition. The book brings into focus the activities and identities of the devadasis and examines the functions and forms of the devadasi tradition. The changing face of the tradition has been authenticated and given a voice by the author by featuring some of the most prominent devadasis of our times. The book also examines the devadasi reform movement in a political, religious, and social context.

Walker, Margaret E. “The ‘Nautch’ Reclaimed: Women’s Performance Practice in Nineteenth-Century North India.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 37, no. 4, 2014, pp. 551-567

Abstract

The hereditary women performers of north India, called ‘nautch girls’ by the colonial British, and courtesans or tawa’ifs by today’s scholars, played a central role in the performance of music and dance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Substantial recent scholarship has focused on their songs, poems and cultural history; consequently, this article addresses choreography, the missing part of their performance practice. Through a detailed examination of dance descriptions in nineteenth-century treatises and comparison of this material with colonial iconography and travel writings, Walker offers new research about nineteenth-century female performance, placing its practice in historical context and speculating about its evolution and change.

Notes

  • Check out Walker’s book on kathak dance here!

Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Lotus Buds: Amy Wilson Carmichael and the Nautch-Girls of South India.” Victorian Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 175-93

Wallace examines the early 20th- century missionary and writer Amy Wilson Carmichael, focusing on her 1909 book Lotus Buds, an account of Carmichael’s “rescue work” in South India. Wallace describes her article as “an attempt to understand the historical conditions which made the 1909 publication of Lotus Buds both possible in terms of its format and allowable in terms of its content.” She is heavily critical of Carmichael’s “rescue work,” characterizing it as the abduction of the young and vulnerable. Wallace’s article describes imperial representations of devadasis and the concept of the “nautch girl” and how Carmichael’s work reflects and utilizes colonial narratives of India to establish and justify her actions.

Williams, Richard David. Hindustani music between Awadh and Bengal, c.1758-1905. 2014. King’s College, PhD Thesis.

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.”

Young, Serinity. “Chapter 6: South Asian Courtesans.” Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconography, and Ritual. Routledge, 2004.

This chapter briefly explores the history and ideological role of notable types of courtesans in South Asia, including devadasis. It elucidates the differences between courtesans and the sub-category of devadasis, offering a thorough yet succinct history of the complex historical role of and ideology surrounding the latter. The “Devadasis” section beginning on page 108 would be a useful introduction to the concept for readers who are unfamiliar with what devadasis are.
 Young’s book as a whole helps readers to resist the reductive, one-dimensional view they may have about sex workers in general in the context of a complex, ever-changing, and often contentious discourse surrounding gendered sexuality (especially as it relates to patriarchy) and courtesans in various Buddhist narratives. The book is divided into three parts: “The Life of the Buddha”, “Parents and Procreation”, and “Sexualities,” the last of which covers topics ranging from wives and husbands to sex reassignment surgeries.

“3 October 2015 TALK – Heritage Series. The Courtesan – by Manjari Chaturvedi.” Youtube, uploaded by India Habitat Centre Lodhi Road, 4 October 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf9duzmktZY

This video depicts a talk by Manjari Chaturvedi discussing her life and experience with sufi kathak dancing and addressing some of the negative responses she has received due to kathak’s association with courtesans. Chaturvedi also recounts her partnership with Zareena Begum, sometimes referred to as India’s ‘last living courtesan,’ and the controversy she faced in working with a professed courtesan.

“Manjari Chaturvedi, Darbari Kathak – Lost Songs of the Courtsans.” Youtube, uploaded by Joy Sangeetam, 21 May 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=illUrj46HuA

This video shows clips of a performance of the show “The Courtesan – An Enigma,” featuring Manjari Chaturvedi performing Darbari Kathak, billed as the “dance of the Courtesan.” In addition to the performance of the dance itself, the show includes several narrated stories about courtesans, and the video concludes with Chaturvedi discussing the history and representation of the courtesan, arguing that courtesans have been pushed aside in historical narratives and twisted into a negative concept, and that we must reexamine history and the role courtesans have played throughout.