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The stories of courtesans come alive again

As authors and film-makers take a fresh look at the lives of courtesans, lesser- known narratives are coming to the fore

‘The Last Courtesan’ is a uniquely intimate memoir, told in Rekhabai’s (centre) voice by her son, Manish Gaekwad. Courtesy: HarperCollins India/Manish Gaekwad
‘The Last Courtesan’ is a uniquely intimate memoir, told in Rekhabai’s (centre) voice by her son, Manish Gaekwad. Courtesy: HarperCollins India/Manish Gaekwad

Madhur Gupta’s latest book, Courting Hindustan: The Consuming Passions Of Iconic Women Performers Of India, published earlier this year by Rupa Publications, traces the lives of courtesans over nearly 2,500 years, examining their roles as high priestesses of art and culture, temple ritual dancers and raj nartakis (court dancers). Though he dwells on significant figures such as Vasantasena, Amrapali, Begum Samru and Roopmati, the most interesting chapters are from a more recent period, when India was on the cusp of independence.

Often romanticised in films and books, the women have been stereotyped either as figures of pathos or symbols of opulence. Some remarkable scholarly work—like Moti Chandra’s The World Of Courtesans (1973), Pran Nevile’s Nautch Girls Of The Raj (2009) and Amritlal Nagar’s Yeh Kothewaliyan (2019)—has remained largely confined to academic circles.

In this scenario, Gupta brings well-researched, refreshing narratives of 20th century figures like Jaddan Bai into mainstream publishing. This feisty woman, born to a renowned courtesan, Daleepa Bai, around 1892, came to be known as a lady with an iron will. In a fast-changing world, she shifted gears and trained in Hindustani classical music. Jaddan Bai, whose daughter Nargis became one of the leading ladies of Indian cinema, learnt from masters, such as Shrimant Ganpat Rao and Ustad Moinuddin Khan in thumri, to become the country’s first woman music director.

This year, we have already seen three engaging books—The Last Courtesan and The Half Empress being the other two— about some of the remarkable performing artists. Each looks at these women as figures of resilience, showcasing not just the world around them but the workings of their heart and minds.

The Half Empress, authored by travel and heritage writer Tripti Pandey, and published by Penguin Random House India, is a historical novel. It looks at the rise and fall of Raskapoor, a courtesan in the 19th century Jaipur court of Maharaja Sawai Jagat. Once one of the most powerful women in the kingdom, Raskapoor today gets just a mention, as a celebrity prisoner, in the stories recounted by guides at Nahargarh Fort.

‘A Courtesan and Her Lover Estranged By A Quarrel’.
‘A Courtesan and Her Lover Estranged By A Quarrel’. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Last Courtesan, published by HarperCollins India, is a more contemporary story—a uniquely intimate memoir, told in first person in his mother’s voice by author-journalist Manish Gaekwad. The book follows the story of Rekhabai, from Maharashtra’s Kanjarbhat tribe, who was trafficked by her mother-in-law and became a courtesan in Calcutta (Kolkata). “The Last Courtesan explores Rekhabai’s journey (in the 1980s-90s) from being trained as a courtesan to becoming a renowned singing-dancing star in Calcutta and Bombay. It sheds light on the challenges she faced, including the aftermath of the 1993 Bow Bazar bomb blast and society’s disapproval of her art,” states the publisher’s note.

Even films are taking a fresh look at such stories. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi, for instance, focuses on love and betrayal in the lives of courtesans in the pre-independence era. According to historian and author Rana Safvi, the stories being told now are deeply personal, not just comments on women living on the margins of society. “Manish’s book, for instance, is not a sanitised version of a courtesan’s story,” she adds. Both The Last Courtesan and Courting Hindustan are also chronicles of how their lives changed after 1857, when their role as repositories of art and culture started fading. As courtly patronage declined, and Victorian values frowned upon their role, negative associations gained currency. “Their roles as custodians of musical traditions and teachers of a way of life became reduced to performers, and they were perceived as providers of sexual favours,” says Safvi.

