Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow

by Veena Talwar Oldenburg (1990)


[[1]] When, in 1976, I was doing the research for a study on the social consequences of colonial urbanization in Lucknow,/1/ a city in northern India situated about a third of the way between Delhi and Calcutta, I came across its famous courtesans for the first time. They appeared, surprisingly, in the civic tax ledgers of 1858-77 and in the related official correspondence preserved in the Municipal Corporation records room./2/ They were classed under the occupational category of "dancing and singing girls," and as if it was not surprise enough to find women in the tax records, it was even more remarkable that they were in the highest tax bracket, with the largest individual incomes of any in the city. The courtesans' names were also on lists of property: (houses, orchards, manufacturing and retail establishments for food and luxury items) confiscated by British officials for their proven involvement in the siege of Lucknow and the rebeilion against British rule in 1857. These women, though patently noncombatants, were penalized for their instigation of and pecuniary assistance to the rebels. On yet another list, some twenty pages long, are recorded the spoils of war seized from one set of "female apartments" in the palace and garden complex called the Qaisar Bagh, where some of the deposed ex-King Wajid Ali Shah's three hundred or more consorts/3/ resided when it was seized by the British. It is a remarkable list, eloquently evocative of a privileged existence: gold and silver ornaments studded with precious stones, embroidered cashmere wool and brocade shawls, bejeweled caps and shoes, silver-, gold-, jade-, and amber-handled fly whisks, silver cutlery, jade goblets, plates, spitoons, huqqahs, and silver utensils for serving and storing food and drink, and valuable furnishings. The value of this part of the booty of war was estimated at nearly four million rupees (there were approximately two rupees to the U.S. dollar in 1857).

These courtesans appeared in other British colonial records as well. They were the subject of frequent official memorandums written in connection with a grave medical crisis that engulfed the military establishment in Lucknow, as well as in all the major cantonments in British India. A greater number of European casualties during the mutiny and rebellion of 1857, it was discovered, were caused by disease than in combat. The shock of this discovery was compounded by the embarrassing fact that one in every four European soldiers was afflicted with a venereal disease. It became clear that the battle to reduce European mortality rates would now be joined on the hygienic front, to ensure a healthy European army for the strategic needs of the empire. It became imperative that the courtesans and prostitutes of Lucknow, along with those in the other 110 cantonments in India (and in several towns in Britain) where European soldiers were stationed, be regulated, inspected, and controlled. The provisions of Britain's Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 were incorporated into a comprehensive piece of legislation, Act XXII of 1864 in India; it required the registration and periodic medical examination of prostitutes in all cantonment cities of the Indian empire./4/

The British usurpation of the Kingdom of Awadh in 1856, and the forced exile of the king and many of his courtiers, had abruptly put an end to royal patronage for the courtesans. The imposition of the contagious diseases regulations and heavy fines and penalties on the courtesans for their role in the rebellion signaled the gradual debasement of an esteemed cultural institution into common prostitution. Women who had once consorted with kings and courtiers, enjoyed a fabulously opulent living, manipulated men and means for their own social and political ends, been the custodians of culture and the setters of fashion trends, were left in an extremely dubious and vulnerable position under the British. "Singing and dancing girls" was the classification invented to describe them in the civic tax ledgers, and encapsulates one of the many profound cultural misunderstandings of "exotic" Indian women by colonial authorities.

These new challenges provoked these women to intensify their struggle to keep out an intrusive civic authority that taxed their incomes and inspected their bodies. Characteristically, they responded by keeping two sets of books on their income, bribing the local da'i, or nurse, to avoid bodily inspections, bribing local policemen to avoid arrests for selling liquor to the soldiers, or publicly refusing to pay taxes even when threatened with imprisonment. The tactics were new but the spirit behind them was veteran. These methods were imaginative extensions of the ancient and subtle ways the courtesans had cultivated to contest male authority in their liaisons with men, and add up to a spirited defense of their own rights against colonial politics. Their loyalty to the king of Awadh's regime underscores the position and privileges that were the sine qua non of their existence./5/

In a departure from the conventional perspective on this profession, I would argue that these women, even today, are independent, and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male-dominated world; they celebrate womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender of the larger society of which they are part. Their way of life is not complicitous with male authority; on the contrary, in their own self-perceptions, definitions, and descriptions they are engaged in ceaseless and chiefly nonconfrontational resistance to the new regulations and the resultant loss of prestige they have suffered since colonial rule began. It would be no exaggeration to say that their "life-style" is resistance to rather than a perpetuation of patriarchal values.

[[2]] Quite unexpectedly, another set of archival documents led me to a group of courtesans living in Lucknow in 1976, proud descendants of those who had survived first the pressures of a century of systematic harassment by the colonial authorities, and then the ban placed on their activities by the government of independent India. These documents were the intercepted letters written by the Shi'i ruler, Wajid Ali Shah, to some of his wives, whom he had been forced to abandon in the capital city of Lucknow, after the British annexed the prosperous and fertile Awadh Province in northern India and exiled him in 1856. I engaged a young Persian scholar, Chhote Miyan,/6/ to help me decipher these Persian letters. He not only provided the entree required to visit this group of courtesans but also, quite fortuitously, the key to comprehending their world. He explained why he had only been given a pet name (roughly, Mr. Small) instead of a serious Muslim famiiy name. He was the son of a courtesan, and she had never revealed to him the identity of his father. Ironically, his sad life story had all the elements of the socialization and upbringing accorded to a girl in a "normal" household:

While I love and respect my mother and all my "aunts" (other courtesans) and my grandmother, my misfortune is that I was born a son and not a daughter in their house. When a boy is born in the kotha (salon), the day is without moment, even one of quiet sadness. When my sister was born, there was a joyous celebration that was unforgettable. Everyone received new clothes, there was singing, dancing, and feasting. My aunts went from door to door distributing sweets.

