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

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

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

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

From the abstract: “The paper purports to study the changing contexts of the thumri, a form of light vocal music that was the mainstay of the tawaifs and other courtesan communities of nineteenth century North India. The paper, through a critique of the scholarship on the performing arts, calls for a more serious engagement with the cultural practices of hereditary women performers, one that acknowledges the impact of technological renovation and the emergence of music institutions on the performance practices of the courtesans. More importantly, it charts the evolution of the musical form of thumri as an indispensable part of the repertoire of Kathak in the decades following the independence, to show how it was significantly influenced by the New Media that altered both its content and structure. The emergence of identifiably distinct repertoires of performance embodied in the gharanas of dance in this period and their appropriation of thumri as part of their articulation of a distinct aesthetic are explored as parallel concerns in the paper.”

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

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

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

From the abstract: “In the past 70 years, certain kinds of Indian dance have been read as classical or aspirational, especially when performed by or associated with Hindu/high-caste people and in cosmopolitan spaces like Chennai or San Francisco. Inversely, certain dancers and dance techniques associated with those who stand apart from caste or religious status are dismissed as poor in quality, and not worthy of emulation. In this article, I examine how such logic operates through South Indian (Telugu) cinema, tourism, and transnational capitalist flows, and how it relies upon reductive and exclusionary notions of gender, caste, identity, and affect. In doing so, I consider how the same media, which validates and fetishizes certain gendered notions of the body, simultaneously offers new possibilities for challenging casteist and misogynistic hegemonies. Relying on queer and critical transnational feminist theory, in this article I explore how the fetishization of the low-caste courtesan dancer –a symbol for generations of South Indian expressive culture – has ultimately produced a site of resistance.”

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

This is a chapter from the edited collection Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’. In this chapter, Dwyer primarily examines the “view of the Indian Muslim as Other and not an authentic Indian citizen, by looking at India’s ‘other’ national cinema, the so-called ‘Hindi’ film.” Her essay centers on how the meaning of the words “Hindu” and “Hindustan” are manipulated by forms of nationalism, Hindutva in particular, to be conflated with the idea of the Hindu: “a person following certain beliefs and practices; and the othering of the Muslims: their treatment and representation in Hindi film over the decades. She spends the last section of her chapter discussing “the courtesan film”—how the prevalent courtesan figure found in all Indian cultural texts seeps into Hindi films, informing us of the “‘othering’ not only of the Muslim but of the Muslim women in particular.” Dwyer notes that the courtesan figure who “pours out her grief for the love she is denied in tears, poetry, and dance,” although a romantic, tragic figure, becomes an agential source of power spanning all films. Drawing parallels with the ghazal and other historical dimensions emerging from linear history, she discerns this genre of courtesan film as a space for nostalgia for a “lost Islamic world.”

This is a chapter from the edited collection Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’. In this chapter, Dwyer primarily examines the “view of the Indian Muslim as Other and not an authentic Indian citizen, by looking at India’s ‘other’ national cinema, the so-called ‘Hindi’ film.” Her essay centers on how the meaning of the words “Hindu” and “Hindustan” are manipulated by forms of nationalism, Hindutva in particular, to be conflated with the idea of the Hindu: “a person following certain beliefs and practices; and the othering of the Muslims: their treatment and representation in Hindi film over the decades. She spends the last section of her chapter discussing “the courtesan film”—how the prevalent courtesan figure found in all Indian cultural texts seeps into Hindi films, informing us of the “‘othering’ not only of the Muslim but of the Muslim women in particular.” Dwyer notes that the courtesan figure who “pours out her grief for the love she is denied in tears, poetry, and dance,” although a romantic, tragic figure, becomes an agential source of power spanning all films. Drawing parallels with the ghazal and other historical dimensions emerging from linear history, she discerns this genre of courtesan film as a space for nostalgia for a “lost Islamic world.”