Gupta, a celebrated Odissi dancer who began training in Kathak with Pandit Birju Maharaj and then got drawn to Odissi, is attempting to celebrate the women who faced harsh challenges. “The arts—both performing and visual—follow a cyclic pattern. For instance, there was a resurgence in handloom in the 1970s, which petered down in the 1990s. Today, the handloom story is witnessing a revival. The same holds true for literature and movies. Perhaps the story of the courtesan is undergoing a similar cycle,” says Gupta. “There has been very serious work in the past by the likes of Pran Nevile and Vikram Sampath. But often such thorough work also needs to be made accessible to the masses through effective marketing. And that’s what is happening now.”

Gaekwad’s book doesn’t just tell his mother’s story, it also reflects on the changes taking place in India in the 1970s-80s. With dance bars and disco replacing the old-world charm of mujras and thumri, the tawaifs, as courtesans used to be called in the Hindi-speaking belt between the 16th-19th centuries, began to abandon the profession. “(The) kothas were no longer recognised as centres for aesthetic, and society disapproved of tawaif’s art, as it felt it was sex work in the guise of adakari,” states a note by HarperCollins India. In such a scenario, Rekhabai didn’t just carve a name for herself as a singing-dancing star but also fulfilled her dream of giving her son a sound education by sending him to an English-medium boarding school.

The narrative hits you harder, perhaps, because it is not embellished with the kind of ornate scenes and language associated with books on courtesans. The author tells his mother’s story in her own voice. “In an ideal world, if she had the means and tools to read and write, she would have told it her way by now,” says Gaekwad, who started recording her stories in 2020. He initially started writing in third person but the style and tonality—cynical and sardonic—didn’t reflect her voice. “That would have been dishonest to her. When I restarted in her voice, the stories started flowing more naturally,” he adds.

Songs play an intrinsic role in the narrative, with every incident and moment linked to a tune from a Hindi film. Many of the experiences she recounted to Gaekwad began with a memory of a song. “I think she was always musical, and then, by fate, she landed up in a kotha. She decided to embrace the uncomfortable situation and emerge as a survivor. And what better way to do that than song and dance. Later, when she was trained, she started keeping a diary of songs,” he recalls. A ghazal, “Humaare baad andhera rahega mehfil mein, bahut charagh jalaoge roshni ke liye”, became her signature closing song.

In the book, Rekhabai’s life is laid bare, with all its flaws and grey shades, sans all the romanticism. You see the struggle with traffickers, goons and toxic relationships. And because of this, she emerges as an even more heroic figure. “I was keen that the book shouldn’t read like a Hindi film song, where the courtesan lives in a palace with 100 chambermaids. These are not the things my mother or I saw in the kotha. The rooms were small and dilapidated, with poor sanitation. She had to stand in queues for water. It was all very unglamorous. It was only when she and her colleagues put on make-up that they made the world look magical,” he says.

In the past, selective documentation has done a disservice to women like Rekhabai. Gupta writes in his book how, till the 19th century, younger nawabs-to-be were sent to these women of culture to study tameez (good behaviour) as well as tehzeeb (etiquette). This included developing discernment and enjoying great music, literature and poetry, even pursuing these as lifelong activities.

Gupta maintains that “any so-called classical Indian performing art that we know of today—Hindustani music, Kathak, Odissi and several others—is because of these women. If the courtesans had not been resilient enough to nurture these arts, India would not have been so culturally rich.”

He quotes from Nevile’s Nautch Girls Of The Raj in his book: “From time immemorial Indian poets have sung praises of the ‘public woman’, the professional entertainer. The epics give us a colourful description of her intimate connection with royal splendour. The Puranas highlight her auspicious presence as a symbol of good luck. Buddhist literature also testifies to the high esteem in which she was held in society. She appears through the ages in different incarnations from apsara (celestial virgin) in divine form to ganika (attendant), devadasi (spiritual dancer), nartika (ordinary dancer), kanchani, tawaif (cultured professional courtesan) and nautch girl (dancer member of the professional troupe).”

Gupta believes their invisibility is not entirely unexpected, given that artists in most cases live on the fringes of mainstream society. The advent of the British, who considered the women as “carnal criminals” and symbols of “social debauchery”, hastened the demise of the courtesan culture. “Since then negative connotations have remained in the public’s minds. They associate the courtesan with a sex worker and a kotha with a brothel. That was not true. A kotha used to be a place of entertainment, recreation and baithak. The British came in with very puritanical and Abrahamic ideas of the original sin,” notes Gupta.

Women, who had enjoyed a high position in the royal courts and temples, suddenly found themselves without patrons.


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