Lives Unlocked: The Courtesan – An Enigma

A single hand gesture that tells a thousand stories of the heart, a fleeting expression of the eyes that captures the eternal longing of the one with the Divine, the alluringly graceful movements of the body accompanied by the lilting musicality of thumris, ghazals and holisDarbari Kathak, the dance form of the courtesan communities of North India, seeks to bring to life the magnificent heritage of Awadh Culture of North India. “It was initiated and nurtured in the temple environment and was primarily used as a medium for Aradhana, namely communicating with the Almighty,” says dancer Manjari Chaturvedi, a leading exponent of the Indian classical dance form of Kathak, “A unique form, the exotic and dazzling Darbari Kathak is characterized by lovely costumes and a Persian influence and was patronized in the opulent darbars of cultured Nawab Wazirs of Avadh”.

manjari1As colourful in form and aesthetic as the dance forms of the courtesan communities may be to the eye, history tells much darker tales of the marginalization and disenfranchisement of these female performing artists. While these women had once possessed legitimised positions in society as performing artists and temple dancers, social reform movements that started to sweep the nation during the 1890’s – sparked by colonial critiques of Hindu social and religious practices that upheld Victorian norms of purity and sexuality instead – dislodged these women from their ranks, deeming them immoral, fallen women.

Brought under scrutiny were their alleged non-conjugal sexual relationships with men, as well as the erotic elements part of the repertoire that was integral to the art form.The anti-nautch movement against devadasi practices reached its pinnacle in the 1920’s, forcing these women away from their lifestyles and into urban rehabilitation centres that sought to domesticate them instead. The courtesans and their art were systematically being sidelined in the wake of a newly emerging Indian nation-state – in 1947, the same year India achieved its independence, the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act was passed – criminalising the performance of dance in public by devadasis and the marriage of women to deities.


Devadasis Balasaraswati and M.S. Subbulakshmi in a 1937 candid studio picture in Chennai. Photo Courtesy: Outlook India

The art form was subsequently appropriated by the Indian upper class elite – members of a newly emerging Indian society such as Rukmini Devi Arundale, who sought to ‘cleanse’ the courtesan dance practices of their erotic elements. After learning the art largely from nattuvanars and from teachers including Gowri Amma – the last devadasi of the Kapaleeshwara temple in Chennai – Rukmini went on to rework the aesthetics of the dance and redesign the costumes alongside European designers. Her reinterpretation of a dance that belonged to the devadasi community was now aligned more with Indian nationalist fervour and a moral code that appeased Victorian ideals and Brahmanical patriarchy – a newly created dance form that was renamed Bharatanatyam.

“The pages of India’s rich cultural history have also been erratic in documentation, and one section that has perhaps suffered in history’s cruel hands has been the community of ‘courtesans’ in India,” says Manjari, “These were an integral part of the Indian society and formed the bearers of traditional music and dance. By excluding the courtesans, in their true sense, from history, we have also excluded the rich ocean of arts – the poetry, music and dance”. Manjari’s latest initiative is a performance piece titled The Courtesan: An Enigma – part of an archival research project “The Lost Songs of the Courtesans” that seeks to preserve and dispel the myths and stigmas associated with this age old courtesan tradition. “This project aims at an understanding into the Courtesan culture and the mehfil singers and the rich forms of music and poetry associated with them,” explains Manjari, “These were once an integral part of Indian tradition and formed a way of life for the performers. This also brings to focus the effect of the Anti-nautch movement on the lives and music of courtesans”.

manjari2Though it is an archival documentation project, Manjari also believes that a performing art needs to be performed and shared with audiences to truly keep it alive. “The different forms of music and dance performed by the Courtesans – like Ghazal, thumri and dadra – always have great lyrical value. The poetry is mostly Urdu, Awadhi Braj Bhasha. These are the languages in which no one writes or speaks nowadays – the dialects are on their way to disappear at a great speed. Losing them will definitely be a loss of an entire era and hence it is therefore very essential to preserve their art”. The striking production makes it a point to capture intimate details of the lives of real courtesans, narrated by actress Neesha Singh. “Stories about the life and times of Gauhar Jaan who was born of Armenian parents, Chanda Bibi, Rasoolan Bai, Zarina Begum and Jaddan Bai are all featured in the performance” reveals Manjari.

Historically, Gauhar Jaan – born in 1873 – was a courtesan who dominated the Calcutta entertainment scene for decades, and one of the first Indian artists to be invited to record her voice by the Gramophone Company in 1902. The Gramophone Company’s representative F.W. Gaisberg recounts the eccentric personality of this illustrious artist, saying “Gauhar Jan was an Armenian who could sing in twenty languages and dialects including English. Her fee was Rs 300 per evening and she used to make a brave show when she drove at sundown on the Maidan in a fine carriage. Hers were among the 600 records which proved a firm foundation for our own enterprise – every time she came to record she amazed us by appearing in a new gown. She never wore the same jewels twice. She’s known to have thrown parties worth 20000 in those days to arrange a marriage between her cats! She would go for joyrides on the roads of Calcutta in a six-horse carriage”. Jaddanbai – reputed film director and the first female composer in Bollywood – was also by birth a courtesan. Their stories as well as many other courtesans are retold and kept alive as part of Manjari’s production.

“Surprisingly, the men pursuing the performing arts became “Ustads” and the women pursuing these arts became “Nautch Girls” in an extremely unfair record of history based on gender inequality,” concludes Manjari, “It is time we question this “disregard” for these artists and their traditions. Today most people would invite a film actress to their forum with pride and at the same time an erstwhile courtesan will be considered inappropriate. Why this inequality for performing artists – we must think about this. My efforts are to remove the social stigmas associated with the courtesan, and give them their respectful place as artists par excellence.”

For more on Manjari, visit her website here or her Facebook page here. 

Nirupama Belliappa

Nirupama is a musician, TV presenter, photographer, and the instrumentalist/vocalist for the popular electronica live act BLaNK - the winners of MTV's Ultimate DJ Championship. An accomplished journalist, she is a features writer at IndiEarth. Follow her on instagram: @nipsiandthedeepseas Facebook:

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