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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

“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.