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,

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

Abstract:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstract:

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

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

Abstract from Project Muse

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


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

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

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

Shah, Vidya. Jalsa: Indian Women and Their Journeys from the Salon to the Studio. Tulika, 2016.

Publisher’s Summary

Jalsa takes the reader through the journeys of women performers in India from the salon to the studio. It attempts to give insight into and a perspective on the beginning of the interface of technology and entertainment, and the irreversible impact this has had on how we listen to, enjoy, and consume music. It acknowledges an important slice of the history of Indian music, which is celebrated the world over today in its many forms and avatars.

Notes

Our readers may be interested to know that Jalsa explores the stories of several individual, named courtesans. Included among these are tawaif and renowned singer Jaddan Bai, who went on to establish one of India’s first film production companies, Sangeet Movietone, in 1934, and Janki Bai, an enormously famous singer. Shah writes: “It is said that roads leading to the record shops would get blocked by lovers of her music whenever a new stock of discs arrived. Many of her records sold over 25,000 copies, something unheard of till then even for highly accomplished singers of her time.”

“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.

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Tharu, Susie and Ke Lalita. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Vol. 1, The Feminist Press, 1990.

This enormously influential work contains a sweeping collection of translations of over 200 texts from historical Indian women writers alongside explorations of their historical contexts. Writers include Buddhist nuns, medieval rebel poets, court historians, and, most importantly to the readers of Courtesans of India, devadasis and tawaifs.

We have tagged this book as both a primary source and a secondary source because it contains translations and interpretation. We have cited this anthology on the following posts:

Sachdeva Jha, Schweta. “Tawa’if as Poet and Patron: Rethinking Women’s Self-Representation.” Speaking of the Self : Gender, Performance, and Autobiography in South Asia, edited by Anshu Malhotra and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Duke University Press, 2015, pp. 141-164.

Abstract

This chapter addresses the issue of women and self-representation through the life of a wealthy courtesan and tawaif poet, Mah Laqa Bai “Chanda” (c. 1767–c. 1824) in the court of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hyderabad. Through her life history, the chapter analyzes the reemployment of “conventional” acts of imperial image making such as composition of poetry, public display of faith, and patronage of architecture and writers by royal women as a means of self-articulation. It will be shown how reading and writing poetry become significant acts of authorship and autobiographical articulation in the specific context of performance, modernity, and mobility in emerging princely cultures.

Introduction

The tawa’ifs have long been compared to the mythological apsaras or devadasis (temple women) in medieval courts as women of the “oldest profession of prostitution and seduction.” Despite the ubiquitous tawa’if of Bombay cinema, writing the history of the tawa’if is a necessary exercise to trace their subjectivity and rethink grand narratives of colonial history and traditions in courtly cultures.

The subject of this chapter is Mah Laqa Bai “Chanda” (c. 1767-c. 1824), a wealthy tawa’if in the princely court of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Hyderabad. An experienced Urdu poetess, Mah Laqa Bai was the first woman to compile an entire volume or diwan of Urdu poetry in 1798 and a powerful courtesan. She earned revenue from her many jagir (gifted) lands and had an extensive library of manuscripts. A patron of poets and performers, Mah Laqa Bai resided in a grand haveli or palace, which was home to a large retinue of servants as well as a salon to upcoming performers, chroniclers, and poets.

Unlike contemporary understanding of the autobiography as a literary genre, the “autobiographical” articulations of tawa’ifs such as Mah Laqa Bai are not in the form of memoirs or diaries. In earlier courtly contexts, historians have shown how royal women such as queens employed imperial means of self-articulation through the use of public pageantry; traveling with large retinues; commissioning artists or painters; building inns, tanks, and mosques; or minting coins in their own image. Through the narration of Mah Laqa Bai’s life history in this chapter, we will explore the means through which tawa’ifs negotiated their position as courtesans or women of culture. Their reemployment of “conventional” acts of imperial image making such as composing poetry, architectural patronage, and commissioning chronicles will be shown as significant acts of authorship and autobiographical articulation in the context of emerging regional courts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the decline of Mughal control. While reading Mah Laqa Bai’s life history and that of her family from the time of her grandmother, we will focus on the lives of those generations of women who chose to become tawa’ifs. Their agency, it will be argued, lay in their attempt to transform their identity through deliberate “erasure” of their past history of displacement and the taking on of new names and movement to different courts or cities in search of livelihood.

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.

Krishnan, Hari. “Bharatanatyam.” Accelerated Motion, acceleratedmotion.org/dance-history/bharatanatyam/. Accessed 18 February 2021.

The Bharatanatyam section of the Accelerated Motion website contains valuable information and scholarly questions about the bharatanatyam dance, its history, devadasis, and their disenfranchisement. Several pages are contained within this section; we encourage our readers to view each. The content is a clear, concise, and highly digestible introduction to the politics surrounding this beloved dance, and several scanned pdfs of further scholarly material are provided for free.

Kamath, Harshita Mruthinti. “Kṣētrayya: The Making of a Telugu Poet.” The Indian Economic & Social History Review, vol. 56, no. 3, July 2019, pp. 253–282, doi:10.1177/0019464619852264.

Abstract

Kṣētrayya is the attributed author of Telugu padams (short lyrical poems) dedicated to Muvva Gōpāla, a form of the Hindu deity Kṛṣṇa. Kṣētrayya is commonly described as a peripatetic poet from the village of Muvva in Telugu-speaking South India who wandered south to the Nāyaka courts of Tanjavur in the seventeenth century. Contrary to popular and scholarly assumptions about this poet, this article argues that Kṣētrayya was not a historical figure, but rather, a literary persona constructed into a Telugu bhakti poet-saint through the course of three centuries of literary reform. A close reading of selected padams attributed to Kṣētrayya reveals the uniquely tangible world of female sexuality painted by the speakers of these poems. However, these padams became sanitized through the course of colonial and post-colonial anti-nautch and Telugu literary reform. In line with this transformation, the hagiography of the poet Kṣētrayya was carefully molded to fit a prefabricated typology of a Telugu bhakti poet-saint. Countering the longstanding narrative of solo male authorship, the article raises the possibility that these padams were composed by multiple authors, including vēśyas (courtesans).

