@BLAsia_Africa. “Divan of Chanda, copy presented by author to John Malcolm in 1799 (IO Islamic 2768).” Twitter, 19 April 2017, 5:41 a.m.

This tweet contains photographs of the British Museum’s copy of famed tawaif Mah Laqa Bai’s Divan of Chanda (called Diwan e Chanda in Urdu). Divan of Chanda is a manuscript collection of Mah Laqa’s 125 Ghazals, compiled and calligraphed by her in 1798. The photographs are credited to Sufinama, a web-based archive of Sufi poetry, and William Dalrymple, a historian.

A photograph of English writing on the first page of Divan of Chanda.
A photograph of a poem from Divan of Chanda written in Urdu by famed tawaif Mah Laqa Bai Chanda.

Ali, Kamran Asdar. “Courtesans in the Living Room.” ISIM Review, Vol. 15, 2005, pp. 32-33.

This article is open-source and can be freely downloaded here. 

Summary

In the spring of 2003, Pakistan’s GeoTV ran its first serialized television play: Umrao Jan Ada, based on the novel of the same name. (This novel also spawned films in 1981 and 2006, both named Umrao Jaan.)

This article examines questions about how this series, and popular television performances like it, reflect and facilitate discourse on gender politics in present-day Pakistan. The courtesan has long been a stock character in South Asian popular culture, including literature and film, but its recent proliferation is of particular interest: as the author asks, “Why have Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia and feminists chosen at this juncture to depict the life-world of the prostitute and the figure of the courtesan as metaphors to argue for sexual freedom and women’s autonomy?” (32).

In short, Ali argues that the film’s representation of the Nawabi era as tolerant and inclusive confronts and challenges the “more homogenizing elements of Islamic politics in [modern-day] Pakistani society.”  He also addresses the issue of linguicism within the play: while it confronts issues of sexism and inclusivity, it does so localized entirely within the space of high Urdu culture, “and in doing so remains oblivious to the vital issues of cultural and linguistic diversity within Pakistan” (33).

Anderson, Michael. “Body and Soul: Pakeezah and the Parameters of Indian Classical Cinema.” Tativille, 16 May 2012.

This article is available for free online through Tativille: http://tativille.blogspot.com/2012/05/body-and-soul-pakeezah-and-parameters.html

From the Introduction

The classical Indian cinema today is no more in need of justification than was its Hollywood counterpart in the late 1960s.  This is not to argue that either cinema has been immune historically to dispersions against its artistic character, nor even that it no longer is; as commercial industries, each has and continues to arouse criticism for its relationship to the marketplace, and for its supposed concessions to capitalist enterprise.  Still, to say the neither requires justification is to make the least controversial of claims: that art and entertainment can and do coexist in the finest instances of each tradition….

            ….Writer-director Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (‘Pure Heart,’ 1972) succeeds in “validating” the concept of a classical Indian cinema: that is, Pakeezah’s existence – and indeed its elevated artistic status – is altogether implausible outside the contours of Bollywood filmmaking.  This is not to suggest merely that Amrohi’s film required the commercial and/or technological institutions of the Bollywood industry.  Rather, Pakeezah owes its existence to the singular formal structure of the popular Indian cinema.  Specifically, Amrohi’s picture is constructed according to Bollywood filmmaking’s defining epic structure; its characteristic recourse to diegetic musical sequences – with motivations that are not always readily discernable; and its wild disjunctures of space and time.  This is to say that Pakeezah adheres to a set of conventions that mark its distance from the characteristic economy of Hollywood studio filmmaking, even as it instantiates a popular idiom of its own.

            At the same time, Pakeezah does not represent simply an adoption of this popular form, but instead an appropriation of its formal singularities for its particular semantic ends.  That is, while Pakeezah utilizes a pre-existing mass-art form, its application is calibrated to match the idiosyncrasy of the film’s content.  Thus, though Amrohi has not invented a cinematic idiom unique to his film, he has nonetheless succeeded in producing the same level of organic rigor – between form and discourse – than have those artists who have remade the language of their cinema in the image of their subjects: from Carl Theodor Dreyer to Chantal Akerman to Abbas Kiarostami, among scores of others.  It is almost as if we might say that the language of the classical Indian cinema is Amrohi’s, to the degree that it was under his direction in Pakeezah that the form appeared to become as malleable as it long has been for the greatest exemplars of counter-cinema, who have all transformed the language of their art to match the content of individual works.  Pakeezah thusjustifies the classical Indian cinema as it not only marks it as but in fact makes it a singularly expressive form.

Ansari, Usamah. “‘There are Thousands Drunk by the Passion of These Eyes.’ Bollywood’s Tawa’if: Narrating the Nation and ‘The Muslim.’” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 31, no. 2, 2008, pp. 290-316.

From the Introduction

“Sumita Chakravarty claims that ‘courtesan films’ constitute a separate genre, with a specific style of narration and plot development. But rather than focusing on the internal dynamics of these films, I want in this paper to link representations of the tawa’if with issues surrounding the postcolonial condition and consciousness, including their role in mediating the conflicting narrations of the nation. Within this rubric, a special focus will be placed on gender and Muslim-minority positioning in post-Pakistan India, because tawa’ifs represented in Bollywood are often Muslim, and even when not, they can be linked to certain tropes of Muslim cultural identity and historiography.

With these focal points noted, I argue in what follows that the tawa’if is a signifier whose gendered meaning, far from being fixed, is brought to the service of different post-Independence discourses that attempt to construct the nation’s narrative and the Muslim’s positioning within it. Bollywood cinema, as an institution that reaches India’s masses, provides a concrete platform through which the tawa’if-as-signifier can be examined. To approach this discussion, I first outline a ‘theoretical trajectory’ that includes feminist, post-colonial and post-structural thought. Next, I explore the cultural location of tawa’ifs within their social and historic contexts, with a special emphasis on the city of Lucknow in which courtesan films are often set. I then discuss important themes in Bollywood representations of tawa’ifs, highlighting their contradictory representations through their conflicted relationships to agency. This leads into an examination of how the tawa’if can be interpreted by different and conflicting discourses to produce and sometimes challenge narratives of the nation.”

Cited in the Introduction

Chakravarty, Sumita. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987. U of Texas P, 1993.

Arora, Poonam. “Sanctioned and Proscribed Narratives in Indian Cinema: A Bicultural Reading of the Courtesan Film.” Partialities: Theory, Pedagogy, and the “Postcolonial”, edited by Kostas Myrsiades and Jerry McGuire, SUNY Press, 1995, pp. 59-85.

From the Introduction

Despite its lip service to secular ideals, Indian cinema in general has contributed significantly to the celebratory construction of Hindu nationalist discourse. It has done so by reviving precisely those tenets of social organization and gender politics which have been invoked by the nationalist discourse and which are derived from Hindu mythology. It is notable, however, that a specific genre within Indian cinema—the Muslim film—reverses the binarism of Hindu and Muslim identities. This genre represents the Muslim not as masculine, fundamentalist, and separatist, but rather as feminine, exotic, and seductive. This apparent anomaly has been explained by Faisal Devji in his recent essay, “Hindu/Muslim/Indian.” Devji argues that the latter “benign” construction of the Muslim in popular texts fulfills a dual function for Hindus. First, it counters the putative threat of the Muslim, who is commonly viewed as the “enemy within.” Second, the representation of the Muslim woman as a figure of romance in literature and film “elicit[s].. pleasure in the shape of a rape fantasy.” Devji reads this fantasy as a mock punishment meted out to the Muslim whose presence not only reactivates the painful memory of the partition, but who is also believed capable of re-enacting that violent history….

I shall extend Devji’s argument by illustrating that, in a specific subgenre of the Muslim film—the tawaif or courtesan film—not only does the representation of the Muslim woman as a tawaif seduce her Hindu audiences (by, in effect, “asking for” her rape), but the focal point at which this occurs is during certain key scenes in which the tawaif unveils herself to the pro-filmic and, by extension, to the film audience. What Devji’s argument does not address is the popularity of the tawaif film with its equally devoted Muslim audience. Nor can the argument that the film extracts a public confession from the Muslim imaginary for the internalized “guilt” of being different within an aggressive homogenizing national culture, explain that appeal.

I will argue via Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan that the tawaif film interpellates “Hindus” and “Muslims” into different subject positions by employing different textual strategies.

Bhaskar, Ira and Richard Allen. Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema. Tulika, 2009.

Summary: This book explores the Islamicate cultures that richly inform Bombay cinema. These cultures are imagined forms of the past and therefore a contested site of histories and identities. Yet they also form a culturally potent and aesthetically fertile reservoir of images and idioms through which Muslim communities are represented and represent themselves.

Islamicate influences inform the language, poetry, music, ideas, and even the characteristic emotional responses elicited by Bombay cinema in general; however, the authors argue that it is in the three genre forms of The Muslim Historical, The Muslim Courtesan Film and The Muslim Social that these cultures are concentrated and distilled into precise iconographic, performative and narrative idioms. Furthermore, the authors argue that it is through these three genres, and their critical re-working by New Wave filmmakers, that social and historical significance is attributed to Muslim cultures for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Bhatia, Nandi. Acts of Authority/ Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. U of Michigan P, 2004. (Republished by Oxford University Press, 2004.)

Official Summary: Despite its importance to literary and cultural texts of resistance, theater has been largely overlooked as a field of analysis in colonial and postcolonial studies. Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance seeks to address that absence, as it uniquely views drama and performance as central to the practice of nationalism and anti-colonial resistance.

Buy online at University of Michigan Press

Nandi Bhatia argues that Indian theater was a significant force in the struggle against oppressive colonial and postcolonial structures, as it sought to undo various schemes of political and cultural power through its engagement with subjects derived from mythology, history, and available colonial models such as Shakespeare. Bhatia’s attention to local histories within a postcolonial framework places performance in a global and transcultural context. Drawing connections between art and politics, between performance and everyday experience, Bhatia shows how performance often intervened in political debates and even changed the course of politics.

One of the first Western studies of Indian theater to link the aesthetics and the politics of that theater, Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance combines in-depth archival research with close readings of dramatic texts performed at critical moments in history. Each chapter amplifies its themes against the backdrop of specific social conditions as it examines particular dramatic productions, from The Indigo Mirror to adaptations of Shakespeare plays by Indian theater companies, illustrating the role of theater in bringing nationalist, anticolonial, and gendered struggles into the public sphere.

Bhatia, Nandi. Performing Women/ Performing Womanhood: Theatre, Politics and Dissent in North India. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Buy online at Amazon

This book was longlisted for the 2011 Vodafone Crossword Book Award.

Official Summary: This book brings visibility to the work of women who performed on the borderlines of dominant theatrical activity and engaged in dramatic enactments that contested middle-class codes of female propriety, which became normalized in the national popular consciousness. It recovers, excavates, and remembers the contribution of the neglected as well as known figures in theatre history from north India, in languages which include Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi, and cements their place in the canon of Indian theatre. It examines the diverse modes of dramatic representation and performance — myth, folklore, ritual, and history, including everyday conversation — used by women to intervene in and challenge the agenda of social movements, which conceptualized women’s emancipation but imagined their role as being primarily at the core of family life. The author argues that women’s presence on stage and their involvement in theatre — as actors, playwrights, directors, organizers, and characters — made important contributions to the debates on gender and nationalism at particular moments of colonial and postcolonial history.

Boejharat, Jolanda Djaimala. “Indian Courtesans: From Reality to the Silver Screen and Back Again.” IIAS Newsletter, Vol. 40, No. 8, 2006.

This article is available for free online through the Leiden University Repository: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/12710

 

From the Introduction – Modern Courtesans

People today speak nostalgically about the golden age of courtesans, when their company was much appreciated and an accepted part of aristocratic life. Nevertheless, the current practice of this seductive art as found in today’s brothels (kotha) is despised, while its practitioners are considered outcasts operating on the margins of society. Of course there is great variety in India’s red-light districts: from child prostitutes to call girls in modern city bars and women who still use the mujarewali tradition of dancing and singing as part of their seductive technique. Their daily lives and their nighttime practices place them in a twilight zone, serving a male clientele without regard to caste or religion.

Some artists and researchers say that traditional mujarewali no longer exist, as the artistic expressions of today’s courtesans are in no way comparable to those of bygone days. Still, although their techniques have changed, these women perform the arts of seduction, and their customers visit them not only for their public services, but to return to an earlier time, to leave behind the cares of today and of the future.

 

From the Introduction – Courtesan Films

The Bollywood film industry, with 900 releases annually, is among the largest in the world. Many film producers’ works feature both historical courtesans and their present-day representatives…. The introduction of sound in the 1930s gave birth to a tradition of films featuring embedded music and dance
sequences. Of these, the courtesan genre includes such well-known examples as DevDas (1955) Pakeeza (1971) and Umrao Jan (1981). Early courtesan films idealized the beauty and artistic skills of the historical mujarewali and portrayed prostitutes restored to social respectability through marriage. The narratives were interspersed with song and dance sequences similar to what we assume to have been traditional mujara practice.

Booth, Gregory D. “Making a Woman From a Tawaif: Courtesans as Heroes in Hindi Cinema.” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2007, pp. 1-26.

Introduction:

“Having been forced to dance in public as a courtesan, [Muni, the heroine of Hindi film Kismat] sees her situation as hopeless: ‘The world can turn a woman into a courtesan, but a courtesan can never become a woman.’ … Having been labelled tawaif, Muni can no longer hope for respectability; a happy ending—defined in the conventions of the Hindi cinema as the union of the heroine with the film’s hero—is no longer possible. Muni’s distinction between women and tawaifs is actually a distinction between the female character who, in the dictates of convention, is a respectable heroine (and therefore marriageable) and one who is a tawaif (and therefore not).”

In this article, Booth explores the traditional markers of heroines in Hindi cinema from the 1950s-1990s. As an introduction, he identifies an enormous list of these markers, including but not limited to the heroines’ chastity (as compared with her contradictory sexualized dancing), her honour of the hero’s parents, her level of assertiveness, and, most invariably, her marriage to the hero. Booth compares these markers to those of the Tawa’if cinematic roles both collectively and in specific films, analyzing how Tawa’if films attempted to explore and ameliorate cultural anxieties about gendered identity and sexuality. A Tawa’if, Booth observes, is at best often regarded as a “tragic heroine,” but not a traditional one.

 

Main Arguments:

Booth makes two specific arguments in his research, summarized below:

“First, based on some of the foundational theories of feminist and feminist film, critique, I argue that tawaifs are a distinct gender within the Indian narrative world and that the woman-tawaif transformation is not one way. The tawaif-woman transformation is also possible, as a number of films have demonstrated. Second, incorporating ideas from Indian folklore studies, I seek to demonstrate that, despite their superficially exploited images, tawaifs as protagonists are both heroic and masculine within the understandings of Indian folklore types. Throughout, I examine the narrative factors surrounding such gendered constructions and transformations and argue that these represent an unspoken form of social negotiation between film producer and consumer, that not only establish the gender specifics of the character, but that also allow such apparently transgressive characters to be redeemed.”

Bor, Joep. ”Mamia, Ammani and other Bayadères: Europe’s portrayal of India’s temple dancers.” Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s. Eds. Martin Clayton and Bennett Zon. Ashgate, 2007: 39-70.

From the Introduction

In this chapter I will explore an aspect of the encounter with the Other that has not been dealt with by Gerry Farrell in his excellent study Indian Music and the West, and has also been ignored by writers on bharata natyam, the classical dance of Southern India. First I will show that India’s temple dancers and singers have a long history in European travel literature, giving a brief overview of the way they were portrayed. Next I will focus on Jacob Haafner’s remarkable essay on the devadasis; pubished in his Reize in eenen Palanquin (1808), it was written in memory of his beloved, the young dancer Mamia.

After Goethe wrote his poem “Der Gott und die Bajadere” in 1797, nineteenth-century librettists metamorphosed the temple dancers into the fictitious bayadères who became the heroines of Examining dozens of artcles and reviews, I will finally demonstrate that during the autumn of 1838 the “real” bayadères were “the chief magnets of attraction” and “greatest curiosities in London.” In fact, part of the success of the 1838-39 season at the Adelphi Theatre could be attributed to the foreign dancers.

 

Notes

  • This article is noteworthy for first providing an overview of some of the most well-known depictions of the devadasis by early European travel writers. In familiarizing themselves with these depictions, our readers can get a sense of how long-standing Western cultural myths about outside groups can form.

Brown, Louise. “Performance, Status and Hybridity in a Pakistani Red-Light District: The Cultural Production of the Courtesan.” Sexualities vol. 10, no. 4, 2007, pp. 409-423.

