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


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.



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


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:
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.’….”

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.




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.


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

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

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


Consider the following questions:

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


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.”

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

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