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

Abstract

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

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

This article is available free online through The Free Library

Abstract  

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

Pillai, Mannu S. “Muddupalani: The Woman Who Had No Reason for Shame.” The Hindu, 2 June 2018. Accessed 11 January 2021.

This article is available for free online at The Hindu: https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-woman-who-had-no-reason-for-shame/article24057695.ece

Summary

This article profiles Muddupalani (1730-1790), a devadasi in the court of Pratapasimha, who wrote poetry “unsurpassed in harmony and eroticism.”

Pillai explores how Mudduplani was proud, respected, and rich, and how she rejected modesty. It touches upon how devadasis lost their wealth and status as “Indian society absorbed from the British an overblown sense of Victorian piety” and how Muddupalani’s works, including her Telugu epic, the Radhika Santwanamu, became scandalized

Scobie, Claire. The Representation of the Figure of the Devadasi in European Travel Writing and Art from 1770 to 1820 with specific reference to Dutch writer Jacob Haafner. 2013. University of Western Sydney, PHD dissertation.

This dissertation is available to download for free online via the University of Western Sydney: https://researchdirect.westernsydney.edu.au/islandora/object/uws:28030.

Alongside this dissertation paper, Claire Scobie wrote a novel entitled The Pagoda Tree. Please note that although reference to The Pagoda Tree is included in the title of the dissertation, the above link contains only the text of the dissertation paper itself, and NOT the full text of The Pagoda Tree.

Click here to view our citation for Scobie’s novel, The Pagoda Tree.

Abstract

This thesis examines the figure of the devadasi, or temple dancer, a familiar
trope in European travel literature and art from 1770 to 1820. Comprised of two parts, the critical component of the work analyses the representation of the figure of the devadasi through a close reading of a selection of eighteenth-century texts. Historically specific and anchored within travel writing and post-Saidian Orientalist theory, I argue that despite the limitations of these accounts, in both form and content, they shed light upon the complex cross-cultural interactions of the period. The texts range from travel accounts, with a particular focus on Dutch author, Jacob Haafner, contrasted with English Company servant, John Henry Grose and French missionary, Abbé J.A Dubois, some eighteenth-century paintings, and two indigenous works—the erotic Telugu poetry of Muddupalani, an eighteenth-century courtesan and artist, and a little-known Sanskrit work, the Sarva-Deva-Vilasa. I propose that the textual paradoxes and tensions illuminate how the devadasi exercised agency and yet, how her apparent dichotomous nature—embodying the sacred and the sensual—would frequently complicate her representation in the West.

The creative component, entitled The Pagoda Tree, is a historical novel set in eighteenth-century south India. Primarily told from the perspective of Maya, a temple dancer, it individualises the personal narrative of a devadasi and intersects her with the larger historical implications of imperial expansion. Informed by the conceptual framework of feminist and revisionist historians, and the recovery scholarship of the devadasi, this approach positions the temple dancer in the fictive space between history, archive and imagination. Together, the two parts of the thesis explore the contradictions and conflicting forces which empower and undermine marginalised figures within colonial discourse, and demonstrate how fiction may assist in their recovery.

Arora, Poonam. “Sanctioned and Proscribed Narratives in Indian Cinema: A Bicultural Reading of the Courtesan Film.” Partialities: Theory, Pedagogy, and the “Postcolonial”, edited by Kostas Myrsiades and Jerry McGuire, SUNY Press, 1995, pp. 59-85.

From the Introduction

Despite its lip service to secular ideals, Indian cinema in general has contributed significantly to the celebratory construction of Hindu nationalist discourse. It has done so by reviving precisely those tenets of social organization and gender politics which have been invoked by the nationalist discourse and which are derived from Hindu mythology. It is notable, however, that a specific genre within Indian cinema—the Muslim film—reverses the binarism of Hindu and Muslim identities. This genre represents the Muslim not as masculine, fundamentalist, and separatist, but rather as feminine, exotic, and seductive. This apparent anomaly has been explained by Faisal Devji in his recent essay, “Hindu/Muslim/Indian.” Devji argues that the latter “benign” construction of the Muslim in popular texts fulfills a dual function for Hindus. First, it counters the putative threat of the Muslim, who is commonly viewed as the “enemy within.” Second, the representation of the Muslim woman as a figure of romance in literature and film “elicit[s].. pleasure in the shape of a rape fantasy.” Devji reads this fantasy as a mock punishment meted out to the Muslim whose presence not only reactivates the painful memory of the partition, but who is also believed capable of re-enacting that violent history….

I shall extend Devji’s argument by illustrating that, in a specific subgenre of the Muslim film—the tawaif or courtesan film—not only does the representation of the Muslim woman as a tawaif seduce her Hindu audiences (by, in effect, “asking for” her rape), but the focal point at which this occurs is during certain key scenes in which the tawaif unveils herself to the pro-filmic and, by extension, to the film audience. What Devji’s argument does not address is the popularity of the tawaif film with its equally devoted Muslim audience. Nor can the argument that the film extracts a public confession from the Muslim imaginary for the internalized “guilt” of being different within an aggressive homogenizing national culture, explain that appeal.

I will argue via Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan that the tawaif film interpellates “Hindus” and “Muslims” into different subject positions by employing different textual strategies.