Abstract: Prostitution is a cultural practice, and the purchase and sale of sex take diverse forms. This article uses ethnographic research to examine elite prostitution within Heera Mandi, the traditional red-light district of Lahore, Pakistan, and demonstrates that the signifiers of status for elite tawa’if (courtesans) have altered as their client base has changed. Traditionally portrayed as the carriers of culture, the contemporary tawa’if is frequently lamented as debased and divorced from her heritage and skills in the performing arts. This article argues that contemporary courtesan culture still requires significant investment in cultural capital and social skills, but that these have taken new forms. The globalization of prostitution and the hybridization of cultures are shown to influence the performance of the courtesan, particularly in the mujra – the singing and dancing show. Today’s tawa’if is argued to be a cultural production, a woman who uses her cultural, social and sexual capital in performances that negotiate hierarchies both within and outside the brothel quarter.

Brown, Louise. The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan’s Ancient Pleasure District. HarperCollins, 2005.

Although Louise Brown is a sociologist who teaches at Birmingham University in the U.K., The Dancing Girls of Lahore is not so much a work of scholarship as it is a journalistic memoir. Based on a diary she kept during eight visits to Lahore from 2000 – 2004, this book is full of vivid descriptions of life in Lahore’s famous Hira Mandi (Diamond Market) from the perspective of a white Western woman.
Brown actually lived in the Hira Mandi – initially with a famous artist, Iqbal Hussain, who grew up and currently resides there and whose mother was a courtesan, and later with a family of women and girls who are trained dancers and practicing courtesans. Living in the same neighbourhood as the people she is studying allows the author access to certain everyday situations and events that might not otherwise have been available to her. But while Brown’s observations are often intriguing, she offers only very brief analyses of the lives and choices of these women, choosing instead to focus on her personal interactions with them and with other residents of the Hira Mandi, including some members of the khusra or transgender community and a sweeper family.

Burckhardt Qureshi, Regula. “Female Agency and Patrilineal Constraints: Situating Courtesans in Twentieth-Century India.” The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Martha Feldman, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 312-331.

Cover image from oupcanada.com

From the Introduction: “Given their well-established socioeconomic as well as musical moorings, why did the courtesan’s art and agency disappear [after India’s purity/anti-nautch movement] rather than metamorphose into a different practice, just as the salons themselves had emerged from court performances? In other words, how viable was these women’s agency? Did Indian courtesans need courts for their art to survive? True, the salon successfully replaced the court. But did its courtly ritual require the validating presence of courts and aristocratic patronage? Could the courtesans’ art not be transplanted onto the concert stage, like the classical art of the male singers who were their masters? Or was the barrier to bourgeois respectability insurmountable for these women? Was it the official condemnation of courtesans’ morals and their banishment from government patronage at All India Radio that erased their art? Or did their music not measure up to the reformist canon of classical music? Under what conditions did a very few exceptional courtesans continue to perform on the public concert stage, and to what musical effect? ”
Burckhardt Qureshi asks many other insightful questions in her introduction. Put as succinctly as possible (at the risk of obscuring the chapter’s complexity), Burckhardt Qureshi aims to identify which social and musical conditions courtesans were able to transcence before the practice as outlawed, to question the viability of courtesans’ agency and independence within patrilineal/patriarchal Indian society but without feudal (and male) patronage, and to explore whether courtesans could and can produce and reproduce themselves as professional musical performers.

Caldwell, John. “The Movie Mujra: The Trope of the Courtesan in Urdu-Hindi Film.” Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Vol. 32, 2010, p. 120+.

Abstract

The trope of the courtesan is found in many Urdu-Hindi films from the earliest period of Indian cinema. The courtesan was essential to the film musical because her character could dance and sing when the more modest heroine could not. The courtesan could also express sexual desire, longing for freedom and independence, and choice in the matter of lovers. She expressed herself primarily through the medium of the mujra-ghazal, a musical set-piece derived from nineteenth-century century courtesan culture in northern India. This article traces the musical and dramatic trajectory of the trope of the courtesan with reference to two of the most famous courtesan films: Pakeezah (1972) and Umrao Jaan (1981).

Chakravorty, Pallabi. Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India. Seagull Books, 2008.

Publisher’s Description:

This is the first critical study of Kathak dance. The book traces two centuries of Kathak, from the colonial nautch dance to classical Kathak under nationalism and post-colonialism to transnationalism and globalization. Reorienting dance to focus on the lived experiences of dancers from a wide cross-section of society, the book narrates the history of Kathak from baijis and tawaifs to the global stage.

Chakravorty, Pallabi. “From Interculturalism to Historicism: Reflections on Classical Indian Dance.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp.108-119.

In this article, Chakravorty argues that “the term ‘interculturalism’ needs reformulation in contemporary dance and theatre studies” and that, more often than not, Western depictions of classical Indian dances are less “cultural sharing” and more cultural appropriations that reduce or ignore the perspectives of marginalized voices (the Indian dancers themselves). Soneji also “discusses and reviews several arguments concerning how Indian womanhood became synonymous with Indian tradition.” Her central argument analyzes how “the discourse of ‘East’ and ‘West’ fused to form both the dominant ideology of classical Indian dance and a nationalist reconstruction of a linear progressive history for the incipient Indian nation-state.”

Chandra, Moti. The World of Courtesans. Vikas, 1973.

In this book, Moti Chandra compiles an enormity of information about ancient Indian courtesans organized into certain periods/locations and their literatures. By the sheer number of places and locations, Chandra’s book resists a singular or one-dimensional reading of the life of ancient Indian courtesans.

From the Preface

“The institution of courtesans in ancient India in its social setting has not yet received as much attention from scholars as it deserves. Courtesans in ancient India did not merely serve the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and ars amoris. Around them moved interesting characters such as rich merchants, bankers, and the vitas (rakes). In this way a courtesan became an important part of Indian society. So far as literature is concerned, courtesans, in spite of their perfidies, were considered an urban institution which gave an impetus to arts and the life of luxury….

The institution of courtesans is a distinguished feature of developed urban society and, therefore, in Vedic and post-Vedic literature, though the courtesans are mentioned casually, we hardly know much about their life and accomplishments. In Buddhist literature, however, we are face to face with the highly developed institution of courtesans…. In Jain literature as well, courtesans have received attention and their achievements have been noted…. In the Mauryan period, however, the organization of the courtesans became highly complex and the state devised a set of rules which governed their conduct….

However, the best account of courtesans is obtained in the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana which goes into great details in drawing a very correct picture of the institutions of courtesans, the clients who visited them, the low characters who either helped the courtesans and their clients and hangers on, their amusements, the picnic parties to which they proceeded with their lovers, periodic festivals in which they participated, their acts of piety and virtue and vices.”

 

Critiques

Although this work is very thoroughly researched and informative, The World of Courtesans is not without its biases. In “Re-Inscribing the Indian Courtesan: A Genealogical Approach” (see our citation and download the .pdf here), Meenal Tula and Rekhal Pande observe that Chandra speaks of courtesans’ sexuality in a demeaning and even anxious way. They argue that in doing so, The World of Courtesans “contains, disciplines, and ‘silences the courtesan subject,'” common features of scholarship on the devadasis. Consider the following quote:

“Moti Chandra, in his study The World of Courtesans (first published in 1976), attempts to provide a compilation of the various kinds of roles played by the courtesan women since the Vedic period. He talks about their sexual, ritual and sacred roles and, citing various sources, catalogues the various terms that have been employed for the courtesans over the ages—ganika, khumbhadasi—and the hierarchies between these various terms. At the same time, the book is framed by a narrative that sees courtesans as women who ‘served the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and arsamoris.’  At the same time, while Moti Chandra sees these women as morally base and ‘living the life of shame’, he nonetheless reveals a deep anxiety towards the ‘crafty’ and ‘worldly-wise’ ways of these women: ‘…courtesans tempt(ed) their lovers, perhaps depriving the rich Aryans of a part of their possessions in cattle and gold.’ Further, Chandra seeks to configure the courtesan women primarily according to their sexual function, seeing it as the sole aspect that ‘explains’ all dimensions of the courtesan, sexual, cultural and political. In this sense, Moti Chandra’s history of the courtesan women does not explore the complexities of the inter-relationships between these women and the extant patriarchal structures, even though it is a ‘women’s history’.”

 

Table of Contents

  1. Courtesans in Vedic, Pauranic, and Smiti Literatures
  2. Courtesans in Buddhist Literature
  3. Courtesans in Jain Literature
  4. Courtesans in the Mauryan Period
  5. Courtesans in the Kamasutra and Natyasastra
  6. Courtesans in the Gupta Period
  7. Courtesans and Goshthi in Sanskrit Drama
  8. Courtesans in Mediaeval Kashmir
  9. Courtesans in Mediaevil Times in Other Parts of India
  10. Courtesans in South India

Chatterjee, Gayatri. “The Veshyā, the Ganika and the Tawaif: Representations of Prostitutes and Courtesans in Indian Language, Literature and Cinema.” Prostitution and Beyond: An Analysis of Sex Work in India. Eds. Rohini Sahni, V. K. Shankar and Hemant Apte. New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2008. 279-300. SAGE Knowledge

From the introduction:

“The circumstances of the contemporary prostitute might be distinct from those in the past; but literary and cinematic representations continue to be steeped in traditional perception, verbalization and visualization, all well established and sanctioned by the society. Today, she might be a citizen of the Indian state, part of the democracy, with the right to vote and liable to be judged in a civil court; but this makes little difference to her social status. Additionally, the representation-narration around the prostitute continues to tell old tales, seldom revealing the tremendously varied and complex histories behind women now held under one blanket term prostitute.

First and foremost, the paper bases itself upon the premise that there is no one group of women involved here. Going further, it seeks to highlight the fact that behind the formation and existence of these groups of women lies vast and varied social, economic, cultural and political circumstances. And the retrieval of those lost histories (even if partial or incomplete) requires an investigation into terms coined to mark ‘such women’ and the history of their linguistic coinage. Interestingly, the retrieval of this history also requires rigourous survey into the history of literary representation. There has been a long tradition of seeing language and representation as tools for the perpetuation of social inequalities. Though that is true, we now also realize that the production of material history is closely linked with the production of language, literature and arts—that the investigation of one leads to the other. The histories of linguistic coinage and the changing course of words and their meanings are important to know what practices are in currency at what time. What the paper ultimately establishes is that the history of the ‘prostitute’ forms an important chapter in the history of work and woman.

The study shows that to begin with, all these women forming various groups were indicated by different word-coinage. They were professional women or were often treated as such. The more they lost their right to work, the more they had to resort to ‘prostitution’. They are patita or fallen women—what they have fallen from is actually their professional status. Early facts and realities are all obliterated now, replaced by a ghettoization of ‘all such women’ into being only sex workers and the rise of social and moral discourse around them.

Three words veshyā, ganika and tawaif are chosen in this article, which begins with an inquiry into the etymologies behind each term, followed by a survey of representation-narration of the women belonging to these groups—today all seen as ‘prostitute’. Coming from Sanskrit, the word veshyā stands for a prostitute in most Indian languages (there surely are other local terms; this is mostly used for formal or literary purposes). The other two words ganika and tawaif are not in use any more, as that particular social situations in which they existed are no more. Nevertheless, they remain important because of their continuous representation in films of all regions and languages.

It is through the continuous use of language and reproduction of representation that societies maintain their status quo, which in this case is an aggregate of opinions and facts: there is one kind of women who sell sexual favours; they live—this they must—outside the purview of the society; they are morally inferior to all members of the mainstream society—which is the reason why they are ‘outside’. Though they are of one kind, they do not actually make up any caste, class or community—they are women who might or might not stay together (mostly they do). They might have some of their own rules of cluster formation. More commonly, these women belong to a house ruled by a matriarchal figure and so are socially and economically governed by each house-rule; in all other ways they are outside the patriarchal society. The only transaction they have with the mainstream society is when men visit them (for a short span of time) for sexual purposes; the women of the mainstream society have nothing to do with them.”

Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra. Devdas. GCS, 30 June 1917.

The novella Devdas is enormously famous, having spawned numerous film, TV, and theatrical adaptations.

Complete Plot Summary (from Wikipedia)

Devdas is a young man from a wealthy Bengali Brahmin family in India in the early 1900s. Parvati (Paro) is a young woman from a middle class Bengali Brahmin family. The two families live in a village called Taalshonapur in Bengal, and Devdas and Parvati are childhood friends.

Devdas goes away for a couple of years to live and study in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata). During vacations, he returns to his village. Suddenly both realise that their easy comfort in each other’s innocent comradeship has changed to something deeper. Devdas sees that Parvati is no longer the small girl he knew. Parvati looks forward to their childhood love blossoming into a happy lifelong journey in marriage. According to prevailing social custom, Parvati’s parents would have to approach Devdas’s parents and propose marriage of Parvati to Devdas as Parvati longs for.

Parvati’s mother approaches Devdas’s mother, Harimati, with a marriage proposal. Although Devdas’s mother loves Parvati very much she isn’t so keen on forming an alliance with the family next door. Besides, Parvati’s family has a long-standing tradition of accepting dowry from the groom’s family for marriage rather than sending dowry with the bride. The alternative family tradition of Parvati’s family influences Devdas’s mother’s decision not to consider Parvati as Devdas’ bride, especially as Parvati belongs to a trading (becha -kena chottoghor) lower family. The “trading” label is applied in context of the marriage custom followed by Parvati’s family. Devdas’s father, Narayan Mukherjee, who also loves Parvati, does not want Devdas to get married so early in life and isn’t keen on the alliance. Parvati’s father, Nilkantha Chakravarti, feeling insulted at the rejection, finds an even richer husband for Parvati.

When Parvati learns of her planned marriage, she stealthily meets Devdas at night, desperately believing that he will accept her hand in marriage. Devdas has never previously considered Parvati as his would-be wife. Surprised by Parvati’s boldly visiting him alone at night, he also feels pained for her. Making up his mind, he tells his father he wants to marry Parvati. Devdas’s father disagrees.

In a confused state, Devdas flees to Calcutta. From there, he writes a letter to Parvati, saying that they should simply continue only as friends. Within days, however, he realizes that he should have been bolder. He goes back to his village and tells Parvati that he is ready to do anything needed to save their love.

By now, Parvati’s marriage plans are in an advanced stage. She refuses to go back to Devdas and chides him for his cowardice and vacillation. She, however requests Devdas to come and see her before she dies. He vows to do so.

Devdas goes back to Calcutta and Parvati is married off to the widower, Bhuvan Choudhuri, who has three children. An elderly gentleman and zamindar of Hatipota he had found his house and home so empty and lustreless after his wife’s death, that he decided to marry again. After marrying Parvati, he spent most of his day in Pujas and looking after the zamindari.

In Calcutta, Devdas’s carousing friend, Chunni Lal, introduces him to a courtesan named Chandramukhi. Devdas takes to heavy drinking at the courtesan’s place; she falls in love with him, and looks after him. His health deteriorates through excessive drinking and despair – a drawn-out form of suicide. In his mind, he frequently compares Parvati and Chandramukhi. Strangely he feels betrayed by Parvati, though it was she who had loved him first, and confessed her love for him. Chandramukhi knows and tells him how things had really happened. This makes Devdas, when sober, hate and loathe her very presence. He drinks more and more to forget his plight. Chandramukhi sees it all happen, suffering silently. She senses the real man behind the fallen, aimless Devdas he has become and can’t help but love him.

Knowing death approaches him fast, Devdas goes to Hatipota to meet Parvati to fulfill his vow. He dies at her doorstep on a dark, cold night. On hearing of his death, Parvati runs towards the door, but her family members prevent her from stepping out of the house.

The novella powerfully depicts the customs of society that prevailed in Bengal in the early 1900s, which largely prevented a happy ending to a true and tender love story.

Courtesans of Bombay.  Dir. Ismail Merchant.  Perf. Saeed Jaffrey, Zohra Segal. Merchant Ivory Productions. 1983. DVD.

This 1983 docudrama examines an enclosed area of Mumbai known as Pavan Pool, a low-income apartment community home to many courtesans. The film explores their daily lives and showcases their performances. Notably, much of the work is scripted: its three interview subjects (a landlord, a retired courtesan and a frequent patron) are all played by actors whose lines were written by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The landlord speaks about the working conditions at the compound, the retired courtesan speaks about how the tawaif practice has changed over time, and the patron speaks about his relationship with and perception of courtesans and their art. The scripted interviews are presented alongside footage of the real residents and performers of Pavan Pool, but videos of the real residents speaking amongst each other are not subtitled.

While the footage of tawaifs’ performance may be useful and interesting to our readers, the dramatization of the documentary draws some interesting ethical questions.

We highly recommend reading Geeta Thatra’s “Contentious Socio-Spatial Relations: Tawaifs and Congress House in Contemporary Bombay/Mumbai” alongside viewing this documentary.