My sister is, today, a beautiful, educated, propertied woman. She will also inherit what my mother and grandmother own. She will have a large income from rents; she doesn't even have to work as a courtesan, if she so chooses. I am educated, but I have no money or property. Jobs are very hard to come by, so I live in a room and subsist on a small allowance that my mother gives in exchange for running errands for her and helping her deal with her lawyers. (She was trying to evict a tenant from a house she owned.) She paid for my education, but a degree is pretty worthless these days. My only hope is that I may marry a good woman who has money and who gives me sons so they can look after me in my old age, or find a way of getting a job in Dubai, as my cousin did. Otherwise my chances in life are pretty dim. Funny isn't it, how these women have made life so topsy-turvy?

In order to appreciate this rather remarkable inversion in a society that blatantly favors males over females, a brief sketch of the historical background of the tawa'if, or the courtesans of Lucknow, is in order./7/ At all Hindu and Muslim courts in the many kingdoms that made up the subcontinent before the British began to conquer them and displace their rulers, the courtesans were an influential female elite. The courtesans of Lucknow were especially reputable. They had established themselves at the Awadh court in the eighteenth century, under the lavish patronage of the chief noblemen, merchants, and the official elite of the capital city. Abdul Halim Sharar, an early-twentieth-century novelist and journalist who constructed a remarkable history of the Nawabs of Awadh, based mainly on the oral testimony of the survivors of the events of 1857 in Lucknow, tells of their compelling role in court politics.
A cultivated man like Hakim Mahdi, who later became Vazir (prime minister of Awadh), owed his initial success to a courtesan named Piyaro, who advanced her own money to enable him to make an offering to the ruler on his first appointment as Governor of the Province of Awadh. These absurdities went so far that it is said that until a person had association with courtesans he was not a polished man.... At the present time (c.1913) there are still some courtesans with whom it is not reprehensible to associate, and whose houses one can enter openly and unabashed./8/
While implying that the coming of the British had left these women as a beleaguered community, Sharar was strongly of the opinion that the morals, manners, and distinctiveness of Lucknow culture and society were sustained by the courtesans. Ensconced as they were in lavish apartments in the city's main Chauk Bazaar, and in the Qaisar Bagh palace, they were not only recognized as preservers and performers of the high culture of the court, but they actively shaped the developments in Hindustani music and Kathak dance styles./9/ Their style of entertainment was widely imitated in other Indian court cities, and their enduring influence on the Hindi film is all too patent./10/ They commanded great respect in the court and in society, and association with them bestowed prestige on those who were invited to their salons for cultural soirées. It was not uncommon for the young sons of the nobility to be sent to the best-known salons for instruction in etiquette, the art of conversation and polite manners, and the appreciation of Urdu literature.

[[3]] In Lucknow, the world of the tawa'if was as complex and hierarchical as the society of which it was part. Courtesans were, and still are, usually a part of a larger establishment run by a chaudharayan, or chief courtesan, an older woman who has retired to the position of manager after a successful career as a tawa'if. Having acquired wealth and fame, such women were able to recruit and train women who came to them, along with the more talented daughters of the household. Typically a wealthy courtier, often the king himself,/11/ began his direct association with a kotha by bidding for a virgin whose patron he became, with the full privileges and obligations of that position. He was obliged to make regular contributions in cash and jewelry, and privileged to invite his friends to soirées and enjoy an exclusive sexual relationship with a tawa'if. His guests were expected to impress the management with their civilities and substance, so that they would qualify as patrons of the women who were still unattached, or at least as "regulars" of the kotha. The chaudharayan always received a fixed proportion (approximately one-third) of the earnings to maintain the apartments; hire and train other dancing girls; and attract the musicians, chefs, and special servants that such establishments employed. Many of the musicians belonged to famous lineages, and much of late-nineteenth-century Hindustani music was invented and transformed in these salons, to accommodate the new urban elite who filled the patronage vacuum in the colonial period.

The household had other functionaries beyond the core group of daughters or nieces of the senior tawa'if. These women, called thakahi and randi, were affiliates of a kotha but were ranked lower; their less remarkable appearance and talent restricted them to providing chiefly sexual services in rather more austere quarters downstairs. Another interesting group of women secretly associated with the establishment were khangi, or women who were married and observed strict pardah, but who, for financial or other reasons, came to the kotha for clandestine liaisons; the chaudharayan collected a fee from them for her hospitality. Doormen, watchmen, errand boys, tailors, palanquin carriers, and others, who lived in the lower floors of the house, or in detached servants' quarters, and were also often kinsmen, screened suspicious characters at the door, acted as protectors of the house, and spied on the activities of the police and medical departments. Pimps or other male agents simply did not exist, then or later.

It is popularly believed that the chaudharayan's most common mode of recruitment has always been kidnapping; that the tawa'if were linked to a large underground network of male criminals who abducted very young girls from villages and small towns and sold them to the kothas or nishat-khanas (literally, pleasure houses). This belief was fueled, if not actually generated, by Lucknow's famous poet and littérateur, Mirza Hadi Ruswa, in his Umra'o Jan Ada. The novel first appeared in 1905 [[actually 1899--fwp]], was an immediate success, and was translated into English in 1961. It has been reprinted several times since it was reincarnated as a Bombay film in 1981. The influence this novel has exerted on the popular imagination is enormous; it is the single most important source of information on courtesans of Lucknow, and by extension, the entire profession as it was practiced in the nineteenth century, in northern India. Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, it is a melodramatic story of a tawa'if, Umrao Jan, who as a beautiful child of five is kidnapped and sold to a tawa'if in Lucknow, where she trains and becomes, after a few complicated twists and turns in the plot, a  renowned and much-sought-after courtesan. Ruswa uses the classic ploy of writing an introduction wherein he explains that he is merely recording the true story of Umra'o Jan, told to him by the protagonist herself. His use of the first person in the "memoir," in which the courtesan frequently addresses him by name, makes it all the more convincing.

