Indian history is entrenched in the love of courtesans whose charms and beauty captivated powerful kingdoms. Aurangzeb was bedazzled by Moti Bai, Shah Jahan had Noor Begum, and there was Gauhar Jaan. The history of courtesans in India reflects the contradictions that have always existed within our own society. The impact of British Victorian concepts of morality that stripped these women of their agency and limited their entire existence to being sexual objects. These were the same women who were once respected advisors of the Mughal courts who were overtime subjected to condemnation by society.
Known as Tawaifs during the Mughal rule, they were considered an authority on etiquette. As dance, theatre and musical traditions were well respected pursuits of the time, these women thrived in a society that did not simply subject women to restrictive binaries of the western world. As explored by Outlook, the eastern perspective always allowed for a more liberated existence, far from the freudian concepts such as the ‘madonna-whore complex’ (dichotomy ultimately means that women have to be either pure and 'virginal' or sexual and forthcoming) that confined women to a singular identity in the west.
Even prior to the Mughal age, courtesans find mentions in the tales of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Historically these women were called ‘devadasis’ who were married to the presiding deity and performed in temples. In fact all Indian classical dances like Bharatnatyam, Odissi and Kathak are left behind by these ‘devadasis’ and courtesans. Also termed as ‘Ganika’ in historical texts, describing them as a woman who was qualified and talented in as many as 64 arts spanning from dancing, singing, playing instruments, tattooing, making perfumes and magic potions.
Furthermore these women possessed knowledge of language and vernacular, excelled at writing in cypher, art of war, arithmetic, gymnastics, and so on. Unfortunately, over the years their onscreen depictions have diluted all these facets of their identity and simply termed them as ‘Mujrewali’ or ‘Kothewali’ used as generic terms for prostitutes.
The first generation of Bollywood actresses were courtesans in their own sense. As performing on screen required singing and dancing which they were proficient in. The first woman director, Fatma Begum was also a courtesan. The earlier depictions also treated their roles with dignity without chastising their existence. Revered actress Madhubala played the role of the famous courtesan Anarkali who yielded power through the use of beauty and has been immortalised through the greatest movie of Hindi cinema, Mughal-e-Azam (1960).
1972 film Pakeezah shared the heartbreaking tale of a courtesan played by Meena Kumari and the soulful melody of ‘Dil Cheez Kya Hai’ (Umrao Jaan, 1981) instantly rekindles memories of Rekha’s graceful Mujra performance. Unfortunately present day depictions are centred around monetising sexuality of onscreen performers and hence the role of courtesans has shifted into item songs laced with sexual innuendo and a disregard for the rich history of their historical presence. 1983 film, Mandi starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil was able to gage these changing portrayals and depicted the grim realities of Indian courtesans who were villianised by other women in society.
We are now exploring the extent of their impact in the landscape of fashion as much of what is considered traditional wear is borrowed from their wardrobes. The famous Ararkali, Pasa and Haath Phool are intrinsically woven with their rich past. There is an awakening of interest in the lives of these women as the younger generations are seeking to understand their past before forming singular judgements. Unique tours by independent organisations are inviting individuals into the lives of courtesans by exploring the physical spaces inhabited by them in Old Delhi.
It is also vital to note that this exploration of their nuanced past is not an attempt to disguise exploitation as empowerment. While it is true that the origin of courtesans in history is noble, over time these women were also abused by powerful figures both in courts and temples. Their present day situation is not any better as they are denounced by society and misused for the pleasure of male gaze. However it is to credit them for their contributions to India’s vibrant culture and reanalyse how we as Indians view them in the light of all these newer explorations.
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