Questions to Ask About Courtesans of Bombay and Other Documentaries

  • This documentary was commissioned by BBC Channel 4. It was made by British people for British consumption. How might this funding and purpose affect the documentary’s content?
  • Given that this film’s subtitled speech—the speech understandable to an English-speaking British audience—is entirely scripted, can this film be accurately called a documentary? Is it drama? Is it both?
  • To what degree do the Pavan Pool courtesans appear to be involved in constructing the film’s narrative? Whose insights are included and whose are left out?
  • What real-life political impacts can documentaries have on the groups they feature? What ethical problems should documentary filmmakers consider when telling stories about marginalized groups? Could the Pavan Pool courtesans benefit from this film? Could the film cause them harm?
  • The landlord consistently presents the Pavan Pool courtesans as naïvely causing their own financial ruin: according to him, they keep hoping for an improbable film contract, they fight each other over cheating men, and some cling to outdated and unprofitable traditions. What does this representation suggest about the courtesans? Are viewers encouraged to believe the landlord is well-informed and truthful? What other reasons might exist for why the courtesans are struggling? How could this representation impact the audience’s view of these courtesans’ agency?

Courtney, Chandra and David. “The Tawaif, the Anti-Nautch Movement, and the Development of North Indian Classical Music.” Chandrakantha.com. Accessed 18 February 2021.

Over several pages, this useful website explores the tawaif tradition, the evolution of the will and means to combat the tawaif tradition, and the effects this anti-nautch movement on North Indian music and dance.

Das Purkayastha, Shramana. “Performance as Protest: Thumri and Tawaif’s Quest for Artistic Autonomy.” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2013.

This article is available as a free, open-access resource in the Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities.

 

Abstract: Indian cultural history testifies to the intimate bond the tawaifs had for centuries with the performing arts. Be it the pre-Mughal folk culture of rural India or the highly sophisticated culture of classical music in the Mughal courts, the tawaifs had always remained at the focal point of it. However conservative social paradigm never allowed them to belong to the mainstream Indian society. Concepts of honour, chastity and occupational propriety, with which patriarchy regulates a woman’s individual choices, constrained the tawaif to inhabit a limited space, isolated and solitary, alluring, yet infamous. In the present paper, I propose to explore how thumri reflects the tawaif’s own consciousness of her contradictory status as an outcast as well as an artist, indispensable to India’s musical heritage. Through a detailed structural analysis of the genre, I would discuss how the textual world of thumri with its distinctive formal and performative peculiarities supplies the tawaif with a potentially subversive “action repertoire”, enabling the nautch-girl to voice her desperate demand for autonomy.

 

 

 

Dattani, Mahesh. Dance Like a Man: A Stage Play in Two Acts. Penguin, 2006.

Jairaj Parekh and his wife Ratna, aging Bharatnatyam dancers, live together in the home of Jairaj’s father, Amritlal. Having retired from an unfulfilling career, Jairaj and Ratna project their hopes for higher achievement onto their daughter, Lata, also a dancer. Generational conflicts abound: Lata attempts to balance her parents’ ambitions with her desire to marry her boyfriend, Viswas; meanwhile, Jairaj and Ratna struggle to work through their longstanding conflict with Amritlal, once a nationalist activist and now a conservative reactionary, who views dancing as the work of prostitutes and whose rigid views of manhood are constantly challenged by his artistic, expressive son. A movie based on the play was released in 2014.

While devadasis are not protagonists in this play, they are nevertheless thematically central: pre-Indian independence, Bharatanatyam was largely performed by devadasis, but the devadasi practice was shamed and outlawed during the Indian nationalist movement as an effort to appeal to colonial conceptions of gender and civility.  (Indeed, Amritlal forbids Jairaj from learning dance from a local Devadasi.) This careful exclusion and suppression of female public performers and their associated traits informs much of Amritlal’s character, and by extension, much of the play’s conflict.

 

Consider the following questions:

  • Amritlal, once an activist for the cause of freeing India from British occupation, nevertheless enforces strict binary gender roles. Do these seemingly-contradictory political stances mean Amritlal used to be progressive and is now conservative? Can he be both at one time?
  • To what degree can Amritlal be forgiven for his sexism if sexism helped to achieve India’s independence? Similarly, to what degree should women and other marginalized groups be expected to bear oppression in the name of progress? Can progress ever be simple, linear, and teleological?
  • In presenting Bharatanatyam as a worthy art form for all genders and non-devadasi dancers, does the narrative appear to validate the devadasi practice, devadasis themselves, and/or devadasis’ artistic skills? Alternatively, is the dance form separated from the devadasis? What assumptions are made about devadasis, if any?

 

Evans, Kristi. “Contemporary Devadasis: Empowered Auspicious Women or Exploited Prostitutes?” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. 80, No. 3, 1998, pp. 23-38.

This article is available for free online through the University of Manchester Library. 

Summary

After contextualizing the common discursive question in the article’s title, Evans briefly explains that Western colonization eroded devadasis’ cultural roles and the public’s perspective of those roles. She goes on to attempt to answer the question, “Who are the contemporary devadasis?” by discussing the struggle over a cultural identity for the “post-devadasi:” the devadasi that exists when their once-integral practice of temple dancing is outlawed.

Readers should take care to note that this article was written in 1998, and thus may not represent the experiences of today’s devadasis.

 

From the Introduction

The contemporary devaddsis have been subject to sociological and anthropological representations. Conversely, the devadasis’ own accounts . . . are often discrepant with those who study or attempt to reform them . . .The question ‘whose experience, whose representation?’ is posed. Even though the representations are generally context-sensitive, studies of the contemporary devadasis have mainly focused on the gendered dimension of the devadasi-hood, that is, the devadasi as synonymous or reducible to a common prostitute.

It is puzzling why the label ‘prostitution’ is so persistently attached to the contemporary devaddsi. One explanation is that the generic term ‘devaddsi’ is applied to any woman associated with theogamy (principally the cult of Yellamma-Renuka) in Karnataka, overlooking the diversity of her ritual statuses as the ‘chaste’, ‘degraded’ and ‘pious’ wife of Siva Jamadagni. A closer examination reveals that only the ‘degraded wife’ (sule muttu) is associated with commercial prostitution. Another explanation is that such a misappropriation of the term ‘devadasi’ may reflect a secularized sociological perspective which represents the devadasis as predominantly exploited rather than empowered. This perspective is reflected in the newspaper reports in which the Yellamma-Renuka temple is portrayed as a ‘recruiting centre’ for prostitutes. An increasing social and sociological concern for women’s issues in contemporary Indian society arguably makes the sociological perspective a valid representation of the contemporary devadasi as an exploited sex worker, especially if she comes from
rural scheduled caste communities. Nevertheless, as Trivedi discovered, the issue is more complex, and devadasis were found to be ‘sacred’, ‘clandestine’ or ‘commercial’ prostitutes, with the first category dominant in Karnataka. But even though a context-sensitive representation to a point, a secular-cum sociological perspective tends to gloss over the ritual aspect which, when we hear the voices of the devadasis, appears to be an important aspect of their experience.

 

Golanad, Kitanjali. Girl Made of Gold. Juggernaut Books, 2020.

A substantial excerpt of this novel can be read online at Medium.

Publisher‘s Summary

Thanjavur, the 1920s. One night, the young devadasi Kanaka 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. Many villagers assume that Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. Through the story of Kanaka’s disappearance, Gitanjali Kolanad gives us a beautifully realized world – of priests, zamindars and devadasis, and of art, desire and their dark reverse sides. Girl Made of Gold is a mystery, thrillingly told, and also a moving human story of the pursuit of love and freedom.

Hackney, Arya Rose. The Question of Agency and Conjugal Norms for the Devadasi. MA Thesis, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2013.

This MA Thesis is free for download here.

Abstract: The devadasis have been a subject of inquiry in the history, gender studies, and postcolonial studies for South Asia. In India’s colonial past, Europeans have called them ‘temple prostitutes.’ Apologist accounts in the present have equated them to ‘nuns.’ Recent postcolonial works, however, have conflated these categories and suggested many of these women were courtesans with a respectable standing in both temple and secular settings. Debates in the past have focused on the question of agency amongst the devadasis when investigating the factors leading to the Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947, which effectively outlawed their system. However, this thesis examines an even more pervasive element surrounding the abolition of the devadasi system: the construction and reconstruction of conjugal norms. This shift in societal ideas regarding conjugal norms presents itself in the history of India beginning with British rule after the Indian Revolution of 1857, which extends well after Independence in 1947.

 

  • This thesis provides extensive information and resources for readers wishing to learn more about the devadasis, including devadasi history, their role in literature, debates and legislative measures surrounding them, and more.
  • Of particular interest to us are pages 33 and 34, on which Hackney argues that devadasi reformists and apologists, despite having very contrasting ideas about devadasis, both often adhere to the same normatives pertaining to the value of sexual purity.

Hubel, Teresa. “Dancing in the Diaspora: Remembering the Devadasis.” Muse India, vol. 58, 2015.

From the introduction: “In our multicultural society, anything tagged as ethnic is caught in an intricate web of exaltation and denigration: by the very act of its celebration, which is frequently state-sponsored and state-endorsed, ethnicity is cast outside and so kept from seriously invading the mainstream. My task in this essay is to suggest the complicity of nationalist India in this ethnicizing of Bharatanatyam in Canada, to explain how it is that girls and women learn this dance as part of a process of acquiring Indian femininity and then perform it in various venues… as a sort of massive group hug that affirms the wonder that is eternal India. Finally, I want to point to what is lost and what is damaged in this celebration of a national ethnicity so determined to be timeless and unchanging.”

Hubel, Teresa. “Devadasi Defiance and The Man-eater of Malgudi.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1994, pp. 15-28.

Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she is pleased to offer this and many of her other scholarly works at her SelectedWorks page. 

 

In 1947, after over 50 years of agitation and political pressure on the part of a committed group of Hindu reformers, the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional female temple dancers of South India. It was called the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act. Despite having the wholehearted support of the Indian women’s movement of the time, the Act represented the imposition of androcentric values on a matrifocal and matrilineal tradition, a tradition which had for centuries managed to withstand the compulsions of Hindu patriarchy. The devadasis were eventually forced to give up their profession and their unusual way of life. But the dance itself was not lost. It was, instead, reconstructed as a national treasure. One of the consequences of the 1947 Act is that, today in India and all over the world, the temple dance, once exclusively performed by devadasis, is dominated by women of the upper castes. What I intend to do in the following pages is to explore the much suppressed history of the devadasis through a reading of R.K. Narayan’s novel The Man-Eater of Malgudi. It might seem strange to readers that I should press this wonderfully funny book into the service of my historical rescue because it is generally interpreted as a story about two male characters, Nataraj and Vasu. These characters are frequently understood as antagonists, with Nataraj symbolizing the harmony that Narayan is supposed to prefer and Vasu the chaos he apparently dislikes. There are alternative explanations.

Hubel, Teresa. “From Tawa’if to Wife? Making Sense of Bollywood’s Courtesan Genre.” The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad. Ed. Anjali Gera Roy. Sage, 2012, pp. 213-233.

Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she offers this and other works for free on her Selectedworks page.

Although constituting what might be described as only a thimbleful of water in the ocean that is Hindi cinema, the courtesan or tawa’if film is a distinctive Indian genre, one that has no real equivalent in the Western film industry. With Indian and diaspora audiences generally, it has also enjoyed a broad popularity, its music and dance sequences being among the most valued in Hindi film, their specificities often lovingly remembered and reconstructed by fans. Were you, for example, to start singing “Dil Cheez Kya Hai” or “Yeh Kya Hua” especially to a group of north Indians over the age of about 30, you would not get far before you would no longer be singing alone.’ Given its wide appeal, the courtesan film can surely be said to have a cultural, psychological, and ideological significance that belies the relative smallness of its genre. Its meaning within mass culture surpasses its presence as a subject. And that meaning, this chapter will argue, is wrapped up not only in the veiled history of the courtesans, a history that Hindi cinema itself has done much to warp and even erase, but in the way in which the courtesan figure camouflages a deep-seated anxiety about female independence from men in its function as a festishized “other” to the dominant female character, the wife or wife-wannabe, whose connotation is so overdetermined in mainstream Indian society that her appearance in Hindi cinema seems mandatory.

Hubel, Teresa. “The High Cost of Dancing: When the Indian Women’s Movement Went After the Devadasis.” Bharatanatyam: A Reader. Oxford UP, 2010, pp. 160-184.

Dr. Teresa Hubel is a co-creator of the Courtesans of India project. As part of her commitment to open scholarship, she offers this and other works for free on her Selectedworks page.

On the other side of patriarchal histories are women who are irrecoverably elusive, whose convictions and the examples their lives might have left to us–their everyday resistances as well as their capitulations to authority–are at some fundamental level lost. These are the vast majority of women who never wrote the history books that shape the manner in which we, at any particular historical juncture, are trained to remember; they did not give speeches that were recorded and carefully collected for posterity; their ideals, sayings, beliefs, and approaches to issues were not painstakingly preserved and then quoted century after century. And precisely because they so obviously lived and believed on the underside of various structures of power, probably consistently at odds with those structures, we are eager to hear their voices and their views. The problem is that their individual lives and collective ways of living them are impossible to recover in any form that has not already been altered by our own concerns. In making them speak, by whatever means we might use (archives, testimonials, court records, personal letters, government policy), we are invariably fictionalizing them because we are integrating them into narratives that belong to us, that are about us. Given the inevitability of our using them for our own purposes, we cannot justify taking that all-too-easy (and, as this essay will suggest), middle-class stance that posits us as their champions, their rescuers from history. It falls to us to find other motives for doing work that seeks them.

In the case of this essay, the “them” are the devadasis or temple dancers of what is now Tamilnadu in southern India (the term devadasis literally translates as “female servant of God”), especially those dancers who were alive during the six decades of the nationalist movement. This movement was meant to grant Indians freedom from colonial oppression and give them a nationalist identity, but if it succeeded, at least to some extent, in accomplishing these things, it did so at the cost of the devadasis and their dance traditions. Janet O’Shea (1998) explains the logic through which the newer institution, nationalism, drove out the older one, the profession and culture of the devadasis: “Indian nationalism has often required a shift away from cultural diversity in order to construct a unified image of nationhood . . . The de’rlagfns were threatening . . because they represented, for the new nation, an uncomfortable diversity of cultural practices and cultural origins” (p, 55). Most scholars who have written about the modern history of the devadasis would agree with this explanation. To the elite men and women who had the greatest say in what would constitute the new Indian nation, the devadasis were an embarrassing remnant of the pre-colonial and pre-nationalist feudal age and, as such, could not be permitted to cross over into the homogeneity that the nationalists hoped would be post-colonial India.

The campaign to suppress the devadasis and to eliminate their livelihoods culminated in the Madras Devadasis Prevention of Dedication Act of 1947, an act brought about largely through the efforts of middle-class Indian nationalists who were also social reformers and, often, feminists–that is, advocates not only of nationalism but of the burgeoning women’s movement that was to ensure so many of the legal rights Indian women enjoy today.

That feminists who were determined to extend the rights of some women should also work to deny rights to other women is the conundrum that this essay examines.

This chapter was originally published in Intercultural Communications and Creative Practice: Dance, Music and Women’s Cultural Identity.

 

Hurlstone, Lise Danielle. “Performing Marginal Identities: Understanding the Cultural Significance of Tawa’if and Rudali Through the Language of the Body in South Asian Cinema.” MA thesis, Portland State University, 2011. UMI, 2012.

Available for free download here.

Abstract

“This thesis examines the representation of the lives and performances of tawa’if and rudali in South Asian cinema to understand their marginalization as performers, and their significance in the collective consciousness of the producers and consumers of Indian cultural artifacts. The critical textual analysis of six South Asian films reveals these women as caste-amorphous within the system of social stratification in India, and therefore captivating in the potential they present to achieve a complex and multi-faceted definition of culture. Qualitative interviews with 4 Indian classical dance instructors in Portland, Oregon and performative observations of dance events indicate the importance of these performers in perpetuating and developing Indian cultural artifacts, and illustrate the value of a multi layered, performative methodological approach. These findings suggest that marginality in performance is a useful and dynamic site from which to investigate the processes of cultural communication, producing findings that augment sole textual analysis.”

 

Notes

This is an excellent text for the beginning scholar of Tawa’ifs because there is extensive contextualization: just some of the many sections of the thesis include definitions and contextual information; thematization of films including classism, gender, fatalism, ambivalence, and mysticism; and detailed summaries of major tawa’if films, including Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan (1981 and 2006), Rudaali, and Devdas (1955 and 2002).