This is a chapter from the edited collection Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the ‘Other’. In this chapter, Dwyer primarily examines the “view of the Indian Muslim as Other and not an authentic Indian citizen, by looking at India’s ‘other’ national cinema, the so-called ‘Hindi’ film.” Her essay centers on how the meaning of the words “Hindu” and “Hindustan” are manipulated by forms of nationalism, Hindutva in particular, to be conflated with the idea of the Hindu: “a person following certain beliefs and practices; and the othering of the Muslims: their treatment and representation in Hindi film over the decades. She spends the last section of her chapter discussing “the courtesan film”—how the prevalent courtesan figure found in all Indian cultural texts seeps into Hindi films, informing us of the “‘othering’ not only of the Muslim but of the Muslim women in particular.” Dwyer notes that the courtesan figure who “pours out her grief for the love she is denied in tears, poetry, and dance,” although a romantic, tragic figure, becomes an agential source of power spanning all films. Drawing parallels with the ghazal and other historical dimensions emerging from linear history, she discerns this genre of courtesan film as a space for nostalgia for a “lost Islamic world.”

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

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

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

From the abstract:

“British representations of courtesans, or nautch-girls, is an emerging area of study in relation to the impact of British imperialism on constructions of Indian womanhood. The nautch was a form of dance and entertainment, performed by courtesans, that originated in early Indiancivilizations and was connected to various Hindu temples. Nautch performances and courtesanswere a feature of early British experiences of India and, therefore, influenced British genderedrepresentations of Indian women. My research explores the shifts in British perceptions of Indianwomen, and the impact this had on imperial discourses, from the mid-eighteenth through the latenineteenth centuries. Over the course of the colonial period examined in this research, the Britishincreasingly imported their own social values and beliefs into India. British constructions ofgender, ethnicity, and class in India altered ideas and ideals concerning appropriate behaviour,sexuality, sexual availability, and sex-specific gender roles in the subcontinent. This thesis explores the production of British lifestyles and imperial culture in India and the ways in which this influenced their representation of courtesans. During the nabob period of the eighteenth century, nautch parties worked as a form of cultural interaction between Indian elites and British East India Company officials. However, over the course of the nineteenth century the nautch and nautch-girls became symbolic to the British of India’s ‘despotism’ and ‘backwardness,’ as well as representative of the supposed dangers of miscegenation and Eastern sensuality. By the midnineteenthcentury, nautch-girls were represented as commercial sex-workers and were subject to the increasing surveillance and medical intervention of the British colonial state. In addition, this representation perpetuated the belief of the British ‘saving’ Indian women as a way to justify the continuation of colonialism in India. My research explores how British conceptualizations of courtesans were fundamental to the justification of the imperial project in India, as well as representative of changing British perceptions of their own political and territorial power in the subcontinent.”

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

From the abstract: “This article interrogates how and why courtesan identities are simultaneously embraced and disavowed by Brahman dancers. Using a combination of ethnographic and critical feminist methods, which allow the author to toggle between the past and the present, between India and the United States, and between film analysis and the dance studio, the author examines the cultural politics of the romanticized and historical Indian dancer— the mythical courtesan. The author argues that the mythical courtesan was called into existence through film cultures in the early twentieth century to provide a counterpoint against which a modern and national Brahmanical womanhood could be articulated. The author brings together a constellation of events that participated in the construction of Indian womanhood, especially the rise of sound film against the backdrop of growing anticolonial and nationalist sentiments in early twentieth-century South India. The author focuses on films that featured an early twentieth-century dancer-singer-actress, Sundaramma. In following her career through Telugu film and connecting it to broader conversations about Indian womanhood in the 1930s and 1940s, the author traces the contours of an affective triangle between three mutually constituting emotional points: pleasure, shame,

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

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

Publisher‘s Summary

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

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

Abstract

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

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

Abstract

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

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

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

From the Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction:

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

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

 

Main Arguments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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