Ruswa was a regular participant at several salons, and the glimpses he provides of the rigorous training and the world view of the courtesan are quite accurate historically. What is less known is that Ruswa had a keen interest in crime, and several of his translations and adaptations were of contemporary Victorian and Urdu potboilers. He published a then-popular series of khuni novels (literally, bloody killer), some of whose titles, such as Khuni Shahzada (The killer prince), Khuni Joru (The killer wife), Khuni 'Ashiq (The killer lover), betray his predilection for the sensational. One of the older courtesans I interviewed, who had known Ruswa personally, gave the book a mixed review. She commended Ruswa for understanding the mentality of the courtesan, but blamed him for inventing characters such as the "evil kidnapper" and the exploitative madame who became the stuff of later stereotypes./12/

[[4]] The greatest harm was done to the reputation of the kotha, however, by British political propaganda. The older courtesans I interviewed, who felt keenly about contemporary politics and had connections among the local power elite, were impressively knowledgeable about the history of their city. In their view it was official British policy to malign the courtesans and the culture of salons, in order to justify the British role as usurpers of the throne of Awadh in 1856. British high-handedness in this and other policies unleashed a widespread rebellion in north and central India in 1857, which raged for ten months in Awadh until Lucknow was recaptured by the British. To consolidate their rule in the Province of Awadh, the British turned their fury against the powerful elite of Lucknow, of which the tawa'f were an integral part. Yet when it came to matters such as using these women as prostitutes for the European garrison, or collecting income tax, the eminently pragmatic British set aside their high moral dudgeon. It became official policy to select the healthy and beautiful "specimens" from among the kotha women and arbitrarily relocate them in the cantonment for the convenience of the European soldiers. This not only dehumanized the profession, stripping it of its cultural function, but it also made sex cheap and easy for the men, and exposed the women to venereal infection from the soldiers./13/

Kidnapping may have been (and perhaps still is) one of the methods by which girls fmd their way into the tawa'if households, but it is certainly not the most common. From my interviews with the thirty women who today live in the Chowk area of Lucknow, and whose ages ranged from thirty-five to seventy-eight, a very different picture emerged. In recording the life stories of these women, who spanned three generations, I found that the compelling circumstance that brought the majority of them to the various tawa'if households in Lucknow was the misery they endured in either their natal or their conjugal homes. Four of these women were widowed in their early teens, two of whom hailed from the same district and had lost their husbands in a cholera epidemic; three were sold by their parents when famine conditions made feeding these girls impossible. Seven were victims of physical abuse, two of whom were sisters who were regularly beaten by their alcoholic father for not obliging him by making themselves sexually available to the toddy seller. Three were known victims of rape and therefore deemed ineligible for marriage; two had left their ill-paid jobs as municipal sweeper women, because they were tired of "collecting other people's dirt"; two were battered wives; one had left her husband because he had a mistress; and one admitted no particular hardship, only a love for singing and dancing that was not countenanced in her orthodox Brahmin home. Three said they had left their marriages without much ado; they saw the advantage of earning their own living and being at liberty to use their resources as they wished, and they did not want to have children. Only four of them were daughters of other tawa'if. Not one claimed that kidnapping had been her experience, although they had heard of such cases. This assortment of refugees from the sharif, or respectable, world gave a completely ironic slant to the notion of respectability. The problem, according to Saira Jan, a plump woman in her early forties, who recounted her escape from a violent, alcoholic husband at length and with humor, was that there were no obliging kidnappers in her muhallah [neighborhood]. "Had there been such farishte [angels] in Hasanganj I would not have had to plot and plan my own escape at great peril to my life and my friends, who helped me."/14/

This catalog reflects the wide range of miserable circumstances from which these women had escaped. Desertion has been traditionally resorted to by those trapped in situations they had no other effective means of fighting or changing. To the list of fugitives from oppression, which includes black slaves in the ante­bellum United States, bonded laborers on colonial plantations, and drafted soldiers, can be added women fleeing the quotidian suffering they encountered as daughters, sisters, or wives./15/ Gulbadan, who was a chaudharayan from her late thirties (she claims she was born in 1900 and initiated when she was thirteen years old), had been the niece of a tawa'if and was raised in the household she now managed. She spoke of the kotha as a sanctuary for both women and men: women found in it a greater peace and freedom than in the normal world; men escaped the boredom of their domestic lives. She reminded Saira that she was a miserable, under-weight, frightened wretch when she had first appeared at her doorstep. "She was thin as a stick, her complexion was blotchy, her eyes sunk in black holes, and she had less than two rupees tied to the end of her sari. Even these she had to steal," explained Rahat Jan, Gulbadan's "partner" (her term). "Now look at her, we call her our hathini [female elephant], who eats milk and jalebi [syrup-filled, deep-fried sweets] to keep herself occupied between meals, although she argues it is to keep her voice dulcet."

Most women told their stories with enthusiasm. They had wanted to escape "hell" (the word jahannum, the Islamic hell, was frequently used to describe their earlier homes) at any cost. Learning professional skills and earning their own money helped them develop self-esteem and value the relative independence they encountered in Rahat Jan's kotha. It may well be that some of the women exaggerated the horrors of the past, but the kernels of their stories were embedded in the reality of the gender bias in society. Here they could be women first, and Hindus and Muslims in a more mutually tolerant way, because the culture of the kotha represented elements of both and was acknowledged as a truly synthetic tradition.