Jagpal, Charn Kamal Kaur. “I Mean to Win”: The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. 2011. University of Alberta, PhD Dissertation.

This dissertation is available to read for free online at the University of Alberta’s ERA website.

Abstract

Grounded in the methodologies of New Historicism, New Criticism, Subaltern Studies, and Colonial Discourse Analysis, this dissertation explores English women‘s fictions of the nautch girl (or Indian dancing girl) at the turn of the century. Writing between 1880 to 1920, and within the context of the women‘s movement, a cluster of British female writers—such as Flora Annie Steel, Bithia Mary Croker, Alice Perrin, Fanny Emily Penny and Ida Alexa Ross Wylie—communicate both a fear of and an attraction towards two interconnected, long-enduring communities of Indian female performers: the tawaifs (Muslim courtesans of Northern India) and the devadasis (Hindu temple dancers of Southern India). More specifically, the authors grapple with the recognition that these anomalous Indian women have liberties (political, financial, social, and sexual) that British women do not. This recognition significantly undermines the imperial feminist rhetoric circulating at the time that positioned British women as the most emancipated females in the world and as the natural leaders of the international women‘s movement. The body chapters explore the various ways in which these fictional devadasis or tawaifs test imperial feminism, starting with their threat to the Memsahib‘s imperial role in the Anglo-Indian home in the first chapter, their seduction of burdened Anglo-Indian domestic women in the second chapter, their terrorization of the British female adventuress in the third chapter, and ending with their appeal to fin-de-siècle dancers searching for a modern femininity in the final chapter. My project is urgent at a time when imperial feminism is becoming the dominant narrative by which we are being trained to read encounters between British and Indian women, at the expense of uncovering alternative readings. I conclude the dissertation by suggesting that the recovery of these alternative readings can be the starting point for rethinking the hierarchies and the boundaries separating First World from Third World feminisms today.

Janabai. “Cast off All Shame.” Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present. Eds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, Vol. 1, The Feminist Press, 1990, p. 83.

“Cast Off All Shame” features a wandering singer who, rather than hide her body as per the rules of decorum, enters a crowded marketplace without care for her covering.  Although not written by a courtesan, the poem touches upon shame, modesty, and (women’s) religious devotion, and we have thus included it here for its thematic relevance to the study of courtesans in India.

Vira Sarang’s Translation

This translation can also be found in Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present and read online at the Women In World History section of the Centre for History and New Media Website.

Cast off all shame,
and sell yourself
in the marketplace;
then alone
can you hope
to reach the Lord.

Cymbals in hand,
veena upon my shoulder,
I go about;
who dares to stop me?

The pallav of my sari
falls away (A scandal!);
yet will I enter
the crowded marketplace
without a thought.

Jani says, My Lord
I have become a slut
to reach your home.

Janabai

  • She is one of the best known Varkari saint-poets. (Varkari is a religious movement within the bhakti spiritual tradition of Hinduism.)
  • She spent her life as a low-caste maidservant, not a devadasi, but we include her poem here for its thematic relevance to the study of devadasis (performance, sexuality, gender, religious devotion.)
  • “Jani” appears to be a semi-autobiographical figure who appears throughout Janabai’s poetry in scenarios that are both realistic (e.g: doing housework) and metaphorical (e.g: having her hair brushed by Vitthal, a Hindu god, such as in “Help Celebrate the Festival of the Powerless.”)
  • Although it predates the organized feminist movement of the modern period, Janabai’s poetry centres women’s issues and especially women’s work.
  • Page 82 of Women Writing In India, Vol 1.: “[Janabai’s] poems also embody the dream of the Jodi, or the hope of a perfect companionship to comfort her in her loneliness. It is in the love she has for God that Janabai can imagine and reach out toward a freedom and a power her life could hardly have provided for her.”

Terms

  • Veena: an Indian string instrument.
  • Pallav: the loose, scarflike part of a sari, draped across the front of the body. The pallav falling away without the speaker caring suggests a rebellion against cultural standards of modesty and decorum.

Interpretive Notes

  • What about the speaker’s actions would be considered “selling herself” or being a “slut?” The performance? The act of being in a public marketplace? The immodest dress?
  • Consider this quote from Dr. Dorothy Jacobsh’s article, “Bhakti Women and Poetry”:
    “Female poet-saints also played a significant role in the bhakti movement at large. Nonetheless, many of these women had to struggle for acceptance within the largely male dominated movement. Only through demonstrations of their utter devotion to the Divine, their outstanding poetry, and stubborn insistence of their spiritual equality with their contemporaries were these women reluctantly acknowledged and accepted within their ranks. Their struggle attests to the strength of patriarchal values within both society and within religious and social movements attempting to pave the way for more egalitarian access to the Divine.”
  • Is the speaker actively selling herself, or is she casting off shame and, by extension, being viewed by others as selling herself (and criticizing that view)?
  • Why would selling oneself or becoming a “slut” help a person to reach the Lord? What was impeding her from reaching God before?
    • Consider Dr. Dorothy Jakobsh’s interpretation: “Shedding these bonds of respectability, she is left with nothing. In essence, there is nothing standing between her and her beloved Vithoba.”
    • Consider the three overarching themes of praise, public performance, and women’s sexuality. Do you think the poem appears to be mocking the cultural tendency to equate performance to prostitution or embracing it? What does Jani’s newfound closeness to God, having been achieved by “becoming a slut,” say about courtesans and devadasis, if anything? Note that the struggles of a 14th-century low-caste dasi and a 14th-century devadasi should not be conflated, but rather connected—the latter, in Janabai’s lifetime, would likely live with relative prestige.
  • Though it predates the organized, modern movement of feminism, this poem articulately challenges gendered double standards that are relevant even today. Do these criticisms confirm, deny, and/or otherwise inform the common Western stereotype of the oppressed Desi woman? How?

Works Cited Within This Annotation

Jakobsh, Dorothy. “Bhakti Women and Poetry.” Brewminate, 29 Jan. 2017, www.brewminate.com/bhakti-women-and-poetry/. Accessed 5 Sept. 2017.
“Bhakti Poets: Poem, Janabai.” Women in World History, n.d, www.chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/p/189.html. Accessed 5 Sept. 2017.

Kaali, Sundar. “Disciplining the Dasi: Cintamani and the Politics of a New Sexual Economy.” Bioscope: South Asian Screen Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 51-69.

This article analyzes the representation of the figure of the dasi in early Tamil film. Against the backdrop of the abolition of the devadasi system in the Madras Presidency and the reformist activity associated with it, the article attempts to look at how the figure of the dasi underwent a strong repression in the cinematic discourses of the 1930s and 1940s. This was part of nationalist modernity, a project that sought to secure a new sexual economy in which the dasi was eventually narrativized out of Tamil film and pushed to the cultural margins of Tamil society. The article focuses on one film, Cintamani or Bilvamangal (1937) and shows how in this text the repression of the figure of the dasi was accompanied by an irruption of the real, the “uncanny.” It argues that there existed a nexus between sexuality and vision in early Tamil film, and that cinema itself acted as a safeguard against the trouble of the excessive sexuality embodied in the dasi.

Kamath, Harshita Mruthinti. “Kṣētrayya: The Making of a Telugu Poet.” The Indian Economic & Social History Review, vol. 56, no. 3, July 2019, pp. 253–282, doi:10.1177/0019464619852264.

Abstract

Kṣētrayya is the attributed author of Telugu padams (short lyrical poems) dedicated to Muvva Gōpāla, a form of the Hindu deity Kṛṣṇa. Kṣētrayya is commonly described as a peripatetic poet from the village of Muvva in Telugu-speaking South India who wandered south to the Nāyaka courts of Tanjavur in the seventeenth century. Contrary to popular and scholarly assumptions about this poet, this article argues that Kṣētrayya was not a historical figure, but rather, a literary persona constructed into a Telugu bhakti poet-saint through the course of three centuries of literary reform. A close reading of selected padams attributed to Kṣētrayya reveals the uniquely tangible world of female sexuality painted by the speakers of these poems. However, these padams became sanitized through the course of colonial and post-colonial anti-nautch and Telugu literary reform. In line with this transformation, the hagiography of the poet Kṣētrayya was carefully molded to fit a prefabricated typology of a Telugu bhakti poet-saint. Countering the longstanding narrative of solo male authorship, the article raises the possibility that these padams were composed by multiple authors, including vēśyas (courtesans).

Kapil, Pandhey. Phoolsunghi. Translated by Gautam Choubey. Penguin, 2020.

This novel is an English translation of of Pandhey Kapil’s 1977 Bhojpuri novel of the same name.

Publisher‘s Summary

‘Babu Sahib! You must have heard of a phoolsunghithe flower-peckeryes? It can never be held captive in a cage. It sucks nectar from a flower and then flies on to the next.’

When Dhelabai, the most popular tawaif of Muzaffarpur, slights Babu Haliwant Sahay, a powerful zamindar from Chappra, he resolves to build a cage that would trap her forever. Thus, the elusive phoolsunghi is trapped within the four walls of the Red Mansion.

Forgetting the past, Dhelabai begins a new life of luxury, comfort, and respect. One day, she hears the soulful voice of Mahendra Misir and loses her heart to him. Mahendra too, feels for her deeply, but the lovers must bear the brunt of circumstances and their own actions which repeatedly pull them apart.

The first ever translation of a Bhojpuri novel into English, Phoolsunghi transports readers to a forgotten world filled with mujras and mehfils, court cases and counterfeit currency, and the crashing waves of the River Saryu.

Karmali, Sikeena. The Mulberry Courtesan. Aleph, 2018.

Publisher‘s Summary

In 1857, the shadows are falling thick and fast on what is left of the Mughal empire. The last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is a broken, bitter man in his eighties who has retreated into religion and poetry. Zafar’s empire extends no further than the precincts of his grand palace, the Red Fort in Delhi, but this hasn’t prevented numerous court intrigues and conspiracies from flourishing within the Lal Qila; these involve the emperor’s wives, children, courtiers, hangers-on, and English functionaries among others. Flung into this poison pit is Laale, a young woman from an Afghan noble family, abducted from her home in the mountains and sold into the Mughal emperor’s court as a courtesan. Fiery, independent and beautiful, the ‘mulberry courtesan’ captures the ageing emperor’s heart, giving him hope and happiness in his last years.

Told against the backdrop of India’s great revolt of 1857, and the last days of the Mughal empire, The Mulberry Courtesan is an epic tale of romance, tragedy, courage and adventure.

Kidwai, Saleem. “The Singing Ladies Find a Voice.” India Seminar, 2004, http://www.india-seminar.com/2004/540/540%20saleem%20kidwai.htm. Accessed 9 September 2019.

This article traces the gradual shift in connotation for the words ganewali and tawaif through the path of ganewalis and tawaifs both historical and fictional. However briefly, it touches upon courtesans such as Umrao Jaan and Begam Samru, as well as the activism of tawaifs. Readers may notice that it is limited in its references/citations.

This article is available for free online.

Kotiswaran, Prabha. Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India. Princeton UP, 2011.

Publisher’s Summary:

Popular representations of third-world sex workers as sex slaves and vectors of HIV have spawned abolitionist legal reforms that are harmful and ineffective, and public health initiatives that provide only marginal protection of sex workers’ rights. In this book, Prabha Kotiswaran asks how we might understand sex workers’ demands that they be treated as workers. She contemplates questions of redistribution through law within the sex industry by examining the political economies and legal ethnographies of two archetypical urban sex markets in India.

Kotiswaran conducted in-depth fieldwork among sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red-light area, and Tirupati, a temple town in southern India. Providing new insights into the lives of these women–many of whom are demanding the respect and legal protection that other workers get–Kotiswaran builds a persuasive theoretical case for recognizing these women’s sexual labor. Moving beyond standard feminist discourse on prostitution, she draws on a critical genealogy of materialist feminism for its sophisticated vocabulary of female reproductive and sexual labor, and uses a legal realist approach to show why criminalization cannot succeed amid the informal social networks and economic structures of sex markets. Based on this, Kotiswaran assesses the law’s redistributive potential by analyzing the possible economic consequences of partial decriminalization, complete decriminalization, and legalization. She concludes with a theory of sex work from a postcolonial materialist feminist perspective.

Kripalani, Coonoor. “What’s Love Got to Do WIth It? – Bollywood Courtesans & Hollywood Prostitutes.” Inter-cultural Performance: Shakespeare, Nestroy and Beyond, edited by Graham Squires, Editions Publibook, 2016

This chapter compares popular Bollywood courtesan films with popular Hollywood sex worker films and contextualizes them through an exploration of gendered tropes and stereotypes, such as the Western “New Woman” and “Femme Fatale.”

From the Introduction

This paper focuses on films about courtesans and compares these with films of a similar nature made in the West…. For this study, I have selected three films, all made after 1950, whose main protagonists are courtesans…. The films are Mughal-e-Azam (directed by K. Asif, 1960) that tells the story of Anarkali, a famous courtesan in the court of the great Moghul Emperor, Akbar; Pakeezah (directed by Kamal Amrohi, 1971) which is fictional; and Umrao Jaan (directed by Muzaffar Ali, 1981), an account of a famous courtesan of Lucknow in the mid-nineteenth century.

As a basis of comparison, I have selected three (post-1950) Western films, Can Can (directed by Walter Lang, 1960), Pretty Woman (directed by Gerry Marshall, 1990) and Dangerous Beauty or The Honest Courtesan (directed by Marshall Herkowitz, 1997).

Krishnan, Hari. “Bharatanatyam.” Accelerated Motion, acceleratedmotion.org/dance-history/bharatanatyam/. Accessed 18 February 2021.

The Bharatanatyam section of the Accelerated Motion website contains valuable information and scholarly questions about the bharatanatyam dance, its history, devadasis, and their disenfranchisement. Several pages are contained within this section; we encourage our readers to view each. The content is a clear, concise, and highly digestible introduction to the politics surrounding this beloved dance, and several scanned pdfs of further scholarly material are provided for free.

Leonowens, Anna. “Life and Travel in India by Anna Harriette Leonowens.” Project Gutenberg, www.owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/. Accessed 2 March 2018.

This work is available for free online through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52896

Anna Leonowens (1834-1915)

Anna Leonowens is an intriguing historical figure. She is most popularly known as the inspiration behind Anna in the musical The King and I, which was based on her travel writing in The English Governess at the Siamese Court. She often wrote in support of women’s rights. Although she is commonly thought to be white and British, Leonowens was born in India, and her grandmother was probably of Anglo-Indian mixed race. This heritage, if discovered, would surely have negatively impacted Leonowens’s opportunities in British-occupied India; she appears to have gone to some lengths to hide it, including by claiming she was born in Wales (Morgan).

Life and Travel in India
Life and Travel in India is a richly-descriptive book describing Leonowens’s experiences traveling in India. It is lesser-known than her writings about Siam. As a woman, Leonowens was allowed entry to women’s-only areas in India; she has therefore written about spaces that British male travel writers could not see. 

Our readers might be particularly interested in her observations of dancing girls and devadasis (referred to in this book as “bayahdiers”). In Chapter VIII, she watches a performance of dancing girls, speaks to the owner of an establishment of dancing girls, and develops a fascination with a particular girl, who she says she has “fallen in love with, half in earnest, half in jest” (187). She also explains her understanding of the devadasi dedication process in detail.

Questions to Consider

  • Travel writing and other forms of nonfiction are commonly understood to contain unbiased observations. Does Leonowens simply observe India, or attempt to interpret it? Is anyone just an observer? 

  • Can we consider Leonowens a reliable narrator? What limitations might she have as a narrator, if any? Is she cognizant of these limitations? How might her subject position (race, gender, class, birthplace, profession, etc.) colour her narrations? Is she cognizant of her subject position? Is she critical of it?

  • Consider the following sentence: “These poor devotees [devadasis] often accept their fate with that stolid indifference peculiar to the Orientals.” Is this sentence sympathetic or demeaning? Is it descriptive or prescriptive? Can it be both?

  • Male British travel writers often presented harems as a location of pure exotic pleasure and indulgence (DelPlato); Leonowens, by contrast, refers to the behind-the-scenes life of dancing girls as a “sad and dreary picture” (193).  Is one depiction more true than the other? Can they both be true? Are they complete? Who determines the depictions’ trueness and completeness? What impacts might have these perceptions had on how Leonowens’s British readers viewed and treated Indians and dancing girls?
Works Cited
DelPlato, Joan. Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the harem, 1800-1875. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002.
Morgan, Susan.  Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess. U of California P, 2008.

Maciszewski, Amelia. “Tawa’if, Tourism, and Tales: The Problematics of Twenty-First Century Musical Patronage for North India’s Courtesans.” The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Martha Feldman, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 332-352.