Natarajan, Nalini. The Unsafe Sex: The Female Binary and Public Violence against Women. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016

“Chapter 2 analyses the effects of militarisation on public spaces by invoking the wife/tawaif duality within the pretext of the Great Indian Revolt of 1857. According to Natarajan, as the Revolt subsumed men into the army, giving them avenues of stable income, it consequentially led to a devaluation of women at home. Contrarily, the courtesan (tawaif), who by and large fled exploitative homes, could be seen as empowered females with steady income from the military. Yet the binary of the purdahnasheen (veiled) wife versus camp courtesan still rendered public spaces unsafe for women, as sexual purity of all women was at risk with men away at war. This, however, led to another division: the elite educated women facing ‘nationalist seclusion’ (p. 48) were shrouded from Western influences and protected from the public, while the lower-class ‘available’ women, with no rights, became exposed to colonial reforms. Thus, although public spaces manifested contrary movements of empowerment for women who occupied it, they were replete with exploitative characters for women through the ‘separate sphere’ ideology of the street (baazari aurat) and home (grihalakshmi), which strongly impresses the notion that public spaces are unsafe for women.”

(Chakraborty, Sanchayita Paul, and Priyanka Chatterjee. “Book Review: The Unsafe Sex: The Female Binary and Public Violence against Women.” Feminist Review, vol. 119, no. 1, July 2018, pp. 165–167)

Chatterjee, Gayatri. “The Veshyā, the Ganika and the Tawaif: Representations of Prostitutes and Courtesans in Indian Language, Literature and Cinema.” Prostitution and Beyond: An Analysis of Sex Work in India. Eds. Rohini Sahni, V. K. Shankar and Hemant Apte. New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2008. 279-300. SAGE Knowledge

From the introduction:

“The circumstances of the contemporary prostitute might be distinct from those in the past; but literary and cinematic representations continue to be steeped in traditional perception, verbalization and visualization, all well established and sanctioned by the society. Today, she might be a citizen of the Indian state, part of the democracy, with the right to vote and liable to be judged in a civil court; but this makes little difference to her social status. Additionally, the representation-narration around the prostitute continues to tell old tales, seldom revealing the tremendously varied and complex histories behind women now held under one blanket term prostitute.

First and foremost, the paper bases itself upon the premise that there is no one group of women involved here. Going further, it seeks to highlight the fact that behind the formation and existence of these groups of women lies vast and varied social, economic, cultural and political circumstances. And the retrieval of those lost histories (even if partial or incomplete) requires an investigation into terms coined to mark ‘such women’ and the history of their linguistic coinage. Interestingly, the retrieval of this history also requires rigourous survey into the history of literary representation. There has been a long tradition of seeing language and representation as tools for the perpetuation of social inequalities. Though that is true, we now also realize that the production of material history is closely linked with the production of language, literature and arts—that the investigation of one leads to the other. The histories of linguistic coinage and the changing course of words and their meanings are important to know what practices are in currency at what time. What the paper ultimately establishes is that the history of the ‘prostitute’ forms an important chapter in the history of work and woman.

The study shows that to begin with, all these women forming various groups were indicated by different word-coinage. They were professional women or were often treated as such. The more they lost their right to work, the more they had to resort to ‘prostitution’. They are patita or fallen women—what they have fallen from is actually their professional status. Early facts and realities are all obliterated now, replaced by a ghettoization of ‘all such women’ into being only sex workers and the rise of social and moral discourse around them.

Three words veshyā, ganika and tawaif are chosen in this article, which begins with an inquiry into the etymologies behind each term, followed by a survey of representation-narration of the women belonging to these groups—today all seen as ‘prostitute’. Coming from Sanskrit, the word veshyā stands for a prostitute in most Indian languages (there surely are other local terms; this is mostly used for formal or literary purposes). The other two words ganika and tawaif are not in use any more, as that particular social situations in which they existed are no more. Nevertheless, they remain important because of their continuous representation in films of all regions and languages.

It is through the continuous use of language and reproduction of representation that societies maintain their status quo, which in this case is an aggregate of opinions and facts: there is one kind of women who sell sexual favours; they live—this they must—outside the purview of the society; they are morally inferior to all members of the mainstream society—which is the reason why they are ‘outside’. Though they are of one kind, they do not actually make up any caste, class or community—they are women who might or might not stay together (mostly they do). They might have some of their own rules of cluster formation. More commonly, these women belong to a house ruled by a matriarchal figure and so are socially and economically governed by each house-rule; in all other ways they are outside the patriarchal society. The only transaction they have with the mainstream society is when men visit them (for a short span of time) for sexual purposes; the women of the mainstream society have nothing to do with them.”

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

From JSTOR:

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

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

From the abstract:

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

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

From the abstract:

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

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

From the abstract:

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

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

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

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.

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. “‘Performing Wom[e]n’ and the Gendered National Imagination: An Exploration of Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum.” South Asian Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2013.

Focusing on the eponymous Shyam Benegal film, Sardari Begum (1996), with intermittent reference as well to his Bhumika (The Role; 1976) and Mandi (Marketplace; 1983), this essay explores the relationship of performing women to the gendered, modernizing agendas of the Indian nation-state. Reprising the career of women who represented professions, identities, and cultural repertoires that flourished under, and were indelibly associated with a feudal order, these films show women inhabiting subject positions that were delegitimized, marginalized, even excised from the constitutive narratives of the new Indian nation on its way to modernity.

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. “‘Performing Wom[e]n:’ The ‘Nachne-Ganiwalis’ of Bhumika, Mandi, and Sardari Begum.” New Indian Cinema in Post-Independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal’s Films. Routledge, 2013, pp. 47-78.

From the Introduction

“This chapter addresses three films – Bhumika (The Role; 1976); Mandi (Marketplace; 1983); and the eponymous Sardari Begum (1996)…. [A] continuity of interests and ideological investments link the … three films … including: each film’s focus on a female protagonist and subject; her conscious and unconscious efforts to emancipate herself from the debilitations of her gender, class, and caste oppression; and, finally, for the purposes of my argument, her function as a figure through whom women’s relationship to the hegemonic values and ideological agendas of the Indian nation-­ in-the-­ making are assessed and interrogated. The nation remains, then, a salient frame of reference for grasping the ideological investments of these Benegal films….

