'Courting Hindustan' Celebrates The Multifaceted Lives Of India's Courtesans

Courting Hindustan
Courting HindustanRupa Publications

As we continue to advance as a civilization, we are unlearning thousands of years of patriarchy that are deep-rooted in us and our societal practices. When we talk of mainstream history, it is about dynastic rules forged by traditional masculinity, conquests, and politics. Names like Ashoka, Akbar, Napoleon, and the like roll out easily from the tip of our tongues. Mainstream history books do not cater to characters like Mahalqa Bai Chanda, the most famous dancer in 1700s India, or Artemesia I, the woman who sank an entire Greek fleet at the Battle of Salamis.

While we do know about the great contributions of some of the most remarkable women in history such as Rani Lakshmibai or Florence Nightingale, they remain tokenistic representations in a male-driven narrative of world history. This blatant one-sided narrative of history can be understood from a very simple example of “the Greats” — starting from Alexander the Great to Charlemagne the Great, there are hundreds of men in world history who have “the Great" suffixed to their name but you wouldn’t find historians pushing for adding “the Great” to Joan of Arc’s name, even though I bet she could single-handedly beat at least five “great men” in medieval warfare.

However, times are changing and so is our view of history. For example, we are beginning to understand that to truly understand the history of the Persian Empire in 500 BC, it is not enough to know about Darius the Great. We must explore the depths of the women who were not allowed to entertain public space; the women who influenced politics from the shadows; the women who wielded enough power to create intrigues that could make dynasties rise or fall. History is not just about the men on golden thrones but about the beggars on the streets, the court dancers, the blacksmith, the bard, the farmers toiling in the fields, and all the lives that make up the fabric of an empire. Only when we explore these lives can we know the true history of a nation and its timeline.

Recently a book has been published titled Courting Hindustan: The Consuming Passions of Iconic Women Performers of India, written by eminent Odissi dancer Madhur Gupta, that sheds light on some of the most prolific women in Indian history who have been underrepresented up until now. The book is set in the enchanting realm of ancient India and explores themes such as a captivating competition unfolding among women vying for the esteemed title of 'Nagarvadhu'; the town's beloved consort. These women, adorned with grace and talent, were integral to temple worship, where the harmonious melodies of music and the graceful movements of dance were essential. Known as Devadasis and Maharis, these dedicated artists held a position of honor and dignity within society.

As the centuries unfolded, the captivating allure of women artists continued to enthrall the land. The Mughal courts, in particular, found themselves captivated by the Tawaifs, whose enchanting presence permeated the courtly culture from the sixteenth century onwards. Legends suggest that even young heirs were sent to courtesans to learn the art of refinement, embracing the subtleties of 'tameez' (manners) and 'tehzeeb' (etiquette), while immersing themselves in the appreciation of exquisite music and literature.

Courting Hindustan is a meticulously researched and exquisitely crafted portrait of the women who graced the traditional Indian entertainment arts. Their music, dance, and poetry resonated throughout the land, echoing the rich tapestry of India's cultural heritage. This vibrant tapestry relives 2,500 golden years, illuminating the lives of these extraordinary women as they responded to the complex social forces and cultural conditions that shaped their existence. This book explores the lives of ten of the most famous courtesans across Indian history. It starts with the story of Amrapali and moves on to Vasantasena, Roopmati, Begum Samru, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Gauhar Jaan, Janki Bai, Jaddan Bai, Begum Akhtar, and Balasaraswati.

"When love is lost, do not bow your head in sadness; instead keep your head up high and gaze into heaven for that is where your broken heart has been sent to heal."
an excerpt from the book, 'Roopmati', page 47

Courting Hindustan unveils the scintillating stories of courtesans who transcended their roles, evolving into empresses, queens, and prima donnas. They defied societal expectations, venturing into realms shared by pioneering filmmakers, celebrated music directors, and revered dancers. Their existence, shrouded in both power and vulnerability, epitomized a delicate dance on the fringes of society. These women were pioneers, blazing a trail through an entrenched patriarchal world, breaking the chains that confined them, and paving the way for future generations of triumphant women.

From the pinnacle of power to the depths of societal marginalization, these extraordinary women experienced a myriad of paths in life. They ruled kingdoms, commanded great authority, and became revered figures in their own right. Their artistic prowess resonated far and wide, capturing the imagination of a nation and the world at large. Yet, they remained on the outskirts, navigating the complexities of a society that struggled to reconcile their power and influence with entrenched norms.

The book beckons us into their captivating stories, delving into the scintillating lives of women who not only conquered the stage but also overcame societal barriers. They carved their names in history, leaving an indelible mark on India's cultural landscape. Their resilience and determination continue to inspire generations of women to transcend limitations, reminding us that the pursuit of passion and artistic expression knows no boundaries.

"Women have not been given their very much-deserved and due importance historically as well as in the present time in the social structure of India. Throughout Indian history you will find examples of how women led from the front while men failed to do so. I pray that when this book is complete and in circulation, it brings an understanding to one and all of the unparalleled bravery and contribution of women of India, past and present."

Ustad Zakir Hussain, reviewing the book

About the Author:

Madhur Gupta, a leading Odissi dance maestro, has defied norms and soared to prominence in a field traditionally dominated by women. Trained initially in Kathak under the guidance of Pandit Birju Maharaj, Gupta's unwavering devotion led him to discover his true calling in Odissi. With unmatched dedication and a captivating blend of skill and emotion, he has become a cultural ambassador, challenging stereotypes and inspiring aspiring dancers to pursue their passions fearlessly. Gupta's artistry bridges tradition and innovation; transcending gender barriers and leaving an indelible mark on the world of Indian classical dance.

You can order the book here.

Find out more about Madhur Gupta here.