[[5]] The story of one of the Hindu child widows, Rasulan Ba'i, thirty-five, is especially compelling, because it exposes the ineffectiveness of the social reform legislation passed in the last 150 years, and the lack of options for young widows even today. Although it is the story of a habitual but covert rebel, it also explains why a courtesan is not willing to engage in questioning her status as a collaborator in perpetuating patriarchal values in society that keep other women in powerless positions./16/

I was married when I was ten. My natal family was Rajput, my father and uncles owned fifty acres of irrigated land; my mother did not have to work too hard because we had two servants who did most of the household work. I had attended three years of school, but I barely knew how to recognize the letters that spell my name. My gauna ceremony occurred just three months after menarche. I remember being taken to my husband's house with my dowry and plenty of gifts for my in-laws. My father sent several sacks of wheat, sugar, lentils, and other produce from the farm, because I was married to a young Rajput boy whose father had gambled away most of their wealth. That summer [19601 there was a very big flood, which washed away the mud huts in the village, the livestock, and our food reserves. While my husband was out with his brothers trying to salvage some of the food stored in earthenware jars, he slipped and fell into the water, and three days later was dead after a severe bout of cholera. I survived, but I often wished I were dead. The local Brahmin said that my ill-starred presence had brought flood and death to the village. My jewels, clothes, and the few silver coins which I had hidden away were all forcibly taken away from me, and I became a widow in white who did all the nasty, heavy chores for the household. I was fed scraps when I cried out in hunger. You talk about the laws that were passed by the British to prevent child marriage, you talk of the rights we won when the Hindu Civil Code (1956) was passed, but I sneer at all that. I had no recourse to the laws, or to lawyers, only to my wits sharpened by adversity. I first tried to get back at them with sly acts of sabotage. I did the washing up indifferently, leaving a dull film on the metal platters and the pots. For this my mother-in-law thrashed me. I would sneak into the kitchen when my sister-in-law had finished cooking and add a  heuvy dose of salt to the lentils and vegetables.. I would hide my smile when I heard the yells and abuse heaped on her by the menfolk. She caught me one day and thrashed me soundly until I howled with pain. Her husband came home and gave me another hiding. Life was unbearable, but I was trapped; there was nowhere that I could go. My parents, who had come for the funeral to our village, were distressed, but they did not offer to take me back, because they still had my younger sisters to marry. Fights, violence erupted all the time. My sister-in-law kept wishing me dead. When it was discovered that I stole money to buy snacks from the vendor, they threatened to burn me alive. I wanted to run away but didn't know where I would go, except to the river to drown myself. Finally when an itinerant troupe of entertainers was encamped in our village, I saw the performance and thought I would secretly apply to work for them, just do their housework or something. They agreed to shelter me, after I told them my troubles and showed them the bruises on my body. They smuggled me out of that hell, gave me bit parts in their dramas, and finally brought me to the lap of Bibi Khanum (another tawa'if) in Lucknow, and I have never looked back. I had no option but to run away. Tell me, sister, what would you have done in my place?
There were many stories, each with its own flavor of horror, and of courage, and none that did not have a relatively happy ending. Comparable employment opportunities for women simply did not exist then, and are few and far between even now. Gulbadan explained that not all women in need can make the kotha their refuge; some are not talented enough to become courtesans, and some are too anxious about their moral standing. Women, particularly from the higher strata of Hindu and Muslim society, fear violent reprisals if discovered by their families, or shrink from exposure to strange men. She went on to say that "many women flee their homes in the villages and come to the anonymity of the city to work as domestic servants, as ayahs [nannies] or maids or cooks. Some join road gangs run by government or private building contractors, only to break bricks into small pieces with a hammer all day in the sun, and earn in a month what we make in a few hours of passing the time in civilized company./17/ To make ends meet they have to sleep with their employers and the dalal, or middle­men who found them their jobs, and get beaten up by their husbands when they find out: Gulbadan explained that "a woman compromises her dignity twenty.four hours of the day when she has no control over her body or her money."/18/ This response was unanimously endorsed by the other courtesans.

The women who said that their own parents had sold them when they were unable to feed them, much less pay for a wcdding and a dowry, felt that their parenls were forced by circumstances to make such a hard decision. Yet they sent money home every month to take care of their impoverished families, which was gratefully received, and whatever resentment they may have felt for being abandoned as children had dissipated through understanding the limits imposed on women in this world. Gulbadan, who spoke more aphoristically than the others, explained that even fifty years ago there was very little scope for women to change the lives they grumblingly led:

What they couldn't change they called their qismat, their fate. Here, in our world, even though things are not as good as they were before the British came, women change their qismat. Even philosophers and poets will tell you that no one can change their qismat. Ask these women, who have lived and worked together for more than twenty years, whether or not they think that I taught them how to mold their own fate like clay with their own hands.
I did, and they agreed, with laughing nods, while they celebrated Janmashtami (birthday of the Hindu god Krishna, the patron of their dance) and the Muslim festival of 'Id, on the third floor of Gulbadan's impressively large building. And this was the very essence of their world view.

[[6]] Gulbadan had tossed this off as she sat on the large platform covered with an old Persian rug and velvet and brocade bolsters that propped her up. Watching her deft fingers prepare a paan, or betel leaf, with its half-dozen nut-and-spice fixings, I felt I was in the presence of an alchemist who had transformed base fortunes into gold. She, along with her septuagenarian friends, had inherited a way of life and struggled to preserve it, quite selfishly, in the face of an increasingly hostile future. Their business was neither to exploit women, nor to transform the lot of the generality of womankind, but to liberate and empower those with whom they were associated. The high level of camaraderie, wit, teasing, and affectionate interaction that I observed and participated in on several visits to the apartments of the older women over ten years affirmed this impression repeatedly.

The process of "changing one's fate" (qismat badalna) is, under closer scrutiny, a psychosocial process through which the social construction of gender (and sexuality, as we shall see) is stripped bare. The chaudharayan acts in several capacities, the most challenging being to inspire in the women who come to her a confidence in their own ability and worth, restore shattered nerves, set about undoing the socialization they had received in their natal homes. This delicate and difficult task, at one level, is not unlike the task modern psychotherapy purports to perform in Western society. The problem, according to Rasulan, was to forget the expectations inherent in the meaning of the word 'aurat, or woman, as it obtained in the larger society:

The notion "woman" was dinned into my mind and had shaped my behavior from the day I was born. Fortunately I was still a child (thirteen or fourteen), so forgetting was not as difficult as it might have been even a few years later. I forgot my misery upon arriving in a house where a different meaning of that word was already in place, where Amina Ba'i and Zehra Jan [Gulbadan's granddaughters] were acting out those meanings for us all.