The performing women… represent professions, identities, and cultural repertoires that flourished under, and were indelibly associated with, a feudal order, but which were delegitimized, marginalized, even excised from the self-­definitions and constitutive narratives of the new Indian nation. “Women performers,” Singh notes, “were kept out of the frame of the nation in the making” (see epigraph; 2007: 94). By focusing on protagonists who belong to professions and identities that are devalued and marginalized in the new Indian nation, these three later films, I argue, “unsettle” (Singh’s term) the processes through which the Indian nation constituted itself, thereby also unsettling an unambiguously negative assessment of feudal social and cultural arrangements. Thus, [these] films undertake a more fundamental interrogation regarding India’s nation-­ formation itself – what the nation deliberately excludes in order to become a nation.

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).

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…

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.

 

Ram, Anjali. “Framing the Deminine: Diasporic Readings of Gender in Popular Indian Cinema.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol.25, no.2, 2002, pp.25-52.

Abstract

This essay focuses on the ways in which Indian immigrant women actively engage and interpret Indian cinema. Employing an ethnographic approach, the analysis moves between readers’ readings and film texts in order to locate how Indian cinema mediates the constitution of gendered identities in the diaspora. Keeping alive the sense of agency, this study demonstrates that Indian women viewers/readers simultaneously comply with and resist the dominant patriarchal representations that saturate Indian cinema.

 

Notable Excerpt (pp. 44-45)

The image that most directly counters the purity/sanctity model of Indian womanhood in cinema is that of the courtesan. Chakravarty (1993) comments that the courtesan, as historical character and cinematic spectacle, is one of the most enigmatic figures to haunt the margins of Indian cultural consciousness. Socially decentered, she is yet the object of respect and admiration because of her artistic training and musical accomplishments. The courtesan is an ambiguous/romantic figure in multiple senses. She embodies both Hindu and Muslim social graces and represents what Chakravarty calls “female power-cum-vulnerability”. Rekha’s most memorable roles have involved playing the courtesan directly or indirectly. In Silsila she plays the role of the “other woman,” which is echoed in variations in Basera (1985). In Mukadaar ka Sikandar she plays a bazaar entertainer in love with the tortured hero played by Bachchan, again blurring the boundaries between real/reel life, fiction/fantasy as film gossip and text intersect. In Utsaav, she plays Vasantsena, the legendary courtesan of ancient India, whose life is narrated in the classical Sanskrit play of the fourth century A.D. entitled Mirchchakatika (The Little Clay Cart). However, it is in Umrao Jaan (198 1), which Chakaravarty (1993) calls the quintessential courtesan film of Indian cinema, where she plays both desiring subject and desired object and reveals the contested nature of the feminine in the collective Indian imaginary.

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.

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.

Evans, Kristi. “Contemporary Devadasis: Empowered Auspicious Women or Exploited Prostitutes?” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. 80, No. 3, 1998, pp. 23-38.

This article is available for free online through the University of Manchester Library. 

Summary

After contextualizing the common discursive question in the article’s title, Evans briefly explains that Western colonization eroded devadasis’ cultural roles and the public’s perspective of those roles. She goes on to attempt to answer the question, “Who are the contemporary devadasis?” by discussing the struggle over a cultural identity for the “post-devadasi:” the devadasi that exists when their once-integral practice of temple dancing is outlawed.

Readers should take care to note that this article was written in 1998, and thus may not represent the experiences of today’s devadasis.

 

From the Introduction

The contemporary devaddsis have been subject to sociological and anthropological representations. Conversely, the devadasis’ own accounts . . . are often discrepant with those who study or attempt to reform them . . .The question ‘whose experience, whose representation?’ is posed. Even though the representations are generally context-sensitive, studies of the contemporary devadasis have mainly focused on the gendered dimension of the devadasi-hood, that is, the devadasi as synonymous or reducible to a common prostitute.

It is puzzling why the label ‘prostitution’ is so persistently attached to the contemporary devaddsi. One explanation is that the generic term ‘devaddsi’ is applied to any woman associated with theogamy (principally the cult of Yellamma-Renuka) in Karnataka, overlooking the diversity of her ritual statuses as the ‘chaste’, ‘degraded’ and ‘pious’ wife of Siva Jamadagni. A closer examination reveals that only the ‘degraded wife’ (sule muttu) is associated with commercial prostitution. Another explanation is that such a misappropriation of the term ‘devadasi’ may reflect a secularized sociological perspective which represents the devadasis as predominantly exploited rather than empowered. This perspective is reflected in the newspaper reports in which the Yellamma-Renuka temple is portrayed as a ‘recruiting centre’ for prostitutes. An increasing social and sociological concern for women’s issues in contemporary Indian society arguably makes the sociological perspective a valid representation of the contemporary devadasi as an exploited sex worker, especially if she comes from
rural scheduled caste communities. Nevertheless, as Trivedi discovered, the issue is more complex, and devadasis were found to be ‘sacred’, ‘clandestine’ or ‘commercial’ prostitutes, with the first category dominant in Karnataka. But even though a context-sensitive representation to a point, a secular-cum sociological perspective tends to gloss over the ritual aspect which, when we hear the voices of the devadasis, appears to be an important aspect of their experience.

 

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

Abstract

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

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

Summary

From page xiii:

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

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

Abstract

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

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

Abstract

This article explores the lives of tawaifs, baijis or courtesans (the terms used interchangeably) in a contentious space marked by the location of Congress House in Bombay/Mumbai through the 20th century. The tawaifs’ kothas are interestingly in the vicinity of Congress House, which was the hub of the Indian nationalist struggle from the 1930s onwards, the two sites coming into existence almost simultaneously and coexisting for many decades as this article demonstrates. However, there were various efforts during the last decades of 20th century to remove the presence of tawaifs from this neighbourhood, through the heightened interest of real-estate players in urban gentrification, and increased surveillance by the police and the citizens’ forum. Given this contemporary situation, the attempt of this article is (i) to historicise the performance of mujra in Bombay and explore the contribution of courtesans to the enrichment of Hindustani ‘classical’ music and (ii) to spatialise the presence of tawaifs in the nationalist hub of Bombay and reflect on the politics of their economic and cultural deprivation. This article, thus, reflects on the contested meanings of the space inhabited by the courtesans with its continued devaluing, disciplining and restructuring as well as the increased stigmatisation, criminalisation and marginalisation of the women. It also reads into newer modalities of regulation and the hegemonic processes of urban renewal.

