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

Abstract:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstract:

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

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

Available free online.

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

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

Abstract from Project Muse

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


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

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

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

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.”

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

This podcast is available free online through Listen Notes.  

Summary: In this episode Schofield considers why Indian musicians and especially courtesans appear at all in the official records of the East India Company, and what this tells us about relations between the British colonial state and the Indian peoples whose worlds it was increasingly encroaching upon during the 1830s and 40s.

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

This podcast is available free online through Listen Notes.                                    

Summary: This episode explores the musical history of Khanum Jan. Khanum Jan was a celebrity courtesan in the cantonment of Kanpur and the court of Asafuddaula of Lucknow in 1780s North India. Famed then for her virtuosic singing, dancing, and speaking eyes, Khanum became famous again in the twentieth century because of her close musical interactions with a remarkable Englishwoman, Sophia Plowden.

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:

@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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Abstract

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

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

This article is available free online through The Free Library

Abstract  

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

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

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.

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”.

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…

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.

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!

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)

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.”

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

From JSTOR:

“The two Muslim poets featured in Scott Kugle’s comparative study lived separate lives during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries in the Deccan region of southern India. Here, they meet in the realm of literary imagination, illuminating the complexity of gender, sexuality, and religious practice in South Asian Islamic culture. Shah Siraj Awrangabadi (1715-1763), known as “Sun,” was a Sunni who, after a youthful homosexual love affair, gave up sexual relationships to follow a path of personal holiness. Mah Laqa Bai Chanda (1768-1820), known as “Moon,” was a Shi’i and courtesan dancer who transferred her seduction of men to the pursuit of mystical love. Both were poets in the Urdu language of the ghazal, or love lyric, often fusing a spiritual quest with erotic imagery.Kugle argues that Sun and Moon expressed through their poetry exceptions to the general rules of heteronormativity and gender inequality common in their patriarchal societies. Their art provides a lens for a more subtle understanding of both the reach and the limitations of gender roles in Islamic and South Asian culture and underscores how the arts of poetry, music, and dance are integral to Islamic religious life. Integrated throughout are Kugle’s translations of Urdu and Persian poetry previously unavailable in English.”

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

From the abstract:

“Mah Laqa Bai is one of Hyderabad’s most famous women. She was a poetess, singer and dancer, and political advisor during her time. She lived from 1768 until 1824 and was active during the era of the Second and Third Nizams (as rulers from the Asaf Jahi dynasty of Hyderabad state were known), and was one of the first women to author a full collection of Urdu ghazals (love poems).1 This chapter takes up the subject of Mah Laqa Bai and was originally written as a keynote address for the conference Dance Matters II. One of the questions this conference asked was, what remains of a dance when the performance is done? What are the traces of dance in the senses, memory, tradition or material objects?”

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

From the abstract:

“Shi’i devotion and Urdu poetry both flourished in unique ways in the Deccan region, but did these cultural phenomena allow new creativity for women? This question can be addressed by examining the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai (AH 1181–1240/1768–1824), one of the most powerful figures in the court of the second Nizam of Hyderabad, Nizam ‘Ali Khan (r. 1762–1803), and the third Nizam, Sikandar Jah (r. 1803–29), as well as being mistress to their prime ministers of Iranian descent. She was one of the first women poets to compile a full divan of Urdu ghazals and was adept at music and dance. This essay examines the issue of gender in her poetry and personality. It argues that she wrote as a woman but in the poetic male voice. She wrote at a time when Urdu in the Deccan region was being altered to conform to Mogul standards with heavy “Persianization” of its diction. The essay asks whether Deccani Urdu was a feminine language before this reform, as argued by some literary historians of the Deccan. It then asks whether Mah Laqa Bai had a feminist agenda as a women poet of the eighteenth century, as charged by some feminist scholars of the Deccan. The essay concludes that Mah Laqa Bai’s concept of the feminine was shaped by her role as a dancing female devotee of Imam ‘Ali, rather than by linguistic structures or political ideologies.”

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

From the abstract:

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

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

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

From the abstract:

“This thesis explores the interaction between Hindustani and Bengali musicians and their patrons over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the convergence of Braj, Persianate, and Bengali musical cultures in Bengal after 1856. I stress how their intersection in Calcutta directed the course of Hindustani music from late Mughal to late colonial forms, and cultivated a sense of custodianship among elite Bengalis over the heritage of Hindustan.

This thesis aims 1) to challenge the established narrative of total transformation from courtly musical patronage to a “modern” overtly “public” colonial sphere in the nineteenth century; 2) to draw attention to the importance of innovations in musical performance and epistemology in this period; 3) to engage a multilingual vernacular archive as evidence of the role of non-Bengali culture and connoisseurs in the formation of a Bengali cultural identity; and 4) to critique the historiography of “Muslim decadence” in late Mughal culture, and to qualify the marginalisation of Muslims in late nineteenth-century Hindu vernacular public spheres.