They did not fear men because they were admired and praised by men; nor had they ever been nagged by their mother and grandmother about not doing this or that or they would not be able to get married, nor slapped by a father for being "immodest." They had never been upset at being a burden to their parents, since the shadow of dahej [dowry] has never darkened their lives. I resented them to begin with, thought them spoilt and selfish, but slowly 1 began to realize that they were of a different mold. I would have to break my own mental mold and recast myself. I got a lot of love from Gulbadan, Rahat Jan, and Amiran. They would listen to me, and I would regurgitate all the sorrow, pain, and poison I had swallowed, again and again. Now when I tell you my story, it is as if I am telling you another's tale. Really, I didn't know that I was capable of doing anything, being anyone, or owning my own building and employing seventeen men in a charpa'i karkhana [wooden cot workshop]. I had the mentality of a timid and ugly mouse; now I am accused of being too arrogant and am envied for the property I own./19/

The process of rehabilitation for these women is rapid, since they generally arrive young and are plunged into a welcoming environment. The self-affirming ethos of the kotha makes it possible for them to assimilate their newly revised perceptions and behavior patterns, while living among a host of nurturing and supportive women, and without the fear of men. Freedom from the pressure of the "marriage market" where grooms were "for sale" to the woman with the largest dowry, they unanimously agreed, gave them the inner courage to develop their skills and treat men as equals, or even as inferiors.

[[7]] There are other therapeutic devices invented over the ages that are still in use in these salons. Novices are introduced to a secret repertoire of satirical and bawdy songs, dances, informal miming, and dramatic representations, aimed at the institution of marriage and heterosexual relations. These entertainments are privately performed only among women. These "matinee shows," as they jokingly call them, are not only crucial for the solidarity and well­being of the group, but they also help the newcomers to discard the old and internalize the new meaning of being an 'aurat. I recognized this, when in answer to one of my early (and very naive) questions I was treated to a vignette on the "joys" of marriage./20/

VTO: Gulbadan, since you are a handsome woman, so well educated, with all this money and property and jewels, why didn't you marry a sharif [respectable) nawab (there are several descendants of noble families in Lucknow who use this honorific) and settle down to a life of respectability?

Gulbadan: Your use of the word "respectable" is thoughtless. Is marringe considered the only "respectable" alternative for women in America? Are married women not abused? Well, let us show you what marriage is before you wish it on an old and respectable woman like myself, or any of us here. Let us dispel the darkness in your mind about the nature of marriage.

Of what they then played out for me I can only offer an inadequate summary, because it is difficult to capture the visual details of the half-hour-long satirical medley of song, dance, dialogue, and mime that followed. Rasulan immediately took her dupatta [long scarf] and wound it around her head as a turban to play the husband. Elfin Hasina Jan took her cue as the wife, others became children and members of the extended family, while Gulbadan remained on her settee amid the bolsters, taking occasional drags from the huqqah, presiding, as a particularly obnoxious mother-in­law, over a scene of domestic disharmony. The wife/mother first surveys the multifarious demands on her energy and time: the children squall, ask for food, drink, and want to be picked up; the mother-in-law orders that her legs, which have wearied from sitting, be massaged; the husband demands food and attention; the father-in-law asks for his huqqah to be refilled; and a sister-in-law announces that she cannot fmish doing the laundry, nor knead the chapati dough, because she is not feeling too well. Hasina is defeated, harried. Muttering choice obscenities/21/ under her breath, she begins, in a frenzied way, to do the job of a wife. She lights the coal stove, dusts and tidies the room, cooks, presses the legs of the mother-in-law who emits pleasurable grunts, tries to soothe the baby who is now wailing, and puts plates of food in front of the demanding husband. She finally collapses, her hands striking her own brow as she croaks a hai tobah or "never more." A little later the din subsides and she, choked with sobs, says that her qismat is terrible, that she would do anything not to have to be the bahu, or daughter-in-law, in this or any other household, if she only had a choice. She is trapped. The rest of the household snores noisily while her husband, belching and hiccupping after his food and drink, makes a lunge at her for some quick sex. She succumbs, and after a few agitated seconds he appears satisfied. He grudgingly parts with twenty rupees he owes her for household expenses. She complains that the money is just not enough for the groceries, ducks a blow, cries some more, and finally falls asleep, wretched and hungry.

Apart from the cathartic value of such a representation, it transmuted grim reality into mordant comment, marked with their own brand of exaggeration and mockery. The women pointed out the several "morals" embedded in the story to me. Those who dare to hold "moral" objections to the life of a tawa'if should first examine the thankless toil of an average housewife, including her obligation to satisfy a sometimes faithless or alcoholic or violent husband for the sake of a meager living. Such an existence is without dignity, and was not the situation of the housewife tantamount to that of a common prostitute, giving her body for money?/22/ "It is we who are brought up to live in sharafat [genteel respectability], with control over our bodies and our money, and they who suffer the degradation reserved for lowly [nich] women."/23/

Such vivid reversals of social perception and logic are stock idioms in the courtesans' speech and song. Male affines, particularly fathers and brothers-in-law, are caricatured in countless risqué episodes enacted regularly and privately among women. They mock the repressive relationships and male sexuality in the conjugal home, even as they amuse, educate, and edify the denizens of the kotha./24/ The routines, studded with subversive and irreverent jokes and obscene gestures, are performed like secret anti-rites/25/ which have been carefully distilled and historically transmitted from generation to generation, to form the core of their private consciousness and oral heritage.