Cover image from oupcanada.com

From the introduction: “In [this essay], I examine how a group of North India’s tawa’if (courtesans-low-status professional women musicians and dancers) are adapting to changing musical patronage in the twenty-first century, using their music and dance as a tool for empowerment. Juxtaposing ethnographic accounts with qualitative analysis of performance practices and oral narratives of several professional women musicians and a few men who hail from provincial cities and towns in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, I open up exploration of a number of issues….

The English word ‘courtesan’ fails to capture the diversity of this community in South Asia, which runs the gamut from highly trained and refined court musicians/dancers/poets to street performers who entertain at festivals and weddings, instead creating a discursive stereotyping or ‘totalizing’…. One of the aims of this essay is to unpack the terms ‘courtesan’ and ‘prostitute’ and notions about them through an ethnography of the performance process and event as well as narratives about (and by) the performance, the performers, and the patrons. Another is to examine the relations of production among the performers and the Guria administration, in particular Ajeet Singh. In doing so, I open up the question, albeit in a preliminary way, of how the cultural integrity of the ‘courtesan tradition,’ identified through its continued cultivation and renewal of a body of repertory and performance practices consisting of a variety of genres that originate from several historical points (feudal, colonial, post-feudal, and postcolonial), may be challenged in the Guria frame by expectations of authenticity and/or respectability informed by dominant Indian middle-class values.”

 

Notes

  • Guria refers to NGO Guria Sewi Sansthan (“Doll help/service collective”), which dedicates itself to the upliftment of tawa’ifs and sex workers through the preservation and “festivalization” of tawa’if performance traditions.

Maciszewski, Amelia. “Texts, Tunes, and Talking Heads: Discourses about Socially Marginal North Indian Musicians.” Twentieth-Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 121-144.

Abstract

In this study, criss-crossing discourses – written, visual, and aural – are brought together in an effort to shed light on a section of the tawa’if (traditional courtesan) community in contemporary North India. As a kind of companion text to my point-of-view documentaries Guria, Gossip, and Globalization and Chandni’s Choice, I present an overview of the NGO Guria. This organization works to empower tawa’ifs to reclaim their liminality as artists, able to move back and forth between their own profoundly socially marginalized community and mainstream society, a privilege they enjoyed historically but have virtually lost in the present day. I have juxtaposed this with an exegesis of talk, including gossip, about and by these performers and their music. This includes issues of their gossip- and media-driven legacy that have led to their current position, often dangerously vulnerable, in the global marketplace. Finally, I examine the life of a teenage member of a musical matriarchy whose foremothers have been somewhat successful at continuing to traverse the borderlands between various levels of society.

Mah Laqa Bai Chanda. “Hoping to Blossom (One Day) Into a Flower.” Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present. Eds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, Vol. 1, The Feminist Press, 1990, p. 122.

An English translation of courtesan and poetess Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s (1768-1824) Urdu ghazal, “Hoping to Blossom (One Day) Into a Flower” appears as follows in Vol. 1 of Women Writing in India: 

Hoping to blossom (one day) into a flower,
Every bud sits, holding its soul in its fist.

Between the fear of the fowler and (approaching) autumn,
The bulbul’s life hangs by a thread.

Thy sly glance is more murderous than arrow or sword;
It has shed the blood of many lover.

How can I liken a candle to thy (glowing) cheek?
The candle is blind with the fat in its eyes.

How can Chanda be dry lipped. O Saqi of the heavenly wine!
She has drained the cup of thy love.

TERMS

NOTES ABOUT GHAZALS

  • In a Ghazal (this type of poem), couplets may or may not relate to each other thematically; rather, the connecting threads of the poem are typically found in the rhyme scheme. It is therefore difficult to capture the “essence” of a Ghazal in translation.
  • Ghazals for Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s contemporaries made use of conventional images and symbols, which would develop layered meanings for listeners who heard many Ghazals.

INTERPRETIVE NOTES

  • Note the dangerous connotations of the poem: conventionally-romantic images like rosebuds, flowers, and candles contrast with more dangerous terms like “fist,” “life [hanging] by a thread,” and “murderous” arrows and swords. How do these terms represent love and lovers?
  • If Chanda (Mah Laqa Bai’s pen name) is “dry lipped”, what does this mean for her as a performer? If Saqi’s love is the wine of inspiration, might that influence how we view romantic love in the rest of the poem? How can we read this connection between Love, Danger, and Inspiration?
  • Considering the Love-Danger-Inspiration connecting themes, what does the “bud,” which often symbolizes a sweetheart, want to blossom into? And what’s holding the bud or sweetheart back?
  • Is Saqi, addressed in the fifth and  final couplet, also being addressed in the third and fourth?

Mahmud, Aslam. “Seduction, Music, and Sex Education: The Life and Times of Awadh’s Glorious Tawaifs.” DailyO, July 5, 2017. Accessed 9 September 2018.

This article is available for free online at DailyO.

This article features an expansive excerpt from Aslam Mahmud’s book, Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude. It discusses the expectations of Awadh’s courtesans, their average days, and their sexual services. The article also includes beautiful, high-resolution photographs of early tawaifs from the Amit Ambalal collection.

Marglin, Frédérique Apffel. Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. Oxford UP, 1985.

This book is available for free online through the Open Access to Odia Books project: http://oaob.nitrkl.ac.in/210/
 
Although it is over 30 years old, Frédérique Apffel Marglin’s work remains valuable and notable for her careful consideration of her limitations as a Western observer of the devadasi practice in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. In her introduction, she provides important historical background about British imperialism’s impact on the devadasi practice and their reputation, as well as a thoughtful description of how the gendered meanings of purity, impurity, auspiciousness, inauspiciousness, status, and lack of status appear to interact on the topic of devadasis. Throughout the book, she describes devadasis’ roles and reputation in the Puri royal court and in Indian society at large as they were prior to the reform movement that outlawed the devadasi practice.
Publisher’s Summary
“Among the 1,500 devotees of the Hindu temple and cult of Jagannatha at Puri are a handful of women known as ‘devadasis’ or, literally, ‘female servants of the deity,’ who are associated with both chastity and concubinage and prostitution. This book focuses on the tension between the purity and impurity of the devadasis, and examines ideas about kingship, power, sexual purity, the role and status of women, and other central concerns of Hindu religious and cultural life that are associated with such rituals.”
Notable Quotes from the Introduction (1-24)
On Stereotypical Dualism: “Even though Abbé Dubois’s report is not lacking in ambivalence, the concluding line is a clear and forceful condemnation [of the devadasi practice]. The ambivalence expresses itself in the use of two kinds of terms; one set of terms are heavy with moral condemnation such as ‘loose’, ‘lews’, ‘stew’, ‘strumpets’, ‘obscene,’ … and another set of terms reveals a reluctant admiration such as ‘grace’, ‘elegant’, ‘attractive’… ‘graceful,’ ‘enchanting’. This mixture of the sinful and the sensuously beautiful is Europe’s classical recipe for the exotic. The devadasis, as can be imagined, were prime targets for an exotic one-sided imaginative reconstruction.”
On writers’ limited perspectives: “Because [this book] was conceived as a study of the rituals of the devadasis, it must be borne in mind that all these other concerns [such as women, goddesses, and kings] are dealt with as they arise out of a close attention to the practices of the devadasis. In other words, the perspective from which an observer views anything gives what she/he views a particular angle. I for one do not hold the position that an observer—however well-trained he or she might be—can find an Archimedean point from which to present a truly synoptic view. The view of any observer will be coloured by the perspective chosen, the point of entry, as well as by that observer’s predilections, blind spots, and other particularities.”
On the Indian cultural connotations of auspiciousness/purity/status: “The devadasis are called the ‘auspicious women’ (mangala nari) and they are the ones who sing the ‘auspicious songs’ (mangala gita). However, they are also never allowed into the inner sanctum of the temple, even though not only all the other ritual specialists but also the public at large is allowed into it at certain times of the day. This prohibition turns out to be linked with the devadasis’ status as courtesans and the impurity of sex. This tension between the auspiciousness and he impurity of the devadasis is the pivotal focus of this work…. The meanings of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness reveal themselves through the practices, often re-constructed, of the devadasis. What emerges rather quickly is that the categories of auspicious and inauspicious do not correspond to those of pure and impure….
Women are the harbingers of auspiciousness, a state which unlike purity does not speak of status or moral uprightness but of well-being and health or more generally of all that creates, promotes, and maintains life….

Status seems to be associated on the whole with masculinity and auspiciousness on the whole with femininity. The case of the devadasis who do not marry offers an ideal case study for the understanding of auspiciousness since it is here not intermingled with status…. Purity and impurity underlie the hierarchy of caste. Thus the disjunction between auspiciousness and status predictable correlates with the disjunction between auspiciousness and purity. The maleness of purity can perhaps be seen reflected in the term uses for ‘pure spirit’, namely purusa, a word which can also have the meaning of ‘male person.’….”

McNeil, Adrian. “Tawai’f, Military Musicians, and Shi’a Ideology in Pre-Rebellion Lucknow.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 46-62.

From the Introduction

Memories of Lucknow’s pre-rebellion cultural heritage are nowadays often recalled through its tawa’if bazi or ‘courtesan culture’. This heritage has been carried into the present through a bevy of films, stories, anecdotes, social customs, linguistic idioms, images, and music and dance repertoires. A number of studies have also brought to life the culturally-complex and socially-hierarchical world of these courtesans and their significant contributions to the cultural heritage of North India. Generally the importance of the contribution made by women performers to the development of Hindustani music has been gaining interest, and long overdue recognition. Nevertheless, articulation of this recognition has been hampered by the marginal position assigned to the tawa’if in mainstream history….

This paper explores three aspects of Lucknow’s tawa’if bazi that are generally not a part of either musical or historical discussions. One of these concerns the disenfranchisement of the regional military labour market in, and around, Awadh in the late eighteenth century and how this might be connected to a subsequent, and significant, increase in tawa’if activity in Lucknow. Another deals with the nature of the social connections between the tawa’if and her musical accompanists. A further point involves the role of tawa’if as active agents in the promotion and spread of the Shi’a ideology promulgated by Awadh’s political administration. My aim in raising these considerations is to further understanding of the nuances of Lucknow’s tawa’if bazi—how it came about and the influence it had on the development of contemporary Hindustani music and dance.

 

Meduri, Avanthi. “Bharatanatyam as a Global Dance: Some Issues in Research, Teaching, and Practice.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004.

From the introduction: “The Promise of critical liberation that postcolonial and transnational perspecties offer by urging us to think the complex imbrication of the global in the local remains an unfulfilled promise in South Asian dance scholarship. I will elaborate this point by describing the global thrust of Rukmini Devi’s art and education movement, which could not be recuperated within the territorializing intellectual framework of Indian nationalism, and explain why she, in fact, manifests herself as a discursive failure in standard scholarly accounts of Bharatanatyam in the United States.”

Morcom, Anna. Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion. Oxford UP, 2013.

In India, this book is published by Hachette under the title Courtesans, Bar Girls, & Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance.

In this book, Anna Morcom examines how European colonization helped to create forms of marginalization that are today upheld by mass media against marginalized Indian dancers such as female hereditary performers, bar dancers, and transgender and kothi dancers.

From Claire Pamment’s review:

“In her ambitious new monograph, Anna Morcom examines the mechanisms of cultural exclusion in colonial and postcolonial India that have eroded the livelihood, identity, and status of erotic dancers. While the South Asian reader may be familiar with the nineteenth-century anti-nautch campaigns against female hereditary performers, Morcom opens new territory in exploring how similar marginalzations continue to be played out in contemporary India. With a focus on present-day Mumbai bar dance girls and transgender female (kothi) performers, she brings ethnographic and archival research to trace out these communities’ artistic and hereditary lineages and current struggles against stigma, decline of traditional patronage, and direct bans. Like the historical tawa’if and devadasi courtesan dancers, these individuals are often branded as prostitutes, problems, or at best victims, and are isolated from their performer identities. Pitched as external to culture, they operate in the shadow of legitimate classical performing arts and now a middle-class Bollywood dance craze. Morcom offers an insightful reading of the colonial knowledge and categorization, nationalist bourgeois morality, and contemporary development rescue narratives that have produced these cultural exclusions, while also considering challenges to the binary topography of legitimate and illegitimate dance worlds.”

 

Review Cited:

Pamment, Claire. “Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2015, p. 689+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/apps/doc/A428275487/AONE?u=lond95336&sid=AONE&xid=73fd8e4f. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.

Muddupalani. Rādhikā-sāntvanam (Appeasing Radhika). See editions and translations below.

About this work

Rādhikā-sāntvanam is a Telugu epic poem written by an 18th-century devadasi, Muddupalani, noted for being among the earliest representations of women explicitly seeking pleasure in Telugu poetry.

The book contains 584 poems, and it is framed as a dialogue between two wise and legendary men: Suka Maharishi (also known as Shuka, Shukadeva, and Suka Muni) and Janaka, the ancient philosopher-king of Videha.

Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present summarizes Rādhikā-sāntvanam as follows:

It tells the tale of Radha, Krishna’s aunt, a woman in her prime who brings up Ila Devi from childhood and then gives her in marriage to Krishna. The poem describes in detail Ila Devi’s puberty and the consummation of her marriage to Krishna. Radha advises the young bride on how she should respond to Krishna’s lovemaking, and Krishna on handling his young bride tenderly. But the poem also captures at the same time the pain of a woman in her prime who must give up her own desire and yearning. At one point, unable to bear the grief of her own separation from Krishna, whom she desires herself, Radha breaks down and rages against Krishna for having abandoned her. Krishna gently appeases her and she is comforted by his loving embrace. It is from this section that the poem takes its title.

Editions and Translations (via Wikipedia)

Some translated excerpts from Appeasing Radhika can be found in Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by Susie Tharu and Ke Lalita.

Muddupalani. Radhika Santwanam. Ed. Bangalore Nagaratnamma. Madras, Vavilla Ramaswami Sastrulu and Sons, 1910. (reprinted 1952)

Muddupalani. Radhikasantvanam. Madras, EMESCO Books, 1972.

Muddupalani. Radhika Santwanam—The Appeasement of Radhika. Trans. Sandhya Mulchandani. New Delhi, Penguin, 1972.

Mughal-E-Azam. Directed by K. Asif. Sterling Investment Corp., 1960.

This movie is available to watch for free on Youtube and by subscription on Netflix Canada.

Plot Summary from Wikipedia

Emperor Akbar, who does not have a male heir, undertakes a pilgrimage to a shrine to pray that his wife Jodhabai will give birth to a son. Later, a maid brings the emperor news of his son’s birth. Overjoyed at his prayers being answered, Akbar gives the maid his ring and promises to grant her anything she desires.

The son, Prince Salim, grows up to be spoiled, flippant, and self-indulgent. His father sends him off to war, to teach him courage and discipline. Fourteen years later, Salim returns as a distinguished soldier and falls in love with court dancer Nadira, whom the emperor has renamed Anarkali, meaning pomegranate blossom. The relationship is discovered by the jealous Bahar, a dancer of a higher rank, who wants the prince to love her so that she may one day become queen. Unsuccessful in winning Salim’s love, she exposes his forbidden relationship with Anarkali. Salim pleads to marry Anarkali, but his father refuses and imprisons her. Despite her treatment, Anarkali refuses to reject Salim, as Akbar demands.

Salim rebels and amasses an army to confront Akbar and rescue Anarkali. Defeated in battle, Salim is sentenced to death by his father, but is told that the sentence will be revoked if Anarkali, now in hiding, is handed over to die in his place. Anarkali gives herself up to save the prince’s life and is condemned to death by being entombed alive. Before her sentence is carried out, she begs to have a few hours with Salim as his make-believe wife. Her request is granted, as she has agreed to drug Salim so that he cannot interfere with her entombment. As Anarkali is being walled up, Akbar is reminded that he still owes her mother a favour, as it was she who brought him news of Salim’s birth. Anarkali’s mother pleads for her daughter’s life. The emperor has a change of heart, but although he wants to release Anarkali he cannot, because of his duty to his country. He, therefore, arranges for her secret escape into exile with her mother, but demands that the pair are to live in obscurity and that Salim is never to know that Anarkali is still alive.

Questions to consider

  • What is the audience encouraged to believe prevented Anarkali from obtaining a happy ending? Challenging her station? Akbar?

  • In what ways is the audience encouraged to view Akbar’s choices as being just? In what ways is the audience encouraged to question his choices? Ultimately, does the film support or challenge Akbar? Does it support or challenge Salim?

  • At the end of the movie, after Anarkali’s banishment, the state of India declares that Akbar has an unwavering sense of justice, yet Anarkali, Anarkali’s mother, Salim, and Akbar’s wife regard him as cruel. Who do we believe? Does the film reconcile these two conflicting sides to create a coherent, singular sense of justice? Does it try to?