 

Notes

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

 

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

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

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

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

Bor, Joep. ”Mamia, Ammani and other Bayadères: Europe’s portrayal of India’s temple dancers.” Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s. Eds. Martin Clayton and Bennett Zon. Ashgate, 2007: 39-70.

From the Introduction

In this chapter I will explore an aspect of the encounter with the Other that has not been dealt with by Gerry Farrell in his excellent study Indian Music and the West, and has also been ignored by writers on bharata natyam, the classical dance of Southern India. First I will show that India’s temple dancers and singers have a long history in European travel literature, giving a brief overview of the way they were portrayed. Next I will focus on Jacob Haafner’s remarkable essay on the devadasis; pubished in his Reize in eenen Palanquin (1808), it was written in memory of his beloved, the young dancer Mamia.

After Goethe wrote his poem “Der Gott und die Bajadere” in 1797, nineteenth-century librettists metamorphosed the temple dancers into the fictitious bayadères who became the heroines of Examining dozens of artcles and reviews, I will finally demonstrate that during the autumn of 1838 the “real” bayadères were “the chief magnets of attraction” and “greatest curiosities in London.” In fact, part of the success of the 1838-39 season at the Adelphi Theatre could be attributed to the foreign dancers.

 

Notes

  • This article is noteworthy for first providing an overview of some of the most well-known depictions of the devadasis by early European travel writers. In familiarizing themselves with these depictions, our readers can get a sense of how long-standing Western cultural myths about outside groups can form.

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

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

Publisher’s Summary

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

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

Poets and Padams

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

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

From the Introduction: Questions to Guide Interpretation

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

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

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

Interpreting the Padams: The Courtesan’s Role

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

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

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

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

     And he rules the worlds

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ksetrayya?

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

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

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

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

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

Kesavan, Mukul. “Urdu, Awadh, and the Tawaif: the Islamicate roots of Hindi Cinema.” Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State in India. Edited by Zoya Hasan, Westview, 1994, pp. 244-257.

Kesavan’s essay explores the relationship between Hindi cinema and what Kesavan calls “Islamicate” culture, referring “not directly to the religion, Islam, itself but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and Muslims.” Kesavan notes three key links between Islamicate culture and cinema, notably Urdu, Awadh (the setting of, among many texts, Umrao Jaan) and the cinematic figure of the tawaif.

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

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

Vanita, Ruth. Dancing With the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema. Speaking Tiger, 2017.

Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans of Bombay Cinema is an important piece of scholarship detailing the representation of tawaifs in Hindi cinema and how these representations shape and were shaped by the culture in which they were produced. Throughout the course of writing this book, Vanita closely studied over 200 films; we encourage encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this valuable book for themselves or their libraries.

A substantial excerpt from this book can be found on The Daily O. 

Publisher’s Summary

This summary was obtained from the Speaking Tiger website.

Acknowledging courtesans or tawaifs as central to popular Hindi cinema, Dancing with the Nation is the first book to show how the figure of the courtesan shapes the Indian erotic, political and religious imagination. Historically, courtesans existed outside the conventional patriarchal family and carved a special place for themselves with their independent spirit, witty conversations and transmission of classical music and dance. Later, they entered the nascent world of Bombay cinema—as playback singers and actors, and as directors and producers.

In Ruth Vanita’s study of over 200 films from the 1930s to the present—among them, Devdas (1935), Mehndi (1958), Teesri Kasam (1966), Pakeezah (1971), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Ahista Ahista (1981), Sangeet (1992) and Ishaqzaade (2012)—courtesan characters emerge as the first group of single, working women depicted in South Asian movies. Almost every female actor—from Waheeda Rehman to Rekha and Madhuri Dixit—has played the role, and compared to other central female roles, these characters have greater social and financial autonomy. They travel by themselves, choose the men they want to have relations with and form networks with chosen kin. And challenging received wisdom, in Vanita’s analysis of films such as The Burning Train (1980) and Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), courtesan characters emerge as representatives of India’s hybrid Hindu-Muslim culture rather than of Islamicate culture.

A rigorously researched and groundbreaking account of one of the less-examined figures in the study of cinema, Dancing with the Nation is also a riveting study of gender, sexuality, the performing arts and popular culture in modern India.”

Soneji, Davesh. “Living History, Performing Memory: Devadasi Women in Telugu-Speaking South India.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 30-49.

From the Introduction: “Whereas in public culture devadasis oscillate in and out of sets of historical and moral discourses in which they embody a highly contested subject position, in their homes, contemporary devadasis embrace fragments of the past by remembering (and in some cases re-enacting) precisely those aspects of their identity which they can no longer express or display in public. Their music and dance repertory, extra-domestic sexuality, devotional lives, lack of menstrual taboo in their community, and experiences during the anti-devadasi movement in the early part of the twentieth century figure prominently in these private journeys of recollection. During my fieldwork with devadasi communities in coastal Andhra, I have had the good fortune of being able to observe and document some of these private journeys of recollection that take place spontaneously, often at late hours of the night amidst nostalgic longings. These plunges into the nourishing reservoirs of memory are clearly not merely fleeting nor are they simply retrospective narrations.

In the latter part of this essay, I chart these journeys, noting that they are embodied memories. They are an invaluable source for the ethnographer, and provide insights into devadasi culture that cannot be found elsewhere. I focus specifically on some of the most characteristic performance genres of the Andhra devadasi repertory to examine the ways in which these acts of recollection nurture identity. I show that these journeys of memory also highlight the disjunctures between past and present. They resist at tempts to erase or deny the past. In this essay, I argue that identity can be produced through acts of memory, and that devadasis in coastal Andhra wistfully and nostalgically elaborate upon identity to affirm their subjectivity in the present.”