[[8]] I had also seriously questioned the courtesans' use of the burqa', which is a long overcloak that Muslim women in pardah wear for extended seclusion outside the home. This cloak, usually black or white, is worn over regular clothes and covers the wearer from head to foot. It has a small rectangular piece of netting that fits over the eyes that enables the wearers to see, while they cannot be seen at all. It is certainly an artifact of a male-dominated society, where men could dictate that women keep themselves covered so as not to provoke male lust./26/ It was, at first, inexplicable why tawa'if not only used the burqa' to move around when they went visiting or shopping, but actually insisted that I too should wear one as they led me to other kothas in the vicinity, because injunctions about female modesty did not apply to them. It was precisely because they were not expected to be in pardah, they reasoned, in another classic reversal of patriarchal logic, that they chose to block the gaze of men. It was an extension of the autonomy they enjoyed in their living space and their jism [bodies], unlike "normal" women whose bodies were the property of their husbands and who were secluded but lacked privacy in their own homes. The latter were kept in pardah to maintain (and increase) khandani 'izzat, or family honor; for them to show their faces in public would bring disgrace to their families. "Ah, but our case is just the opposite," said Saira, "men long to see our faces. If they could brag among their friends that they had seen Gulbadan or Amiran in the bazaar without a covering, they would go up in the esteem in which their friends hold them. We are not in the business of giving them cheap thrills. While we walk freely and anonymously in public places, looking at the world through our nets, they are deprived because we have blinkered them. We do not, as you know, bestow anything on men without extracting its price."/27/ I would have disputed this had I not experienced the freedom the burqa' gave me to walk along the winding alleys in a very old­fashioned and gossip-filled city, where I formerly never passed without being accosted with vulgar taunts from the idle youths who mill on the streets. These women had appropriated the power of the gaze, while eluding the leer of sexually frustrated men.

A great deal has been said, and is known, about the rigorous training and education courtesans undergo to ultimately please and entertain their patrons./28/ What has never received discursive treatment, because of its very nature, is their secret skill the art of nakhrah, or pretense, that courtesans have to master in order to spare no opportunity of coaxing money out of their patron and his friends. Their avowed and unabashed purpose is to amass a tidy fortune as early in their careers as possible, so that they can invest the surplus in income-producing properties or enterprises and retire comfortably at the age of thirty-five or so. To achieve their material ambitions, they use, in addition to their exorbitant charges, an arsenal of devious "routines" that make up the hidden text of an evening's entertainment. These are subtly deployed to bargain, cajole, and extort extra cash or kind from their unsuspecting clients./29/ Some of these are learned, some invented, some even improvised, but nuances are refigured with care to suit the temperament of a client, or the mood of the moment, to appear "spontaneous." Repeated rehearsals by the trainee are evaluated by the adept tawa'if, until no trace of the pretense is discernible.

[[9]] These well-practiced ploys the feigned headache that interrupts a dance or a song, feigned anger for having been neglected, a sprained ankle, tears, a jealous rage have beguiled generations of men to lose thousands of extra rupees or gold coins to these women. The tawa'if's refusal, at a critical juncture, to complete a sexual interlude with a favorite patron is a particularly profitable device, because feigned coital injuries or painful menstrual cramps involve expensive and patient waiting on the part of the patron. Gulbadan said she often carried the game a step further by "allying" herself with the patron against the "offending" courtesan, to set the seal of authenticity on the scene. She would scold and even slap her till the patron begged her not to be so harsh. Gulbadan was the privately acclaimed champion of these more serious confidence tricks, and others cheerfully confessed to having blackmailed, stolen, lied, and cheated for material gain as soon as they acquired competence in this art. This may sound more like self-enrichment than resistance, but because society has virtually denied women control over wealth or property, it is essential to establishing a countercultural way of life.

The formula, Gulbadan confided, is to win the complete trust of the man. This they do by first mastering all the information about the man his public reputation, his finances, his foibles and vanities, his domestic life, and the skeletons in his closet.

Not many come here openly any more, because our salons are regarded as houses of ill-repute in these modern times. Most come to drink and for sexual titillation. We know how to get a man drunk and pliant, so that we can extort whatever we want from him: money, even property, apologies, jewels, perfume, or other lavish gifts. Industrialists, government officers, other businessmen come here now; they have a lot of black money [undeclared cash] that they bring with them, sometimes without even counting it. We make sure that they leave with very little, if any. We know those who will pay large sums to insure secrecy, so we threaten them with careless gossip in the bazaar, or with an anonymous note addressed to their fathers or their wives.

We do not act collectively as a rule, but sometimes it may become necessary to do so. We once did a drama against a money lender who came and would not pay us the money he had promised for holding an exclusive soirée for him. So when a police officer who had fallen in love with me came by. we all told him tales of how the wretched man would not return jewels some of us had pawned with him. We filed a police report, he was arrested, and some of the pawned items (which the jeweler had taken from some of our recently straitened noble patrons) were made over to us by the lovelorn officer; others of his debtors sent us sweets and thanks for bringing the hated Ram Swarup to justice. But our biggest gambit of all is the game of love that makes these men come back again and again, some until they are financially ruined. They return every evening, like the flocks of homing pigeons, in the vain belief thnt it is we who are in love with them./30/

In Ruswa's 1905 novel about Lucknow's courtesans, this particular nakhrah is insightfully described by the protagonist, Umra'o Jan:
I am but a courtesan in whose profession love is a current coin. Whenever we want to ensnare anyone we pretend to fall in love with him. No one knows how to love more than we do: to heave deep sighs; to burst into tears at the slightest pretext; to go without food for days on end; to sit dangling our legs on the parapets of wells ready to jump into them; to threaten to take arsenic. All these are parts of our game of love. But I tell you truthfully, no man ever really loved me nor did I love any man./31/
[[10]] A discussion of the feigning of love for men (a discussion which occurred only after several visits) brought perhaps the most startling "hidden" text to light. It was difficult to imagine that these women, even though they were economically independent, educated, and in control of their lives, would spurn the opportunity for real intimacy and emotional stability. Everyone agreed that emotional needs do not disappear with success, fame, or independence; on the contrary, they often intensify. Almost every one of the women I interviewed during these many visits claimed that their closest emotional relationships were among themselves, and eight of them admitted, when I pressed them, that their most satisfying physical involvements were with other women. They referred to themselves as chapat baz, or lesbians, and to chapti, or chipti, or chapat bazi, or lesbianism./32/ They seemed to attach little importance to labels, and made no verbal distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual relations. There was no other "serious" or poetic term for lesbianism, so I settled for the colloquialisms. Their explanation for this was that emotions and acts of love are gender-free. "Serious" words such as muhabbat (Urdu) or prem (Hindi) or "love" (English) are versatile and can be used to describe many kinds of love, such as the love of man or woman, the love for country, for siblings, parents of either sex, so there was no need to have a special term for love between two women. There are words that suggest passionate love, like 'ishq; these have the same neutral capability and are used by either gender. Although their lesbianism is a strictly private matter for them, the absence of a specialized vocabulary makes it a simple fact of life, like heterosexual love, or the less denied male homosexual love. The lack of terminology or the scrambling of pronouns may also be interpreted as the ultimate disguise for it; if something cannot be named, it is easy to deny its existence. In Urdu poetry, ambiguity about gender is not uncommon, and homosexual love often passes for heterosexual love./33/