Chapter One introduces the main themes of the thesis and its historiographical context. Chapter Two reconstructs the geography of musical circulation between Hindustan and eastern India over the eighteenth century as a background for subsequent developments. Chapter Three re-evaluates late Mughal and Nawabi aesthetics in relation to musical patronage, with a focus on Wajid c Ali Shah (1822-1887), the last Nawab of Lucknow. Chapter Four reconstructs the Nawab’s court-in-exile in Calcutta (1856-1887) as a forum for innovation and interregional exchange. Chapter Five underlines the role of elite women in musical patronage, with a focus on the Queen of Lucknow, Khas Mahal, and her relationship to the gramophone recording artist Pyare Saheb. Chapter Six details how musicians from the Nawabi court found patrons in Bengal, and were instrumental to the cultivation of Calcutta’s music scene. Chapter Seven provides the first comprehensive critical reading of nineteenth-century Bangla writings on music (treatises and song collections). I conclude this thesis with a summary of how late Mughal musical knowledge and practices (in Hindustani, Persianate, and Bengali arenas) developed under colonialism, and complicate our sense of the formation of Indian “classical” music.”

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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

Abstract

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

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

Summary

From page xiii:

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

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

From the Introduction

“…. While various authors make connections between Indian and Egyptian music and dance, none go quite so far as to place bayadères in the Carthage of Didon’s time. If Berlioz really wanted to avoid anachronism, he should, to use his own words, have “étudié la question” and “gone into it” further. But authenticity was presumably not Berlioz’s primary objective. In conceiving the ballets to be performed in Didon’s Carthage, he surely did not begin with historical accounts of the ancient world, for his first impulse was to emulate the bayadères he had seen in Paris sixteen or seventeen years earlier. Similarly, my concern here is not with ancient Indian dance rituals or the Carthaginian slave trade. Rather, I will pursue the relationship between Berlioz’s dances and his contemporary models—an investigation that nevertheless must deal with the same questions of authenticity and anachronism.

Authenticity and anachronism are, of course, two of the fundamental issues of exoticism, and in negotiating the gap between Indian temple and French theater, between ancient Carthage and contemporary Europe, or, more broadly, between historical/anthropological veracity and operatic convention, Berlioz is engaging in a discourse very familiar in the nineteenth century. As recent studies of musical exoticism have ably demonstrated, this dis-course typically tended to privilege the second party in each of the above pairings—i.e., nineteenth-century European operatic convention— for exoticism inevitably reflects the host culture more than the culture supposedly being depicted.

In this context, Berlioz’s bayadères could be seen as almost a textbook case of exoticism. The distinction between the two sides of the traditional oppositional pairings is heightened, for we have an instance of real bayadères encountered in the flesh by a composer who persistently proved resistant to the charms of genuine exotic music, and whose musical exoticism has been memorably described as “nugatory”—with the potent but rare exception of the act IV ballet itself. Rather than simply dismissing Berlioz’s ballet as mere exoticism I will explore the tension of this dialectic, for such an exploration enriches our understanding of Les Troyens and informs our responses to modern productions of Berlioz’s opera—productions whose aesthetics reconfigure in interesting ways the issues of authenticity and anachronism.”

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

Abstract

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

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Gupta’s article, largely drawing from Saba Dewan’s documentary The Other Song, examines the prominence of the courtesan figure in popular culture and briefly outlines the shifting attitudes towards tawaif music and dance through the 19th and early 20th century. Gupta notes how social attitudes forced some artists to reinvent themselves and distance themselves from their pasts, as well as how certain songs had words and lyrics rewritten to be less suggestive and more ‘respectable.’

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.

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

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

Publisher’s Summary

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

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

Poets and Padams

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

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

From the Introduction: Questions to Guide Interpretation

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

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

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

Interpreting the Padams: The Courtesan’s Role

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

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

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

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

     And he rules the worlds

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ksetrayya?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’.”

 

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.’….”

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.

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

“Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India, edited by Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Davesh Soneji, explores the formation of classical traditions in the performing arts of South India. Through ten articles by leading scholars in the field, the volume describes the shifts involved in what reformers termed the “revival” of traditions: from temples to concert halls; from hereditary, lower-caste performers to upper-caste outsiders; from guru-shishya relationships to formal curricula; and from ritual practice to aesthetic experiences… it argues for new understandings of both agency and hegemony in classicization projects. In terms of agency, authors identify a broader set of actors as central to the process; instead of just Brahmin, middle-class reformers, the articles draw attention to the role of former devadasis (women who performed ritual temple dances) in creating, reforming, and preserving dance culture, and that of professional musicians in standardizing musical performance and notation.”

Source:  Abigail McGowan (2009) Performing Pasts: Reinventing the
Arts in Modern South India, History: Reviews of New Books, 37:4, 151-151

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

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

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

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

[From Amazon.ca Description]:

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

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

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.

 

 

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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).

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Introduction

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

Topics and Notable Excerpts

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstract

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

Notes

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

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

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

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.”

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.”