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

[From Amazon.ca Description]:

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

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

Kotiswaran, Prabha. Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India. Princeton UP, 2011.

Publisher’s Summary:

Popular representations of third-world sex workers as sex slaves and vectors of HIV have spawned abolitionist legal reforms that are harmful and ineffective, and public health initiatives that provide only marginal protection of sex workers’ rights. In this book, Prabha Kotiswaran asks how we might understand sex workers’ demands that they be treated as workers. She contemplates questions of redistribution through law within the sex industry by examining the political economies and legal ethnographies of two archetypical urban sex markets in India.

Kotiswaran conducted in-depth fieldwork among sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red-light area, and Tirupati, a temple town in southern India. Providing new insights into the lives of these women–many of whom are demanding the respect and legal protection that other workers get–Kotiswaran builds a persuasive theoretical case for recognizing these women’s sexual labor. Moving beyond standard feminist discourse on prostitution, she draws on a critical genealogy of materialist feminism for its sophisticated vocabulary of female reproductive and sexual labor, and uses a legal realist approach to show why criminalization cannot succeed amid the informal social networks and economic structures of sex markets. Based on this, Kotiswaran assesses the law’s redistributive potential by analyzing the possible economic consequences of partial decriminalization, complete decriminalization, and legalization. She concludes with a theory of sex work from a postcolonial materialist feminist perspective.

Morcom, Anna. Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion. Oxford UP, 2013.

In India, this book is published by Hachette under the title Courtesans, Bar Girls, & Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance.

In this book, Anna Morcom examines how European colonization helped to create forms of marginalization that are today upheld by mass media against marginalized Indian dancers such as female hereditary performers, bar dancers, and transgender and kothi dancers.

From Claire Pamment’s review:

“In her ambitious new monograph, Anna Morcom examines the mechanisms of cultural exclusion in colonial and postcolonial India that have eroded the livelihood, identity, and status of erotic dancers. While the South Asian reader may be familiar with the nineteenth-century anti-nautch campaigns against female hereditary performers, Morcom opens new territory in exploring how similar marginalzations continue to be played out in contemporary India. With a focus on present-day Mumbai bar dance girls and transgender female (kothi) performers, she brings ethnographic and archival research to trace out these communities’ artistic and hereditary lineages and current struggles against stigma, decline of traditional patronage, and direct bans. Like the historical tawa’if and devadasi courtesan dancers, these individuals are often branded as prostitutes, problems, or at best victims, and are isolated from their performer identities. Pitched as external to culture, they operate in the shadow of legitimate classical performing arts and now a middle-class Bollywood dance craze. Morcom offers an insightful reading of the colonial knowledge and categorization, nationalist bourgeois morality, and contemporary development rescue narratives that have produced these cultural exclusions, while also considering challenges to the binary topography of legitimate and illegitimate dance worlds.”

 

Review Cited:

Pamment, Claire. “Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2015, p. 689+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/apps/doc/A428275487/AONE?u=lond95336&sid=AONE&xid=73fd8e4f. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.

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.”

Viswanathan, Lakshmi. Women of Pride: The Devadasi Heritage. Roli, 2008.

From Google BooksDevadasi, raja dasi or kutcheri dasi – devadasis have acquired a variety of definitions and roles over the years. Women of Pride studies, in depth, the devadasi tradition and its transformation into a living cultural phenomenon in the context of Hindu tradition. The book brings into focus the activities and identities of the devadasis and examines the functions and forms of the devadasi tradition. The changing face of the tradition has been authenticated and given a voice by the author by featuring some of the most prominent devadasis of our times. The book also examines the devadasi reform movement in a political, religious, and social context.

Ali, Kamran Asdar. “Courtesans in the Living Room.” ISIM Review, Vol. 15, 2005, pp. 32-33.

This article is open-source and can be freely downloaded here. 

Summary

In the spring of 2003, Pakistan’s GeoTV ran its first serialized television play: Umrao Jan Ada, based on the novel of the same name. (This novel also spawned films in 1981 and 2006, both named Umrao Jaan.)

This article examines questions about how this series, and popular television performances like it, reflect and facilitate discourse on gender politics in present-day Pakistan. The courtesan has long been a stock character in South Asian popular culture, including literature and film, but its recent proliferation is of particular interest: as the author asks, “Why have Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia and feminists chosen at this juncture to depict the life-world of the prostitute and the figure of the courtesan as metaphors to argue for sexual freedom and women’s autonomy?” (32).

In short, Ali argues that the film’s representation of the Nawabi era as tolerant and inclusive confronts and challenges the “more homogenizing elements of Islamic politics in [modern-day] Pakistani society.”  He also addresses the issue of linguicism within the play: while it confronts issues of sexism and inclusivity, it does so localized entirely within the space of high Urdu culture, “and in doing so remains oblivious to the vital issues of cultural and linguistic diversity within Pakistan” (33).

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.

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.

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Cushman, Ellen and Shreelina Ghosh. “The Mediation of Cultural Memory: Digital Preservation in the Cases of Classical Indian Dance and Cherokee Stomp Dance.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 45, no. 2, 2012, pp. 264-283.

Cushman and Ghosh explore the practice of digital preservation of cultural practices and memories, using the examples of classical Indian dance and Cherokee stomp dance to examine the potential complexities and risks of digitally preserving such practices. Cushman and Ghosh outline how digital preservation can distort and decontextualize the very practices it intends to preserve, emphasizing the importance of recognizing these risks and developing best practices for digital preservation.

Hurlstone, Lise Danielle. “Performing Marginal Identities: Understanding the Cultural Significance of Tawa’if and Rudali Through the Language of the Body in South Asian Cinema.” MA thesis, Portland State University, 2011. UMI, 2012.