The frank discussions on the subject of their private sexuality left some of my informants uneasy. I had probed enough into their personal affairs, they insisted, and they were not going to satisfy my curiosity any further; they were uncomfortable with my insistence on stripping their strategic camouflage, by which they also preserved their emotional integrity. Their very diffidence to talk about their lesbianism underscores the thesis that they believe in a quiet, but profound, subversion of patriarchal values. It became clear that for many of them heterosexuality itself is the ultimate nakhrah, and feigned passion an occupational hallmark. My ardor for precise statistics faded as the real and theoretical implications of their silences and their disguises began to emerge./34/ And it is to these that I now turn.

[[11]] What do all these stories signify? Does the courtesans' presentation of their life-style add up to a subversion of existing gender relations in heterosexual marriage? Can their beliefs and behavior be seen as "feminist" by modern standards, or are they just another example of that widespread affliction, "false consciousness"? How do we reconcile the horizontal stratifications of class with the vertical divide of gender, and their anomalous position in either group? Do they qualify as a subaltern group as women, or as an elite group by virtue of their power and connections? Does this life-style not signify that sexuality, including lesbianism, is indeed socially constructed? Let me begin to hack at this thicket by citing Romila Thapar's perspective on Hindu ascetics. In taking ascetics (an equally unlikely-seeming group of rebels) both as individuals or in organized groups, as dissenters, she sees in their rejection of the grahasta-ashrama, or the householder stage in a prescribed four-stage cycle (student, householder, recluse, and ascetic) of an upper-caste Hindu male's life, the essence of their rebellion.

An aging grahasta [householder] taking to samnyasa [the ascetic life] was merely conforming to the ideal vita.... The negation of the family as a basic unit of society is evident from the opposition to the grahasta status and specially the insistence on celibacy. [Inherent in] the act of opting out of the existing life­style and substituting it with a distinctively different one.... [is that] the characteristics of the new life-style be seen as a protest against the existing one. To this extent such movements may be regarded as movements of dissent. But the element of protest was muted by the wish, not to change society radically, but to stand aside and create an alternative system./35/
The life-style of female ascetics could not be reckoned as a true counterpart because, as Thapar points out, female ascetics, with few exceptions, were always subordinate to the authority of males. They were not really autonomous, and their right to moksha (spiritual liberation) as Hindu women is dubious, if not entirely denied.

I would argue that the true female counterpart of the rebellious ascetic,and perhaps the far more daring, is the tawa'if. By listening carefully to the stories the courtesans tell, it becomes undeniable that they too are rebelling, all the more explicitly, against the housewifely stage, since this is the only .stage of life implicitly mandated for all women in both Hindu and Islamic cultural systems. It is in this stage that the woman must achieve total fulfillment, because she does not graduate, as the man does, to a more mature level. The informal "student stage" for a girl used to be, and still is for the majority, the acquisition of practical experience in housework and childcare. Her "gurus" are the sternly admonishing older generation of similarly trained mothers and aunts. Modesty, obedience, and other subordinate behavior patterns are drilled into her until she comes to hold the single-minded belief that her eligibility for marriage is the only index of her worth. It is the "normal" woman's social and sexual regimen that courtesans-in-the­making must unlearn and supplant by undergoing a radically different socialization process and adopting the life-style that gives them the liberation they desire, without jerking the reflexive muscle of a repressive system.

Although life-styles of the male ascetic and the female courtesan are both modes of social dissent, the sexual differences, and the social prescriptions on which they are predicated, produce interestingly contrasted strategies and ideologies. The former emerges from a religious interpretation of grahasta with the denial of sexuality, lineage, and property ownership, as its strategic thrust to gain spiritual liberation. The latter, on the other hand, emerges from the secular and domestic context in which women's lives are enmeshed. The courtesans seek material and social liberation by reversing the constraints imposed on women's chastity and economic rights, and by establishing a female lineage of selected and ascriptive members who make up their gharana. The male becomes celibate, renounces property and the privileges of his gender in this world of "other-worldly" rewards; the female becomes sexually active and aggressively acquisitive, prefers autonomy to "virtue," and seeks this-worldly "women's liberation."

Yet some consequences of these divergent paths are strikingly similar. Both life-styles subvert the hierarchies of caste and class, because in both groups lower caste and economically disadvantaged persons find refuge. The tawa'if have created a secular meritocracy based on talent and education, accepting Hindus and Muslims alike. They too, like the ascetics, hold positions of respect by the society at large, and both countercultures exist by maintaining vital links to the overarching patriarchal culture, while consciously inverting or rejecting its values. Although neither group has the pretension of changing the entrenched notions of the householder stage, both serve their own personal ends by elaborate strategies of avoidance. By opting for the institutional security of a monastery or a brothel, both groups wielded political power in the past through the powerful heads of sects in ancient Hindu kingdoms in the subcontinent or through the chaudharayan in precolonial Lucknow and other court cities, such as Hyderabad, Rampur, Banaras, Bijapur, and Golkonda. In unfavorable historical circumstances, both groups lost political power, but their patented life-styles still remain viable modes for women and men to elude the shackles of patriarchy and seek their own brands of liberation.

