(Bookshelf) Separating the myth from reality of the lives of courtesans
New Delhi, July 16 Our connection with art and aesthetics is about as old as humanity, and the multi-layered lives and stories of performers go at least as far back as recorded history.
Madhur Gupta, one of the leading Odissi dance maestros of his generation, has opened a window to the vibrant world of women performers — the courtesans — through his book ‘Courting Hindustan’ (Rupa, Rs 295).
This meticulously researched work goes back two-and-a half millennia and details the lives of ten select courtesans.
But before delving deeper into the life and art of a courtesan, at an event in the Capital, Madhur presented a dance piece that was traditionally reserved for deities and was not performed before the masses.
With his recital, Madhur shed light on the evolved and intricate culture of the ‘devadasi’, which is the base of the elite but maligned courtesan community, which suffered because the British eroded the tradition to a great extent.
Courtesans were not merely entertainers through dance, music, and poetry, but also repositories of refined manners and a finer lifestyle that young princes were sent to learn. They wielded tremendous power in their circles, and although they did not directly have a say in political matters, their influence amounted to being decisive in crucial matters.
One such personality was Begum Hazrat Mahal, whom Madhur calls ‘The Rebel Courtesan’ in his book. This Begum of Awadh led the rebellion against the East India Company in 1857, after her husband, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, fell to the British.
Madhur highlighted that it is an unfortunate misconception that the life a courtesan is understood as one of promiscuity — “there were courtesans who had just one partner throughout,” he said.
Delving deeper into his subject, Madhur made the point that the traditional ‘gharanas’ of Indian classical music were headed by male artistes, and women performers were reduced to the status of “naachne gaane wali”.
But notwithstanding the dead weight of patriarchy, the author narrated an anecdote about Gauhar Jaan, whom he calls ‘The Gramophone Girl’. She recorded a piece for a few minutes and that went on to make history.
That was because male performers of that time believed that if they recorded their voices, they might end up losing it altogether. Hence, once more, the cultural tradition was preserved most significantly by the courtesans.
‘Courting Hindustan’ is replete with stories of the multi-dimensional, multi-layered, and multi-linear lives of courtesans who became a major part of urban Indian culture.
Even the Harappan civilisation has thrown up figurines of ‘dancing girls’, which Madhur explained are in a stance that is very frequently used in the Odissi dance form.
As resilient and unwavering as the art that has survived through the ages, Madhur spoke at length of the “will to live” and the “resistance” of his select ten courtesans who lived beautiful, eventful, and powerful but ostracised lives.
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