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.”

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. “The God and the Bayadere: an Indian Legend.” Goethe’s Works, vol. 1 (Poems). Edited by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen. Rpt. in the Online Library of Liberty. pp. 213-215. Accessed April 25, 2021.

This poem is available free online through the Online Library of Liberty.

            Summary: This poem follows Mahadeva, lord of the earth, and his ascension to earth for a day where he meets a bayadere (temple dancer). This poem is very loosely based off tales of Parvati and Shiva.

Abbas, Ghulam. “Anandi.” Translated by G.A. Chaussée. The Annual of Urdu Studies. Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2003, https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/18349.

This story is available for free online through the University of Wisconsin’s digital library. In ‘Anandi’, Ghulam Abbas dissects the hypocrisy of a society that hides behind a facade of self-righteousness but derives secret pleasures from what it declares taboo. Summary from Desi Writer’s Lounge.

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

This webpage is available to read for free online.

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

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

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

(206)

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.

@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.

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

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

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.

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”.

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.

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

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

From the Introduction

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

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

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

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.

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

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

 

From the Introduction – Modern Courtesans

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

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

 

From the Introduction – Courtesan Films

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

From the Introduction

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

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

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

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.

 

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’.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TERMS

NOTES ABOUT GHAZALS

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

INTERPRETIVE NOTES

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