The empowered courtesans of old

Sanjay Kapoor

As a teenager in the Lucknow of the mid-’70s, I recall cycling once to the older part of the city famous for Awadhi cuisine and high culture. Accompanied by a friend who claimed to know the area well, we set out on a quest to find Lucknow’s famous red light locality. “That’s where we have to go,” my friend gestured enthusiastically towards a dark lane choked with the random clutter of small-time traffic.

Giddy with anticipation at the prospect of visiting an area romanticised by films and literature, we were in for a serious disappointment. It looked just like any noisy street with small shops selling various items. “Where are the kothas of the dancing girls?” I asked my friend. He pointed to the first-floor balconies, where I perceived an assortment of people generally staring at nothing. Some of the balconies were ornate, but many appeared to be in a state of disrepair. The street had obviously seen better days. We did not have the courage to stop and ask someone for directions to a world long gone and hurriedly pedalled away, convinced that the courtesans of Awadh were now history.

Around the very same time that we had reconciled to a Lucknow sans its kothas and dancing girls, Veena Talwar Oldenburg, a professor of history at City University of New York, researching the “social consequences of colonial urbanisation in Lucknow”, actually came across the city’s famous courtesans. As she writes in a paper titled “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of Courtesans of Lucknow”, they figured in municipal records, classified under the occupational category of “dancing and singing girls” and were in the highest tax category. Their names were also on the lists of the owners of properties such as orchards, and manufacturing and retail establishments. The British seized these properties after the 1857 revolt as the owners had instigated the rebels in Lucknow.

Courtesans led a privileged life and their institution was a repository of Lucknow’s rich culture. Stung by the ferocity of the revolt, the British went about debasing this cultural institution and forced them to become plain prostitutes. Veena discovered that these women resolutely resisted colonial and male diktats to preserve their power and influence in a socially difficult environment. She managed to flesh out her conception of the courtesans when she fortuitously met a group of them through the son of a famous chowdharyan or kotha head.

Courtesans led a privileged life and their institution was a repository of Lucknow’s rich culture. Stung by the ferocity of the 1857 revolt, the British went about debasing this cultural institution and forced them to become plain prostitutes

During my recent visit to Lucknow, she recounted to me the circumstances in which she met the group — in 1976, the very year I was cycling around in the streets of old Lucknow. While going through a set of archives, she realised that she needed a Persian translator. The Persian scholar who began helping her had no formal Muslim name. When he was born, his mother had kept him out on the terrace at night in the hope that he might die. He said it was his misfortune “that I was born a son and not a daughter in their house”. This was a strange admission. When his sister was born, there were celebrations, singing and dancing. She inherited most of her mother’s and grandmother’s property, whereas he got nothing.

Such “inversion” in society was due to the extraordinary influence courtesans enjoyed in Hindu and Muslim courts until the British began to change the order. Abdul Halim Sharar, author of the famous Mashriqi Tamadan ka aakhri namuna — Lucknow( Lucknow — the last phase of Oriental culture) gives instances where the tawaifs could help in the appointments of Governors and Vazirs. They were the preservers of culture and a person’s status in life was determined by his association with a courtesan.
I recall being told by the late Girish Mathur, a journalist who knew a thing or two about the Lucknow salon, that most of these kothas were veritable hangouts of the rich  and famous.

The world of Lucknow’s courtesans, according to Veena, defied the narrative created by the British. These were financially independent women who held sway in the courts and over their men. Many of them joined the kotha of their own free will, while escaping the tyranny that bad marriages impose on women. A courtesan, Gulbadan, told Veena about the rigorous training and education that was imparted to them in music, dance and also the art of coaxing money out of men through nakhra or pretence. Her study is a fascinating one that needs revisiting at a time when women’s empowerment is being universally discussed. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2013

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