Courtesans and the Indian Erotic Imagination (Enrichment Lecture: 15)

Courtesans and the Indian Erotic Imagination

The fifteenth Virtual Enrichment Lecture was organized by the English Department of the IIS (Deemed to be) University on “Courtesans and the Indian Erotic Imagination” on 6 March, 2021. Professor Ruth Vanita, University of Montana, was invited to deliver the same. Dr. Rimika Singhvi, Head of the Department of English, delivered a warm welcome.

Professor Vanita began the lecture by describing in length that Courtesans were highly educated women who were accomplished in the art of singing and dancing. Known in North India as Tawaifs, they were the "female intellectuals" who were brought up in matrilineal households, owned property, and were the highest income-tax payers in nineteenth-century Lucknow. She demystified that Courtesans were not prostitutes. They had long term relationships with men and some even got married. They were not conventionally beautiful, but they charmed the admirers by their wit.

Professor Vanita, then, referred to a few paintings on Courtesans from Europe ranging from that of the English Harriette Wilson to the French Courtesan Liane de Pougy. She elucidated that Tawaifs and the male poets were colleagues. The former performed the poetry while the latter composed poems, praising the intelligence and beauty of the Courtesan.

In “Gender, Sex, and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India”, Professor Vanita deconstructs Rekhti, a type of Urdu poetry that is distinguished by a female speaker and focuses on women's lives and the romance of everyday life, where they are not depicted as wives. These multilingual poets like Sa’adat Yaar Khan and Insha Allah Khan enrich their works with the unprecedented portrayal of servant life, discuss all types of love and stress on the commonality among all types of women. Europeans who came to India had varied reactions to the aforementioned subject matter. The annexation of Awadh by the East India Company in 1856 and the Revolt of 1857 sounded the first death-knell for the Courtesans. Indian men
became demoralized, musing that something was wrong with their culture. It was perceived that Rekhti was making women immoral and men effeminate, thus, leading to its disappearance.

She further expounded that the British passed a series of laws treating Tawaifs as prostitutes. Consequently, they disappeared into poverty or were forced into prostitution or got married. On the other hand, the talented and the lucky among them who were adept in classical music and dance went on to sing and dance in the Cinema and a few even directed films.

In “Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema”, Professor Vanita illustrates that Bombay Cinema represents Tawaifs as the first group of independent working women who own property and have the agency to choose whether to remain single. Citing films like the Bank Manager, Kala Pani, Amrapali, Amar Prem, Gomti Ke Kinare, Dream Girl, Sunghursh and Burning Train, she demonstrates that almost every major actress has played the role of a Tawaif, who is considered to be the voice of pleasure and of love against social prejudice, is able to form alternative relationships with the marginalized and is repeatedly compared to various goddesses.

Professor Vanita concluded the lecture by mentioning that the Indian imagination is shaped by the Tawaif character. It is the source of our perception of love, of women's dignity and her agency. The lecture was followed by an interactive Q/A session. The discussion revolved around on the upsurge of the contemporary LGBTQ movement in India and whether it casts adequate light on women’s sexuality, the significance of going back to the past to talk about the present and whether prostitution should be glorified and represented as a job. With such vibrant thoughts, the erudite session came to an end. Dr. Rimika Singhvi gave the vote of thanks.