Available for free download here.

Abstract

“This thesis examines the representation of the lives and performances of tawa’if and rudali in South Asian cinema to understand their marginalization as performers, and their significance in the collective consciousness of the producers and consumers of Indian cultural artifacts. The critical textual analysis of six South Asian films reveals these women as caste-amorphous within the system of social stratification in India, and therefore captivating in the potential they present to achieve a complex and multi-faceted definition of culture. Qualitative interviews with 4 Indian classical dance instructors in Portland, Oregon and performative observations of dance events indicate the importance of these performers in perpetuating and developing Indian cultural artifacts, and illustrate the value of a multi layered, performative methodological approach. These findings suggest that marginality in performance is a useful and dynamic site from which to investigate the processes of cultural communication, producing findings that augment sole textual analysis.”

 

Notes

This is an excellent text for the beginning scholar of Tawa’ifs because there is extensive contextualization: just some of the many sections of the thesis include definitions and contextual information; thematization of films including classism, gender, fatalism, ambivalence, and mysticism; and detailed summaries of major tawa’if films, including Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan (1981 and 2006), Rudaali, and Devdas (1955 and 2002).

Ansari, Usamah. “‘There are Thousands Drunk by the Passion of These Eyes.’ Bollywood’s Tawa’if: Narrating the Nation and ‘The Muslim.’” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 31, no. 2, 2008, pp. 290-316.

From the Introduction

“Sumita Chakravarty claims that ‘courtesan films’ constitute a separate genre, with a specific style of narration and plot development. But rather than focusing on the internal dynamics of these films, I want in this paper to link representations of the tawa’if with issues surrounding the postcolonial condition and consciousness, including their role in mediating the conflicting narrations of the nation. Within this rubric, a special focus will be placed on gender and Muslim-minority positioning in post-Pakistan India, because tawa’ifs represented in Bollywood are often Muslim, and even when not, they can be linked to certain tropes of Muslim cultural identity and historiography.

With these focal points noted, I argue in what follows that the tawa’if is a signifier whose gendered meaning, far from being fixed, is brought to the service of different post-Independence discourses that attempt to construct the nation’s narrative and the Muslim’s positioning within it. Bollywood cinema, as an institution that reaches India’s masses, provides a concrete platform through which the tawa’if-as-signifier can be examined. To approach this discussion, I first outline a ‘theoretical trajectory’ that includes feminist, post-colonial and post-structural thought. Next, I explore the cultural location of tawa’ifs within their social and historic contexts, with a special emphasis on the city of Lucknow in which courtesan films are often set. I then discuss important themes in Bollywood representations of tawa’ifs, highlighting their contradictory representations through their conflicted relationships to agency. This leads into an examination of how the tawa’if can be interpreted by different and conflicting discourses to produce and sometimes challenge narratives of the nation.”

Cited in the Introduction

Chakravarty, Sumita. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987. U of Texas P, 1993.

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

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

Khubchandani, Lata. “Song Picturization and Choreography.” Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema. Eds. Gulzar, Govind Nihalani, and Saibal Chatterjee. Encyclopaedia Britannica (India), 2003, pp. 197-208

Lata’s piece describes the history and evolution of music and of dance choreography in Hindi cinema, from the earliest silent films to modern works, exploring influential figures and the evolution of various trends and artistic innovations, their effects on how choreography was conceived and treated, and how these different approaches to choreography affect works of Hindi cinema as an artistic whole.

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

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

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.”

Bautze, Joachim K. “Umrao Jan Ada: Her carte-de-visite.” Prajnadhara: Essays on Asian Art, History, Epigraphy and Culture, edited by Gerd Mevissen and Arundhati Banerji, Kaveri Books, 2009, pp. 137-152.

Bautze’s essay examines the famous literary courtesan Umrao Jan, identifying the approximate point in history during which Umrao Jan would have lived and demonstrating how courtesans in Lucknow would have looked at that time. Of particular note is the selection of historical photographs displayed at the end of the essay, particularly of courtesans and ta’waifs, and the accompanying descriptions that Bautze provides of each, giving a visual demonstration of how a courtesan like Umrao Jan would have appeared in late 19th century Lucknow.

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

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

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

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

From the Introduction

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

Topics and Notable Excerpts

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

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

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

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.

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?

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tambe, Anagha. “Reading Devadasi Practice through Popular Marathi Literature.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 44, no. 17, 2009, pp. 85-92

This paper examines the popular Marathi literary works that are centred on the devadasi practice prevalent in Maharashtra and looks at its day-to-day practice. In contrast to the devadasis attached to the temple, those from the lower castes, especially the dalits, neither have any right in the temple nor do they have any space to pursue artistic skills. The pattern involving these women who operate in the hierarchical division of labour within the village, as determined by caste, in continuities and discontinuities with those selling sexual labour in urban brothels, is also explored in the analysis

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

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

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

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

Shah, Svati P. “Brothels and Big Screen Rescues” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2013, pp. 549-66.

In this article, Shah creates a genealogy of documentary films on prostitution in India in order to extrapolate on her previous critique of the documentary Born into Brothels. Harnessing this method, she argues that the historical and political landscape which brought about such institutions as the International Center for Photography are integral to understanding these films. Shah critiques the discourse of “intervention, rescue and rehabilitation” depicted in the visual representation of Indian prostitution and concludes with an appeal for a broader critique of the “new cinematic canon on prostitution” in India.

O’Shea, Janet. “”Traditional” Indian Dance and the Making of Interpretive Communities.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, 1998, pp. 45-63.

Janet O’Shea explores the differences between the main styles of South India’s bharata natyam dance form and explains the rivalries within this artistic world. Her article compares the kalakshetra style associated with Rukmini Devi and the Tanjore court style of Balasaraswati, examining the differences and similarities between these legendary artists as well. Of special interest is the discussion of how Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati viewed the place of eroticism (sringara) in bharata natyam. O’Shea proceeds to explain the contributions of the devadasis to the development of bharata natyam, moves along to a treatment of the problems of authority and authenticity, and covers other important topics, including the search for a historical origin for bharata natyam.