  • While Anarkali’s character may be fictitious, Akbar was a real Emperor. How might his status as a respected historical figure shape, inform, or restrict Akbar’s presentation?

  • How is Anarkali’s complicity and submission with her station (such as when she, however longingly, resists Salim because he is “above” her, or when she doesn’t try to dodge an arrow to fulfill her role as a piece of art) used to represent her as a respectable character? Does her challenge to Akbar contribute to or undermine that representation? What problems can arise when complicity and submission are viewed as respectable for one cultural category, but not for another?

  • What beliefs and values make Bahar into a villain? In what ways does Bahar contrast with Anarkali?

  • In 1946, All India Radio (the national public radio broadcaster of India) banned performers belonging to courtesan cultures from participating in national radio and film, allowing only performers from “educated and respectable families” (Lelyveld 119). This influential policy was still in effect upon Mughal-E-Azam’s release. How might this policy and the ideologies that upheld it shape, inform, or restrict Anarkali’s representation as a tawaif/courtesan? Listen carefully: is she even referred to as such?

Natarajan, Nalini. The Unsafe Sex: The Female Binary and Public Violence against Women. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016

“Chapter 2 analyses the effects of militarisation on public spaces by invoking the wife/tawaif duality within the pretext of the Great Indian Revolt of 1857. According to Natarajan, as the Revolt subsumed men into the army, giving them avenues of stable income, it consequentially led to a devaluation of women at home. Contrarily, the courtesan (tawaif), who by and large fled exploitative homes, could be seen as empowered females with steady income from the military. Yet the binary of the purdahnasheen (veiled) wife versus camp courtesan still rendered public spaces unsafe for women, as sexual purity of all women was at risk with men away at war. This, however, led to another division: the elite educated women facing ‘nationalist seclusion’ (p. 48) were shrouded from Western influences and protected from the public, while the lower-class ‘available’ women, with no rights, became exposed to colonial reforms. Thus, although public spaces manifested contrary movements of empowerment for women who occupied it, they were replete with exploitative characters for women through the ‘separate sphere’ ideology of the street (baazari aurat) and home (grihalakshmi), which strongly impresses the notion that public spaces are unsafe for women.”

(Chakraborty, Sanchayita Paul, and Priyanka Chatterjee. “Book Review: The Unsafe Sex: The Female Binary and Public Violence against Women.” Feminist Review, vol. 119, no. 1, July 2018, pp. 165–167)

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. “‘Performing Wom[e]n:’ The ‘Nachne-Ganiwalis’ of Bhumika, Mandi, and Sardari Begum.” New Indian Cinema in Post-Independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal’s Films. Routledge, 2013, pp. 47-78.

From the Introduction

“This chapter addresses three films – Bhumika (The Role; 1976); Mandi (Marketplace; 1983); and the eponymous Sardari Begum (1996)…. [A] continuity of interests and ideological investments link the … three films … including: each film’s focus on a female protagonist and subject; her conscious and unconscious efforts to emancipate herself from the debilitations of her gender, class, and caste oppression; and, finally, for the purposes of my argument, her function as a figure through whom women’s relationship to the hegemonic values and ideological agendas of the Indian nation-­ in-the-­ making are assessed and interrogated. The nation remains, then, a salient frame of reference for grasping the ideological investments of these Benegal films….

The performing women… represent professions, identities, and cultural repertoires that flourished under, and were indelibly associated with, a feudal order, but which were delegitimized, marginalized, even excised from the self-­definitions and constitutive narratives of the new Indian nation. “Women performers,” Singh notes, “were kept out of the frame of the nation in the making” (see epigraph; 2007: 94). By focusing on protagonists who belong to professions and identities that are devalued and marginalized in the new Indian nation, these three later films, I argue, “unsettle” (Singh’s term) the processes through which the Indian nation constituted itself, thereby also unsettling an unambiguously negative assessment of feudal social and cultural arrangements. Thus, [these] films undertake a more fundamental interrogation regarding India’s nation-­ formation itself – what the nation deliberately excludes in order to become a nation.

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. “‘Performing Wom[e]n’ and the Gendered National Imagination: An Exploration of Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum.” South Asian Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2013.

Focusing on the eponymous Shyam Benegal film, Sardari Begum (1996), with intermittent reference as well to his Bhumika (The Role; 1976) and Mandi (Marketplace; 1983), this essay explores the relationship of performing women to the gendered, modernizing agendas of the Indian nation-state. Reprising the career of women who represented professions, identities, and cultural repertoires that flourished under, and were indelibly associated with a feudal order, these films show women inhabiting subject positions that were delegitimized, marginalized, even excised from the constitutive narratives of the new Indian nation on its way to modernity.

Nijhawan, Amita. “Excusing the Female Dancer: Tradition and Transgression in Bollywood Dancing.” South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2009, pp. 99-112.

Abstract

Item songs are big-budget dance sequences in Bollywood and arresting examples of how bodies of dancing women in Bollywood, with fusion of traditional and contemporary dance genres construct new sites of sexual desire and identity in India. While these spaces of articulation are not immune to the circulation of female bodies in a globalized Indian economy these dancers do have the opportunity to convey a different kind of femininity than what has been allowed in Indian popular culture. Milder censorship, the MTV-revolution, the political-economy of making dance videos, the granting of industry-status to Bollywood and the exponential growth of the cosmetics industry are all fundamental to the changes. This article is a mapping of Bollywood dancers with an eye to Indian myths about dancing women, apsaras and devadasis, and an analysis of trends that allow rupture and re-articulation of dances and the ideologies they produce. The article employs a combination of dance and film studies analysis.

Oldenburg, Veena Talwar. “Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1990, pp. 259-287.

This article is available for free online through the website of Columbia University’s Professor Emerita Frances W. Pritchett.

From the Introduction:

In a departure from the conventional perspective on this profession, I would argue that these women, even today, are independent and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male-dominated world; they celebrate womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender ofthe larger society of which they are part. Their way of life is not complicitous with male authority; on the contrary, in their own self-perceptions, definitions, and descriptions they are engaged in ceaseless and chiefly nonconfrontational resistance to the new regulations and the resultant loss of prestige they have suffered since colonial rule began. It would be no exaggeration to say that their “life-style” is resistance to rather than a perpetuation of patriarchal values.

 

Orr, Leslie C. Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu. Oxford UP, 2000.

Summary from Google Books: Through the use of epigraphical evidence, Leslie C. Orr brings into focus the activities and identities of the temple women (devadasis) of medieval South India. This book shows how temple women’s initiative and economic autonomy involved them in medieval temple politics and allowed them to establish themselves in roles with particular social and religious meanings. This study suggests new ways of understanding the character of the temple woman and, more generally, of the roles of women in Indian religion and society.

Pillai, Mannu S. “Muddupalani: The Woman Who Had No Reason for Shame.” The Hindu, 2 June 2018. Accessed 11 January 2021.

This article is available for free online at The Hindu: https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-woman-who-had-no-reason-for-shame/article24057695.ece

Summary

This article profiles Muddupalani (1730-1790), a devadasi in the court of Pratapasimha, who wrote poetry “unsurpassed in harmony and eroticism.”

Pillai explores how Mudduplani was proud, respected, and rich, and how she rejected modesty. It touches upon how devadasis lost their wealth and status as “Indian society absorbed from the British an overblown sense of Victorian piety” and how Muddupalani’s works, including her Telugu epic, the Radhika Santwanamu, became scandalized

Pritchett, Frances W. “Umrao Jan Ada.” Fran’s Favorites: Some Special ‘Study Sites’. Accessed 21 February 2021.

Frances Pritchett’s site about Umrao Jan Ada explores the Urdu novel that inspired the famed Umrao Jaan film in depth. It includes a full English translation of the novel side-by-side with the Urdu original, links to glossaries explaining Urdu words in English, links to scholarship about the novel, and a lovely collection of photographs and illustrations of nautch girls.

Ram, Anjali. “Framing the Deminine: Diasporic Readings of Gender in Popular Indian Cinema.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol.25, no.2, 2002, pp.25-52.

Abstract

This essay focuses on the ways in which Indian immigrant women actively engage and interpret Indian cinema. Employing an ethnographic approach, the analysis moves between readers’ readings and film texts in order to locate how Indian cinema mediates the constitution of gendered identities in the diaspora. Keeping alive the sense of agency, this study demonstrates that Indian women viewers/readers simultaneously comply with and resist the dominant patriarchal representations that saturate Indian cinema.

 

Notable Excerpt (pp. 44-45)

The image that most directly counters the purity/sanctity model of Indian womanhood in cinema is that of the courtesan. Chakravarty (1993) comments that the courtesan, as historical character and cinematic spectacle, is one of the most enigmatic figures to haunt the margins of Indian cultural consciousness. Socially decentered, she is yet the object of respect and admiration because of her artistic training and musical accomplishments. The courtesan is an ambiguous/romantic figure in multiple senses. She embodies both Hindu and Muslim social graces and represents what Chakravarty calls “female power-cum-vulnerability”. Rekha’s most memorable roles have involved playing the courtesan directly or indirectly. In Silsila she plays the role of the “other woman,” which is echoed in variations in Basera (1985). In Mukadaar ka Sikandar she plays a bazaar entertainer in love with the tortured hero played by Bachchan, again blurring the boundaries between real/reel life, fiction/fantasy as film gossip and text intersect. In Utsaav, she plays Vasantsena, the legendary courtesan of ancient India, whose life is narrated in the classical Sanskrit play of the fourth century A.D. entitled Mirchchakatika (The Little Clay Cart). However, it is in Umrao Jaan (198 1), which Chakaravarty (1993) calls the quintessential courtesan film of Indian cinema, where she plays both desiring subject and desired object and reveals the contested nature of the feminine in the collective Indian imaginary.

Rios, Hugo. “Death and the Maiden: The Floating Courtesan in Pakeezah.” Atenea, Vol. 30, No. 1-2, pp. 33-46.

This article is available for free online through the Atenea journal (link opens a pdf). It starts on page 33.

From the Introduction

The Courtesan film occupies a particular position in the popular imagination of India. Its great popularity could be ascribed to its hybrid status, the character of the courtesan being hard to define. Sumita Chakravarty describes the character as “as dancing girl, nautch-girl, prostitute or harlot” and, above all, as both “celebrated and shunned” (269). Rachel Dwyer suggests the appeal of a “lost” Islamic element and the relationship between memory, loss and poetry and the ghazal 1 (88). Films such as Tawaif, Umrao Jaan, Mamta, Amar Prem, Utsav, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Bhumika and Pakeezah, among others, serve as testimony of the vital force that emanates from the Courtesan Film but it is the last mentioned that packs all the elements of the Courtesan Film plus an interesting commentary on two seemingly unrelated issues: death and the floating condition of the courtesans.

My examination of these motifs will be focused on Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 film Pakeezah. My reading is nurtured by the idea that this film stands as a text that is both a performance of the genre as well as a critique of it.

My first viewing of Pakeezah was immediately affected by what seemed to be melodramatic excess. Peter Brooks’ definition of melodrama includes an interesting catalog of features, most of which make their way into the Indian film: “indulgence of strong emotionalism, moral polarization and schematization, extreme states of being, situations, actions, overt villainy, persecution of the good and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark plotting, suspense and breathtaking peripety” (11-12). Vijay Mishra in his Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire concurs with this idea but he is careful to signal that it is not the only source of excess, pointing also to Parsi Theater and other “local” influences (36). Mishra also comments on the nature of Bombay melodrama identifying it as representing “cultural truths of a metatextual kind– truths that bind eternal laws together–and not truths of a representational (lifelike) kind” (39). Pakeezah follows this road and perhaps takes it a step further. Overall the film presents a plausible structure according to Hindi Film standards but the “excessive excess” it contains eventually burst out of the seams in several key scenes. But in order to talk about this excess it is necessary to establish what is happening in the film in terms of generic conventions…

Sachdeva Jha, Schweta. “Tawa’if as Poet and Patron: Rethinking Women’s Self-Representation.” Speaking of the Self : Gender, Performance, and Autobiography in South Asia, edited by Anshu Malhotra and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Duke University Press, 2015, pp. 141-164.

Abstract

This chapter addresses the issue of women and self-representation through the life of a wealthy courtesan and tawaif poet, Mah Laqa Bai “Chanda” (c. 1767–c. 1824) in the court of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hyderabad. Through her life history, the chapter analyzes the reemployment of “conventional” acts of imperial image making such as composition of poetry, public display of faith, and patronage of architecture and writers by royal women as a means of self-articulation. It will be shown how reading and writing poetry become significant acts of authorship and autobiographical articulation in the specific context of performance, modernity, and mobility in emerging princely cultures.

Introduction

The tawa’ifs have long been compared to the mythological apsaras or devadasis (temple women) in medieval courts as women of the “oldest profession of prostitution and seduction.” Despite the ubiquitous tawa’if of Bombay cinema, writing the history of the tawa’if is a necessary exercise to trace their subjectivity and rethink grand narratives of colonial history and traditions in courtly cultures.

The subject of this chapter is Mah Laqa Bai “Chanda” (c. 1767-c. 1824), a wealthy tawa’if in the princely court of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Hyderabad. An experienced Urdu poetess, Mah Laqa Bai was the first woman to compile an entire volume or diwan of Urdu poetry in 1798 and a powerful courtesan. She earned revenue from her many jagir (gifted) lands and had an extensive library of manuscripts. A patron of poets and performers, Mah Laqa Bai resided in a grand haveli or palace, which was home to a large retinue of servants as well as a salon to upcoming performers, chroniclers, and poets.

Unlike contemporary understanding of the autobiography as a literary genre, the “autobiographical” articulations of tawa’ifs such as Mah Laqa Bai are not in the form of memoirs or diaries. In earlier courtly contexts, historians have shown how royal women such as queens employed imperial means of self-articulation through the use of public pageantry; traveling with large retinues; commissioning artists or painters; building inns, tanks, and mosques; or minting coins in their own image. Through the narration of Mah Laqa Bai’s life history in this chapter, we will explore the means through which tawa’ifs negotiated their position as courtesans or women of culture. Their reemployment of “conventional” acts of imperial image making such as composing poetry, architectural patronage, and commissioning chronicles will be shown as significant acts of authorship and autobiographical articulation in the context of emerging regional courts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the decline of Mughal control. While reading Mah Laqa Bai’s life history and that of her family from the time of her grandmother, we will focus on the lives of those generations of women who chose to become tawa’ifs. Their agency, it will be argued, lay in their attempt to transform their identity through deliberate “erasure” of their past history of displacement and the taking on of new names and movement to different courts or cities in search of livelihood.

Sardari Begum. Directed by Shyam Benegal. Plus Films, 1996.

Sardari Begum follows Tehzeeb, a young reporter covering the story of Sardari Begum, a popular singer and courtesan killed during a riot stemming from Muslim-Hindu tensions in Delhi. When Tehzeeb discovers her father among the mourners at Sardari Begum’s funeral, she comes to learn that the singer was her aunt, who was disowned by her family for learning music from a courtesan/sex worker—a dishonorable practice.

Despite resistance from her father (who despises Sardari Begum for being a courtesan) and her editor (who insists the story wouldn’t gain reader interest), Tehzeeb insists on covering Sardari Begum’s life story—not merely the violence that surrounded her death, and throughout the movie, audiences learn about the string of devious and exploitative men who have endangered Sardari throughout her life, the loving man she almost married, and her estranged daughter.

 

Please Note

  • This film presents an intricate history of Sardari, and in doing so, resists conforming to stereotypes (whether complimentary or disparaging). We at Courtesans of India encourage our readers to watch the full film, because our condensed notes below cannot capture the representation’s complexity.
  • A thorough analysis of the representation of Sardari Begum in this film requires understanding of the historical and contemporary treatment of “Performing Women”/”Public Women” in India—a broad category that groups and marginalizes singers, courtesans, sex workers, nautch girls, and more. Dr. Nandi Bhatia has written an excellent book on the topic, specifically as it pertains to theatre and dissent.

Questions to Consider

  • Sardari Begum is a thumri singer, but is she a courtesan? Is she a nautch girl? Is she a sex worker? Why do some characters speak about her as if she is? Where do these categories diverge? Where do they overlap?
  • Is the audience exposed to any other performing women? Are we encouraged to view performing women (including thumri singers, courtesans, nautch girls, etc.) as generally good and talented, or only certain types? Is Sardari Begum the exception or the norm?
  • What does this film do with the trope of the deceptive courtesan who profits from unsuspecting men?
  • In what ways do Sardari Begum and Tehzeeb try to emancipate themselves and those around them from the confines of their subject position? Do they succeed? Why or why not? Is emancipation possible?
  • Is Sardari Begum a strong-minded activist? Is she a contributor to her daughter’s oppression? Can she be both?
  • Can we, the audience, forgive Sardari Begum for pushing her daughter into her own career and away from the marriage she desires? Can we forgive the mother lambasted by Sardari Begum for refusing a non-Muslim husband for her daughter? Which of these mothers were trying to protect their daughters? Which were trying to control their daughters? Can it be both?
  • Why is it significant that Sardari Begum is dead throughout the film? Who is telling her story? Who is interpreting it? Is Sardari voiceless?
  • What was the nature/source of the riot during which Sardari Begum was killed? What does that nature suggest about Sardari Begum’s relationship with the culture around her?
  • When Sadiq tries to influence Sardari’s image to be more sexualized, she says “To sing lewd songs like nautch girls is not for me!” How is the audience encouraged to view nautch girls? Does the film defend all female performers, or only those who are “untouched and pure”? Who defines purity? Is the audience encouraged to agree with Sardari’s views on sexuality or to question them?
  • What role do Muslim-Hindu conflicts play in this film? Is Sardari Begum party to these conflicts? Is the audience encouraged to support her role in inter-faith weddings?

 

Exploitative vs. Generous

  • Many of the noteworthy men in Sardari Begum exploit, deceive, and control the women around them.
    • Hemraj seeks a kind of ownership over Sandari Begum and her art, insisting that she only perform for “those who could truly appreciate it”—him and his upper-class acquaintances.
    • Sadiq attempts to control all aspects of Sardari’s career: he convinces her to leave her hometown, insists she quietly smile at auditions and let him do the talking, attempts to influence her to make more openly sexual music, and controls her finances behind her back, making investments and land purchases in his own name. Sandari to leave her home town, insists she quietly smile at auditions and let him do the talking, and controlled her finances behind her back, making investments and land purchases in his name. When Tehzeeb interviews Sadiq, he claims he doesn’t know why Sardari left him, claiming that she simply became critical of him upon losing her “mental balance.”
    • Mark claims he’ll leave his wife for Tehzeeb, but ultimately never does. He demeans and rejects Tehzeeb’s ideas for news articles.
  • Contrastingly, Sandari Begum is consistently represented as generous.
    • When her brother Jabbar asks her for a loan for Tehzeeb’s education, she gives it to him as a gift
    • When she hears her father is ill, she insists on sending him a generous sum, despite believing he wouldn’t want to see her in person
    • In her younger days, she shared her earnings with her Jabbar and the community

 

Tehzeeb’s Commentary 

  • When Jabbar, Tehzeeb’s father and Sardari’s brother, demeans and dismisses Sardari as “any other prostitute,” Tehzeeb openly resists patriarchal ideology:
    • She attempts to focus the conversation on Sardari’s talents
    • She says, “I think [Sardari Begum] was an independent-minded woman, and our society cannot stand such women.”
    • She asks, “All a woman can be is a good wife, an ideal daughter, or a self-sacrificing mother, isn’t it?”

 

Who Upholds the Patriarchy?

  • In some flashbacks, Sardari Begum is seen arguing with a young bride’s mother and a priest, insisting that the bride should be allowed to marry who she chooses. The mother, contrastingly, regards choosing her daughter’s husband to be her own right. Both the mother and the priest reject the daughter’s choice of husband for being non-Muslim.
  • Sakina, Sardari’s daughter, tells Tehzeeb that Sardari, who believed marriage would take away her daughter’s freedom, refused to allow Sakina access to her choice in romantic partners, discouraged her from marrying, and pushed her into a life of music without considering her opinion on the matter. In a flashback, Sardari rips up love letters from Sakina’s love interest, stating that “the best music comes from a heart that is untouched and pure.”
  • When Sadiq pushes Sardari Begum to take on sexually-charged songs, Sardari responds, “To sing lewd songs like nautch girls is not for me!”

Schofield, Katherine Butler. “The Courtesan Tale: Female Musicians and Dancers in Mughal Historical Chronicles, c. 1556-1748.” Gender & History, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2012, pp. 150-171.

Abstract: There are many problems in trying to construct a history of female musicians and dancers in Mughal North India. Such women appear frequently in Mughal writings and apparently played an important role in elite society; there is clearly much we can learn from such sources about gender and class in the empire generally, as well as female performers more specifically. However, what evidence we have is written from the perspective of their male patrons and cast according to long-standing rhetorical and cultural conventions concerning the fateful roles of music and love in historical events. In this article I examine how Mughal historical chronicles transform named female performers into stereotyped agents of the downfall of noblemen. Using the stories of several historical courtesans, I demonstrate how stock topoi of desire, enslavement, longing, rebellion, danger, fate and above all musical and erotic power, were used to shape all stories of courtesans into tragic cautionary tales. I aim to show that the ‘fictive’ elements of Mughal courtesan tales furthermore reveal important cultural truths about the role and meanings of music in Mughal male society.

 

Scobie, Claire. The Pagoda Tree. Penguin Group Australia, 2013.

Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree was written alongside a very useful dissertation paper entitled “The Representation of the Figure of the Devadasi in European Travel Writing and Art from 1770 to 1820 with specific reference to Dutch writer Jacob Haafner.” Please see our citation for that paper, including a link to download the paper for free, by clicking here.

Summary from the Penguin website

Tamil Nadu, southern India, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples in the ancient city of Tanjore.

Like her mother before her, she is destined to become a devadasi, a dancer for the temple. On the day of her initiation, a stranger arrives in town. Walter Sutcliffe, a black-frocked clergyman, strives to offer moral guidance to the British troops stationed in Tanjore, but is beset by his own demons.

When the British tear apart her princely kingdom, Maya heads to the steamy port city of Madras, where Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman, is entranced from the moment he first sees her.

The Pagoda Tree takes us deep into the heart of a country struggling under brutal occupation. As East and West collide, Walter Sutcliffe unknowingly plays the decisive card in Maya’s destiny.

Scobie, Claire. The Representation of the Figure of the Devadasi in European Travel Writing and Art from 1770 to 1820 with specific reference to Dutch writer Jacob Haafner. 2013. University of Western Sydney, PHD dissertation.

This dissertation is available to download for free online via the University of Western Sydney: https://researchdirect.westernsydney.edu.au/islandora/object/uws:28030.

Alongside this dissertation paper, Claire Scobie wrote a novel entitled The Pagoda Tree. Please note that although reference to The Pagoda Tree is included in the title of the dissertation, the above link contains only the text of the dissertation paper itself, and NOT the full text of The Pagoda Tree.

Click here to view our citation for Scobie’s novel, The Pagoda Tree.

Abstract

This thesis examines the figure of the devadasi, or temple dancer, a familiar
trope in European travel literature and art from 1770 to 1820. Comprised of two parts, the critical component of the work analyses the representation of the figure of the devadasi through a close reading of a selection of eighteenth-century texts. Historically specific and anchored within travel writing and post-Saidian Orientalist theory, I argue that despite the limitations of these accounts, in both form and content, they shed light upon the complex cross-cultural interactions of the period. The texts range from travel accounts, with a particular focus on Dutch author, Jacob Haafner, contrasted with English Company servant, John Henry Grose and French missionary, Abbé J.A Dubois, some eighteenth-century paintings, and two indigenous works—the erotic Telugu poetry of Muddupalani, an eighteenth-century courtesan and artist, and a little-known Sanskrit work, the Sarva-Deva-Vilasa. I propose that the textual paradoxes and tensions illuminate how the devadasi exercised agency and yet, how her apparent dichotomous nature—embodying the sacred and the sensual—would frequently complicate her representation in the West.

The creative component, entitled The Pagoda Tree, is a historical novel set in eighteenth-century south India. Primarily told from the perspective of Maya, a temple dancer, it individualises the personal narrative of a devadasi and intersects her with the larger historical implications of imperial expansion. Informed by the conceptual framework of feminist and revisionist historians, and the recovery scholarship of the devadasi, this approach positions the temple dancer in the fictive space between history, archive and imagination. Together, the two parts of the thesis explore the contradictions and conflicting forces which empower and undermine marginalised figures within colonial discourse, and demonstrate how fiction may assist in their recovery.

Shah, Hasan. The Dancing Girl. Translated by Qurratulain Hyder. New Directions, 1993.

Google Books Description

Written in 1790, Hasan Shah’s autobiographical romance, The Dancing Girl, is remarkable for both its lyrical prose and its fine recreation of a time, a place, and a culture – India in the 1780s, a tolerant, affable era before the full establishment of British colonial rule. The Dancing Girl tells of the doomed love of Hasan Shah (aide-de-camp to a British officer) and Khanum Jan (a courageous and gifted dancer of the courtesan caste) whose secret marriage could not prevent their separation. At Khanum Jan’s death, her grief-stricken husband turned his raw emotion into a surprisingly modern, first-person narrative “without realizing,” as leading Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder observes in the foreword to her translation (from the 1893 Urdu translation of the original Persian), “that he had become a pioneer of the modern Indian novel.”

Shah, Vidya. Jalsa: Indian Women and Their Journeys from the Salon to the Studio. Tulika, 2016.

Publisher’s Summary

Jalsa takes the reader through the journeys of women performers in India from the salon to the studio. It attempts to give insight into and a perspective on the beginning of the interface of technology and entertainment, and the irreversible impact this has had on how we listen to, enjoy, and consume music. It acknowledges an important slice of the history of Indian music, which is celebrated the world over today in its many forms and avatars.

Notes

Our readers may be interested to know that Jalsa explores the stories of several individual, named courtesans. Included among these are tawaif and renowned singer Jaddan Bai, who went on to establish one of India’s first film production companies, Sangeet Movietone, in 1934, and Janki Bai, an enormously famous singer. Shah writes: “It is said that roads leading to the record shops would get blocked by lovers of her music whenever a new stock of discs arrived. Many of her records sold over 25,000 copies, something unheard of till then even for highly accomplished singers of her time.”

Sharma, Karuna. “The Social World of Prostitutes and Devadasis: A Study of the Social Structure and Its Politics in Early Modern India.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2007, pp. 297-310. 

This article is available for free online through The Journal of International Women’s Studies.

This article challenges some of the arguments of Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s “Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India.”  Put simply, Oldenburg argues that devadasis performed “covert subversion of a male-dominated world [by] resisting and inverting the rules of gender.” Sharma, contrastingly, argues that devadasis found economic and social success by operating within the socially-constructed bounds of acceptable labour.  We encourage our readers to read both articles!

Abstract

This research paper discusses two groups of professional women who had a distinct place in the sexual economy of the period under review. By analyzing the actions and situations of prostitutes and the devadasis (literally meaning servants of God) in terms of a broader context of relationships, I consider the sexual-services and the entertainment provided by them as a meaningful labor, which got integrated at both the social and cultural levels. I have looked at how and to whom the prostitutes and the devadasis sold their labor, and how they related to other women, to men, and to various social systems. The study of these professionals shows different strands of Indian culture and one could state that the world of entertainment, to which these professions belonged, itself is a cultural reproduction of society. Specifically, it is my view that the prostitutes were sought after for their physical attraction, but elegance and élan were to an extent constitutive elements of their profession. In the case of devadasis who were the custodians of the arts of singing and dancing and whose dedicated status made them a symbol of social prestige, I would say that while the economic/professional benefits were considerable, they did not lack social honor either. The essay shows that the women who were part of this set-up, a set-up which thrived on the commercialization of women’s reproductive labor, had those skills and expertise which eventually get appropriated by politico-economic structures. This gives a better insight into the politics of human relations.

 

 

Singh, Vijay Prakash. “From Tawaif to Nautch Girl: The Transition of the Lucknow Courtesan.” South Asian Review, Vol. 35, No. 2, 2014.

Abstract

Lucknow with its Nawabi court and its patronage of dance and music has been for over two centuries a center of the art of fine language and etiquette. This paper focuses primarily on the dancing women, tawaif, who performed outside the court in private salons or kothas. As highly accomplished women catering to the nobility, the tawaif enjoyed a high degree of financial independence and social prestige. After the establishment of the East India Company, the tawaif were solicited as entertainers for British social gatherings and later pushed into prostitution. The paper shows the decline of the tawaif as representatives of culture to mere social entertainers and subsequently as bazaar prostitutes surviving on the margins of society.

Soneji, Devash. “Siva’s Courtesans: Religion, Rhetoric, and Self-Representation in Early Twentieth-Century Writing by Devadasis.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 2010,  pp. 31-70.

In this article, Soneji summarizes a Tamil text entitled Uruttirakanikaiyar Katacarattirattu or Siva’s Courtesans, written by a devadasi named Ancukam in 1911. Soneji says in the introduction, “I position  [Siva’s Courtesans] in larger historical, literary, and political contexts. Moving away from characterizations of modern devadasis as ‘temple women,’ I hope to bring to the foreground an approach to devadasi social history that takes seriously their attempts to realize inclusion within the public sphere—specifically within the spaces of the nation—in the twentieth century.” Soneji contextualizes Siva’s Courtesans within the devadasi reform period and the Indian nationalist movement, compares Siva’s Courtesans with other 19th and 20th-century writings about devadasis, and discusses protest letters written by devadasis during this period.

Spear, Jeffrey L., and Avanthi Meduri. “Knowing the Dancer: East Meets West.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, 2004, pp. 435–448.

Abstract

The clean and the proper (in the sense of incorporated and incorporable) becomes filthy, the sought-after turns into the banished, fascination into shame.

-Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror

 The history we are sketching is one of boundaries double crossed between India and the West and between periods of the South Asian past. On one level our story is about an historical irony, how late nineteenth-century Orientalism resuscitated the romantic mystique of the eastern dancer in the West just as South Indian dancers were being repressed in their homeland by Indian reformers influenced by western mores. Within that history there is another dynamic that is less about crossing than about shifting boundaries, boundaries between the sacred and the profane and their expression in colonial law. We will be looking at these movements and transformations within the context of current scholarship that is historicizing even those elements of Indian culture conventionally understood to be most ancient and unchanging….

The story of how the devadasi, the temple dancer of South India, came to be abjected, consigned to the abyss, while her Vedic ancestor was being celebrated, is part of an ironic interplay between eastern and western ideas about the dancer and her dance. Of all the Hindu practices that the British invoked to mark their moral superiority to their Indian subjects, “temple prostitution” may well have been the most notorious after the pr?dations of the so-called “thugs” and the self-immolation of widows (sati).3 The West had no conceptual category for women who were at one and the same time unchaste and holy. The temple dancer’s combination of religious and sexual expression reminded Europeans of that abomination of the ancient Near East, ritual prostitution. (“Thou shalt not bring the wages of a kedesha… into the House of Jehovah,” Deut. 23.18 [Metcalf 102]). The devadasis – literally the slaves or bond-servants of god – were not, strictly speaking, a caste. Rather they had, as Saskia Kersenboom-Story (179) and Amrit Srinivasan note, a way of life or professional ethic [vrtti, murai, not jati]. One could be born into their community, but some girls were formally adopted after being offered, or even sold, to the temples by their families. They were trained in performance from childhood by male teachers from the community and, unlike members of a caste, could not officially perform without their ratification and approval. In contrast to the conventional, patriarchal system of arranged marriages, it was mothers in the community who dedicated their daughters in childhood to the temple god…

Srivinasan, Doris M. “Royalty’s Courtesans and God’s Mortal Wives: Keepers of Culture in Precolonial India.” The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Martha Feldman, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 161-181.

Cover image from oupcanada.com

From the Introduction

“The Indian courtesan pervades precolonial art, literature, mythology, texts on rituals, polity, pleasure, and law books in the three major religions founded on Indian soil. Yet as much as she captivates, she also eludes. Why? Because her actions, her character, her mystique, are relayed to us by outsiders to her world, or to traditional India. Her own voice has remained faint until fairly modern times. This essay introduces different voices that describe the Indian courtesan over a vast stretch of history. What becomes clear is that two options for power were open to the precolonial Indian woman: that of the sexually liberated and educated courtesan or the pure, sexually controlled, uneducated wife.”

 

Notes

  • Though the introduction (perhaps misleadingly) focuses on the courtesan/wife binary, the main thrust of this chapter is that courtesans are the “keepers of culture” in precolonial India. The “Keepers of culture” concept is described as follows: “It was the courtesans who sustained high culture in Lucknow, the kingdom’s capital. They kept alive the distinctive manners of Lucknow society and were instrumental in the development of Kathak dance and Hindustani music.”
  • Srivinasan focuses mainly on two types of pre-colonial Indian courtesans: ganika, secular and well-educated courtesans often associated with royal courts, and devadasis, courtesans dedicated to temples as God’s mortal wives.
  • Srivinasan resists a one-dimensional view of courtesans by providing simple definitions of multiple types of courtesans and discussing differences in their access to education, their places of work, etc.
  • Modern Western readers, who are often saturated in anti-sex-work images and ideologies that shame and criminalize prostitutes, may be interested to learn about the “high culture” expectations of the ganika: on page 162, Srivinasan outlines how the Kamasutra, arguably the most famous ancient book about human sexual behaviour, details over 60 arts in which a ganika should be proficient (including singing, dancing, decorating, tailoring, and even architecture); for mastering these arts, the ganika ought to receive “a seat of honour in the assembly of men”—the ability to discourse with men as their equal. Srivinasan also observes that the Artharashtra, an ancient text on Indian polity, regarded the ganika’s training as an investment of the state.