De Bruin, Hanne M. “Naming a Theatre in Tamil Nadu.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 17, no. 1, 2000, pp. 98–122

In this article, Hanne M. de Bruin examines the issues surrounding the name for the folk theatre of Tamil Nadu, India — usually known as terukkuttu (one of several possible spellings), but which some now prefer to call kattaikkuttu. De Bruin’s position as a theatre researcher not only gives her firsthand insights based on her own participation in the debate but, as she notes, also clouds the issues because of her status as a foreign scholar. In her essay, De Bruin closely examines the sociopolitical ramifications of the naming problem.

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

Abstract

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

Notes

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

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

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

Srinivasan, Amrit. “Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 20, no. 44, 1985, pp. 1869-1876

This paper describes the changes that affected an artist community of Tamil Nadu in the wake of the reform agitation concerning the idiosyncratic life style of a section of its women-the devadasis. The first part reconstructs the devadasi system as it prevailed prior to the 1947 Madras Devadasis Act. The second half describes the effect of these reforms on the social, religious and domestic status of the devadasis. The anti-nautch campaign led to the suppression of the regional dance tradition which had been sustained by the devadasi, while simultaneously the art was being revived in its ‘pure form’ as Bharat Natyam. Srinivasan argues that the paradox of the emergence of two parallel equally vociferous reform and revival movements can only be understood by examining the colonial context and native political activity. While the reformers presented the Hindu temple dancer as a ‘prostitute’ in order to do away with her, the revivalists presented her as a ‘nun’ in order to incarnate her afresh.

Mitra, Royona. “Living a Body Myth, Performing a Body Reality: Reclaiming the Corporeality and Sexuality of the Indian Female Dancer.” Feminist Review, no. 84, 2006, pp. 67-83

From the introduction: “This paper investigates the dilemma that has been projected upon Indian female dancers’ bodies by contemporary Indian audiences when female desire occupies the centrality of a performance and projects the female body as sexual, articulate and independent of the discipline and propriety of classicism. Locating this dilemma in the nationalist construction of Indian womanhood and femininity as ‘chaste’, this paper adopts Victor Turner’s notions of liminal and liminoid phenomenon and Brechtian defamiliarization technique as a feminist strategy to construct a framework within which the contemporary Indian dancer can reclaim her sexuality in performance. To investigate the complex nationalist trope of chaste Indian womanhood, and to analyse the subversion of this trope by placing agency on the female body as sexual, I locate my argument in the discussion of The Silk Route: Memory of a Journey by Kinaetma Theatre, UK, which was performed in Kolkata in August 2004.”

Bhatia, Nandi. “The Courtesan as ‘Virangana’ in Contemporary Historical Drama: Tripurari Sharmas San Sattavan ka Qissa; Azizun Nisa.” Performing Women/Performing womanhood. Theatre, Politics, and Dissent in North India. Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 100-115.

In this article, Bhatia examines the erasure of courtesans in Indian historical drama, focusing on dramatic depictions of the 1857 mutiny and contrasting the attention afforded to women such as the Rani of Jhansi and dalit viranganas (war heroines) with the relative invisibility of courtesan figures, arguing that “the courtesan faces neglect from both elite and subaltern reconstructions of the female heroes of 1857.” Bhatia goes on to examine Tripurari Sharma’s play, San Sattavan ka Qissa: Azizun Nisa, which explores the role of Azizun Nisa, a courtesan and prominent combatant in the 1857 mutiny; by placing the focus on the courtesan figure, Sharma challenges and complicates the dominant narratives and myths surrounding 1857, alongside nationalist constructions of femininity.

Allen, Richard and Ira Bhaskar. “Pakeezah: Dreamscape of Desire.” Projections, vol. 3, no. 2, 2009, pp. 20-36

This article describes how Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah distils the idioms of the historical courtesan film, poised as they are between the glorification of courtesan culture and lamenting the debased status of the courtesan; between a nostalgic yearning for the feudal world of the kotha and a utopian desire to escape from it. The article argues that Pakeezah self-consciously defines the particular “chronotope,” or space-time, of the historical courtesan genre by showing that nothing less than a transformation of the idioms of that genre is required to liberate the courtesan from her claustrophobic milieu—whose underlying state is one of enervation and death—into the open space and lived time of modernity.

Hubel, Teresa. “Dancing in the Diaspora: Remembering the Devadasis.” Muse India, vol. 58, 2015.

From the introduction: “In our multicultural society, anything tagged as ethnic is caught in an intricate web of exaltation and denigration: by the very act of its celebration, which is frequently state-sponsored and state-endorsed, ethnicity is cast outside and so kept from seriously invading the mainstream. My task in this essay is to suggest the complicity of nationalist India in this ethnicizing of Bharatanatyam in Canada, to explain how it is that girls and women learn this dance as part of a process of acquiring Indian femininity and then perform it in various venues… as a sort of massive group hug that affirms the wonder that is eternal India. Finally, I want to point to what is lost and what is damaged in this celebration of a national ethnicity so determined to be timeless and unchanging.”

Chakravorty, Pallabi. “From Interculturalism to Historicism: Reflections on Classical Indian Dance.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp.108-119.

In this article, Chakravorty argues that “the term ‘interculturalism’ needs reformulation in contemporary dance and theatre studies” and that, more often than not, Western depictions of classical Indian dances are less “cultural sharing” and more cultural appropriations that reduce or ignore the perspectives of marginalized voices (the Indian dancers themselves). Soneji also “discusses and reviews several arguments concerning how Indian womanhood became synonymous with Indian tradition.” Her central argument analyzes how “the discourse of ‘East’ and ‘West’ fused to form both the dominant ideology of classical Indian dance and a nationalist reconstruction of a linear progressive history for the incipient Indian nation-state.”

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.