Stewart, Courtney A. “Feminine Power of the Deccan: Chand Bibi and Mah Laqa Bai Chanda.” Met Museum.org. Met Museum, 5 May 2016. Web.

 

Visit the page here.

From The introduction: “Though the 2015 Met Museum exhibition Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy focuses mainly on the sultans of south-central India, art history reveals to us that the Deccan world was also notable for its strong female characters. Two stand out among them as particularly remarkable: Chand Bibi, the sixteenth-century queen of Ahmadnagar; and Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, the eighteenth-century poetess of  Hyderabad.”

This webpage provides a concise yet detailed account of the most interesting facets of courtesan and poetess Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s life as well as some beautiful images. We learn Mah Laqa Bai Chanda was impressively wealthy and a lover of literature: she commissioned a great library of arts and sciences, as well as sponsoring many poems.

Left: Right: Portrait of Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, ca. 1800. Hyderabad. Hyderabad Archaeological Museum. Photograph by Antonio Martinelli; accessed on Metmuseum.org.

Tawaif. Directed by Baldev Raj Chopra, performances by Rishi Kapoor and Rashi Agnihotri, Sunrise Films, 1985.

Summary

After a crime lord leaves a courtesan, Sultana, in the home of the unsuspecting Dawood and threatens to kill him if anything happens to her, Dawood must pretend she is his new bride. Dawood, who is forming a romance with a local author writing a book about a courtesan, must carefully conceal Sultana’s identity while avoiding unsavoury circumstances. Despite Dawood’s resistance, a romance develops, and the two must ensure Sultana’s escape from the crime lord and ensure a happy ending.

 

Questions to Consider

  • A common theme of the Bollywood courtesan genre is courtesans wishing to escape their lives into “respectable” heterosexual marriages (see Poonam and Hubel to learn more.) This is certainly true of Tawaif’s ending, but is Sultana’s courtesan life not considered “respectable”? Does the film respect Sultana herself? Does it respect her work? Can they be separated?
  • Dawood is very interested in Poonam’s book about courtesans, but looks down upon the real courtesan, Sultana. Who else consumes media representations about courtesans while disrespecting the people upon which those representations are based? What might the film be suggesting here about representation and consumption?
  • Was Sultana respectable before she was married? If so, how does the marriage serve to influence opinions of Sultana—those of the audience and the other characters?
  • Several scenes suggest that Sultana believes her work is shameful. For example, while staying with Dawood, Sultana refuses to sleep on the wedding bed the landlady had intended for her son, believing that as a courtesan, she is “unworthy” of lying on such a bed, or even of marriage in general. From where do we believe Sultana absorbed this opinion? Is this opinion of courtesans shared by the other characters? Is it shared by the film?
  • Does Sultana have a say in the work she does? In the world of this film, do other courtesans? Would Sultana’s happy ending be accessible to a courtesan who liked or chose her work? Does this film appear to believe that courtesans can like their or choose their work?
  • In what ways could viewing courtesans as innocent victims of circumstance (e.g: trafficking, poverty) help them? In what ways could that view pose a risk?

 

 

 

Tharu, Susie and Ke Lalita. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Vol. 1, The Feminist Press, 1990.

This enormously influential work contains a sweeping collection of translations of over 200 texts from historical Indian women writers alongside explorations of their historical contexts. Writers include Buddhist nuns, medieval rebel poets, court historians, and, most importantly to the readers of Courtesans of India, devadasis and tawaifs.

We have tagged this book as both a primary source and a secondary source because it contains translations and interpretation. We have cited this anthology on the following posts:

Thatra, Geeta. “Contentious Socio-Spatial Relations: Tawaifs and Congress House in Contemporary Bombay/Mumbai.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2016.

Abstract

This article explores the lives of tawaifs, baijis or courtesans (the terms used interchangeably) in a contentious space marked by the location of Congress House in Bombay/Mumbai through the 20th century. The tawaifs’ kothas are interestingly in the vicinity of Congress House, which was the hub of the Indian nationalist struggle from the 1930s onwards, the two sites coming into existence almost simultaneously and coexisting for many decades as this article demonstrates. However, there were various efforts during the last decades of 20th century to remove the presence of tawaifs from this neighbourhood, through the heightened interest of real-estate players in urban gentrification, and increased surveillance by the police and the citizens’ forum. Given this contemporary situation, the attempt of this article is (i) to historicise the performance of mujra in Bombay and explore the contribution of courtesans to the enrichment of Hindustani ‘classical’ music and (ii) to spatialise the presence of tawaifs in the nationalist hub of Bombay and reflect on the politics of their economic and cultural deprivation. This article, thus, reflects on the contested meanings of the space inhabited by the courtesans with its continued devaluing, disciplining and restructuring as well as the increased stigmatisation, criminalisation and marginalisation of the women. It also reads into newer modalities of regulation and the hegemonic processes of urban renewal.

 

Notes

We regard this article as essential reading for scholars who view the Courtesans of Bombay documentary.

 

Tula, Meenal and Pande, Rekha. “Re-Inscribing the Indian Courtesan: A Genealogical Approach.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2014, pp. 67-82.

This article is available for free online as part of Virtual Commons, the open-access institutional repository of Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Click here to download it.

Abstract:

“Women historiography has been one of the major concerns of the feminist movement particularly since 1960s. Looking at the figure of the courtesan in India—its histories, representations, repression and re-emergence, the paper seeks to problematize discourses of both Universalist and minority history writing that have been built around these women. In the context of Post-Colonial theory, and in the light of the dynamic nature of the categories of Truth, Power, Knowledge, and Discourse, the paper seeks to salvage Foucault’s methodology of writing a genealogical history as opening new avenues within the history of the courtesan in India in particular and women’s history writing in general.”


Introductory Summary

“The courtesan has been a key figure in the articulation of deep anxieties that have constituted the experience of an ‘Indian’ modernity. Produced through a complex entanglement of practices and re-significations of social meaning over the course of the 20th century, it is perhaps not surprising that the figure of the courtesan seems to be an enduring object of attention across varied domains of colonial (and now, post-colonial) law, economics and hygiene, from ‘canonical’ nationalist literature to popular culture. Rather, what ought to be surprising is the relative invisibility of the courtesan in academic discourse, evincing little interest as a subject for critical historical study. Of the few studies that have been done, we find that a number of them seem only to reproduce notions deeply entrenched in the production of ‘woman’ as a subject/object of colonial modernity, in the process re-affirming the legitimacy of its violence.”


Noteworthy Critique of Moti Chandra’s The World of Courtesans (1976)

See our citation of Moti Chandra’s The World of Courtesans here.

“We may begin by illustrating this point through a look at two histories of the courtesan and how they replicate a particular logic of containing, disciplining and ‘silencing’ the courtesan subject. Moti Chandra, in his study The World of Courtesans (first published in 1976), attempts to provide a compilation of the various kinds of roles played by the courtesan women since the Vedic period. He talks about their sexual, ritual and sacred roles and, citing various sources, catalogues the various terms that have been employed for the courtesans over the ages—ganika, khumbhadasi—and the hierarchies between these various terms. At the same time, the book is framed by a narrative that sees courtesans as women who ‘served the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and arsamoris.’  At the same time, while Moti Chandra sees these women as morally base and ‘living the life of shame’, he nonetheless reveals a deep anxiety towards the ‘crafty’ and ‘worldly-wise’ ways of these women: ‘…courtesans tempt(ed) their lovers, perhaps depriving the rich Aryans of a part of their possessions in cattle and gold.’ Further, Chandra seeks to configure the courtesan women primarily according to their sexual function, seeing it as the sole aspect that ‘explains’ all dimensions of the courtesan, sexual, cultural and political. In this sense, Moti Chandra’s history of the courtesan women does not explore the complexities of the inter-relationships between these women and the extant patriarchal structures, even though it is a ‘women’s history’.”

 

Vanita, Ruth. Dancing With the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema. Speaking Tiger, 2017.

Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans of Bombay Cinema is an important piece of scholarship detailing the representation of tawaifs in Hindi cinema and how these representations shape and were shaped by the culture in which they were produced. Throughout the course of writing this book, Vanita closely studied over 200 films; we encourage encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this valuable book for themselves or their libraries.

A substantial excerpt from this book can be found on The Daily O. 

Publisher’s Summary

This summary was obtained from the Speaking Tiger website.

Acknowledging courtesans or tawaifs as central to popular Hindi cinema, Dancing with the Nation is the first book to show how the figure of the courtesan shapes the Indian erotic, political and religious imagination. Historically, courtesans existed outside the conventional patriarchal family and carved a special place for themselves with their independent spirit, witty conversations and transmission of classical music and dance. Later, they entered the nascent world of Bombay cinema—as playback singers and actors, and as directors and producers.

In Ruth Vanita’s study of over 200 films from the 1930s to the present—among them, Devdas (1935), Mehndi (1958), Teesri Kasam (1966), Pakeezah (1971), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Ahista Ahista (1981), Sangeet (1992) and Ishaqzaade (2012)—courtesan characters emerge as the first group of single, working women depicted in South Asian movies. Almost every female actor—from Waheeda Rehman to Rekha and Madhuri Dixit—has played the role, and compared to other central female roles, these characters have greater social and financial autonomy. They travel by themselves, choose the men they want to have relations with and form networks with chosen kin. And challenging received wisdom, in Vanita’s analysis of films such as The Burning Train (1980) and Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), courtesan characters emerge as representatives of India’s hybrid Hindu-Muslim culture rather than of Islamicate culture.

A rigorously researched and groundbreaking account of one of the less-examined figures in the study of cinema, Dancing with the Nation is also a riveting study of gender, sexuality, the performing arts and popular culture in modern India.”

Vivek Taneja, Anand. “Begum Samru and the Security Guard.” Sarai Reader: Bare Acts, 2005, https://sarai.net/sarai-reader-05-bare-acts/.

This article is available for free from the Sarai journal website.

Introduction

What does Begum Samru have to do with a cinema in Delhi?
Begum Samru’s palace was the site of many a nautch (dance performance) where the Indian and British elite of late Mughal Delhi would gather to watch the skilled singing and dancing of professional tawaifs (courtesans) in the heart of the Old City. The Mughal ruler Shah Alam (1759-1806) acknowledged Begum Samru as his esteemed protector, and the military strategists of the East India Company considered her crucial to theirterritorial ambitions. Her acquisition of tremendous political, military and economic clout has been documented. Her talent at diplomacy and her political wiles have been noticed, as have her instincts for survival and success.

Yet, none of these accounts
acknowledge the fact that she began her professional life as a young tawaif (courtesan) in Delhi. But in the elite enclaves where the nautch played out, there was always an awareness of the presence of a non-elite element in this play of pleasure and desire, the commodification of sexuality as/and spectacle: “No nautchni is expected to wear longer than three or four years, after which she exercises her art among the lowest of the low”.

Two centuries later, the grounds of her palace have become the crowded, bustling Bhagirath Place, the centre for the film distribution trade in Delhi, where over 100 film distribution companies operate. Brian Larkin, who has worked extensively on visual culture in colonial and postcolonial Nigeria, while writing on cinema viewing in Northern Nigeria follows the historian and philosopher of modernity, Walter Benjamin, in viewing fantasy as the energy stored in the concreteness of objects.

My essay, drawing upon earlier work done by researchers of the Publics and Practices in the History of the Present (PPHP) project at Sarai, and my own fieldwork, attempts to look at the fantasy shaping the cinema viewing spaces of contemporary Delhi, a fantasy which has more in common with the Indo-British ‘gentry’ attending the nautch at Begum Samru’s palace than mere coincidence. My attempt is to establish parallels between these two phenomena, in terms of the ‘desirable’ audience for the display of sexuality and experience of pleasure, and to map a history of the imagination
of the ‘gentry’, a widely prevalent term in the Delhi cinema trade for an upper-class audience. This essay will map a rough and not-quite-ready historical trajectory of the city’s cinemas. The focus is on practices within and outside the law; of changing laws and shifting transgressions; of changing land use patterns, and of dispossessions that define the cinema today; a map of cinema that mirrors the larger transformations of the city. A map that increasingly represents “objects that were once new and symbolized modern life but whose historical moment has passed [and have] become inadvertent but dense signifiers in social structure”.

Walker, Margaret E. India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective. Routledge, 2014.

From the publisher’s website

Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples. The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history – it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theatre, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India. Through an analysis both broad and deep of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography and current performance practice, Margaret Walker undertakes a critical approach to the history of kathak dance and presents new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.

 

Notes

  • Our readers may be most interested in Chapter 7, “More Hereditary Performers: The Women,” which specifically discusses courtesans.
  • Check out Margaret E. Walker’s “The Nautch Reclaimed” article here!

Ward, Leda. Images of a Decolonizing India: Bollywood’s Tawai’f and the Postcolonial Muslim. Thesis, Barnard College, Dance Department, Columbia University, 2008.

This thesis is available for free online through Barnard College’s Dance Department.

Ward’s thesis explores the ways in which the tawa’if figure in 4 major Bollywood films—the nameless tawai’f of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Chitralekha of Devdas, Umrao Jaan of Umrao Jaan, and Sahib Jaan of Pakeezah—”retell the story of Muslims in colonial and postcolonial India,” particularly in terms of displacement and marginalization. Ward contextualizes her analyses using the historical background of pre-colonial tawa’ifs and of partition.

 

Williams, Richard David. “Songs Between Cities: Listening to Courtesans in Colonial North India.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2017, pp. 591-610.

This article is available to read for free through SOAS Research Online.

Abstract

In the aftermath of 1857, urban spaces and cultural practices were transformed and contested. Regional royal capitals became nodes in a new colonial geography, and the earlier regimes that had built them were recast as decadent and corrupt societies. Demolitions and new infrastructures aside, this transformation was also felt at the level of manners, sexual mores, language politics, and the performing arts. This article explores this transformation with a focus on women’s language, female singers and dancers, and the men who continued to value their literary and musical skills. While dancing girls and courtesans were degraded by policy-makers and vernacular journalists alike, their Urdu compositions continued to be circulated, published, and discussed. Collections of women’s biographies and lyrics gesture to the importance of embodied practices in cultivating emotional positions. This cultivation was valued in late Mughal elite society, and continued to resonate for emotional communities of connoisseurs, listeners, and readers, even as they navigated the expectations
and sensibilities of colonial society.

“160 Kafis.” Accessing Muslim Lives. Accessed 9 March 2021.

This webpage is available to read for free online.

The “160 Kafis” page on Accessing Muslim Lives offers a small selection of poems by Piro, a 19th-century poet and courtesan-turned-religious devotee, which have been gathered from Piro’s autobiographical poetry book titled 160 Kafis, translated by Anshu Malhotra, and annotated by the unnamed author of the webpage. These poems offer a rare opportunity for readers to access Piro’s work for free.

Although technically not a high-class tawaif, Piro was nevertheless a courtesan who was possibly sought after on the fringes of the Lahore court (see page 1509 of “Bhakti and the Gendered Self” by Anshu Malhotra.) Malhotra summarizes the content and purpose of Piro’s book as follows in her chapter, “Performing a Persona: Reading Piro’s Kafis”, which appears in Speaking of the Self: Gender, Performance, and Autobiography in South Asia:

The 160 Kafis is not the usual compilation of philosophical ruminations, homilies on moral living, or advice on adopting an uncluttered life of devotion that one may expect from a text produced in a religious establishment, and one that purportedly borrows from Bhakti, and even Sufi ethics. It is a text constructed with a specific and limited agenda—to elucidate Piro’s move from a brothel to a religious establishment, and lay to rest the misgivings of those opposed to it. The process of its composition may have helped Piro understand and digest what she made of her unusual move. It also allowed her to explain, justify, and popularize her version of the events, besides scotching the egre¬ gious rumors that followed in the wake of her unprecedented move that not only touched her, but cast aspersions on her guru. The personal tone of Piros 160 Kafis can be further gleaned from her preoccupation with noting, indeed emphasizing, the acrimonious relations between “Hindus” (inclusive of Sikhs) and “Turaks,” a theme around which she frames her own story of flight and asylum.

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