[[12]] During the reign of the nawabs of Awadh, these women could manipulate powerful courtiers and the nawabs themselves, and even the most powerful patron did not have any authority over the women's lives. The executive authority and managerial functions were the exclusive preserve of the chaudharayan and her appointees. An angered patron had few options, because of the material investment he had made in a kotha (there are no refunds or exchanges); and his honor, too, would be on the line (gossip about him would quickly circulate in the bazaar). It is therefore not the patron who is ultimately significant but the matron, who creates the ethos, reputation, and the quality of life and services in her establishment.

The courtesan's position is of course much diminished by the events and reconfigurations of power in the colonial and post­colonial periods. Fully aware of this history, these women find hope in other educational and employment opportunities that have recently opened up for women, for their basic goal is to free themselves from direct economic dependence on men. They already had daughters or nieces competing for and obtaining posts in the banking system, or as pleaders in the local courts, but these professions were not, as Chhote Miyan, the Persian-speaking son of one of the courtesans and my first informant, pointed out, a way of life. Women might become financially independent, but without the refuge of the kotha they would again be forced to marry and possibly suffer the degradation at the hands of unsympathetic husbands. Amiran's daughter, a banker, chose to marry. "We were wary of this alliance, Amiran recollected, "and sure enough her husband took up with another woman, and my daughter and granddaughter are back with us. She looks after our investments and bank work, so that she does really contribute to the household with her labor just as we all do." In other words, they shrewdly recognized that while financial independence was important, it did not solve the central problem of the gender inequality inherent within marriage in a patriarchal society.

Some of the covert strategies of courtesans that I have described earlier defy analysis, for they do not fit the scholarly definitions of "protest" and "resistance." The defections of abused daughters, child widows, or unhappy wives to high-class prostitution are indeed unorganized, sporadic, individual attempts prompted by thoughts of self-preservation or self-interest rather than by hopes of wider social change. The courtesan's nakhre, which include blackmail, theft, confidence games, and even feigned heterosexuality, smack more of a sleazy underworld than of the acts of determined rebels, particularly because the consequences of such acts neither threaten nor change the overall power relations against which they are aimed. Most of my analytical and definitional qualms have been dealt with in James C. Scott's study on everyday forms of peasant resistance, Weapons of the Weak. He refutes theoretical objections and accusations of excessive romanticism so compellingly that I find it pertinent to quote him at some length:

Real resistance, it is argued, is (a) organized, systematic, and cooperative, (b) principled or selfless, (c) has revolutionary consequences, and/or (d) embodies ideas or intentions that negate the basis of domination itself. Token, incidental, or epiphenomenal activities by contrast, are la) unorganized, un­systematic, and individual, (b) opportunistic and self-indulgent, (c) have no revolutionary consequences, and/or (d) imply, in their intention or meaning, an accommodation with the system of domination. These distinctions are important for any analysis... [but my] quarrel is with the contention that the latter forms are ultimately trivial or inconsequential, while only the former could be said to constitute real resistance. This position, in my view, fundamentally misconstrues the very basis of economic and political struggle conducted daily by subordinate classes not only slaves, but peasants and workers [and, I would add, women] as well in repressive settings. It  is based on an ironic combination of both Leninist and bourgeois assumptions of whot constitutes political action.... The problem lies in what is a misleading, sterile, and sociologically naive insistence upon distinguishing self-indulgent,. individual acts, on the one hand, from presumably .principled, selfless, collective actions, on the other, and excluding the former from the category of real resistance./36/
[[13]] If traditional constructs of class and class struggle are not directly relevant to the clandestine and unorganized struggles of the peasants in Malaysia whom Scott studied, they are even farther removed from the arena of gender relations and the courtesans' style of reversing an oppressive order. One does not use a hammer to prune a rose bush. Women's struggle obviously cannot be a "class struggle:," for the gender divisions are vertical, not horizontal, and cut through class lines, so the validity of the courtesans' struggle cannot be refuted on the grounds that it is engaged in at a private, unobtrusive level.

The courtesans have uniquely combined the elements of struggle for their material needs with those of an ideological struggle against patriarchal values, by creating and hiding behind their many masks. They live in outward harmony with male power and male sexuality, for the struggle can only be effective if their subterfuges are mistaken for compliance, and their true intentions as collusion with men against other women. Their cooperation with some women outside the kotha, such as the khangi, or the married women to whom they rent space so that they too can earn (undisclosed) extra money, is also little known, and it would be no longer politic or possible if it were uncovered.

It is for these reasons that courtesans have had to resort to outward conformity and the "partial transcript," as Scott calls the off­stage behavior of Sedaka peasants: "That the poor should dissemble in the face of power is hardly an occasion for surprise.... No close account of the life of subordinate classes can fail to distinguish between what is said 'backstage' and what may be safely declared openly."/37/ If it can still be argued that no matter what the tawa'ifs' self-perceptions, actions, goals, and ideology are, they were and are still complicitous in perpetuating patriarchal relations in society, it is to insist on the ideal instead of the possible in a struggle for power. As Gulbadan, the oldest courtesan I interviewed, responded to this question: "I know we are blamed for enabling men to perpetuate their double moral standards and dominating women. Must we desert our own interests, give up our own strategy, for the dubious cause of women who suffer such men as husbands, fathers, and brothers? Today we are silent, we are despised, and the law has cracked down on us; has that helped the cause of women, or only made life harder for us?"/38/ In fact, their silence is so complete that for all official intents and purposes (such as taxation), this category of women is no longer acknowledged in postcolonial India. This for them is a mixed result. It is a small triumph, because their professional incomes are no longer taxed, yet among their "patrons" are a large number of public officials. It is a larger defeat, because officialdom can piously claim that they have banned female sexual exploitation while converting their once-proud profession into a species of "vice."

[[14]] And finally I return to the question of sexuality, as reality and as a nakhrah, because there is the larger question, that of the social construction of sexuality, that may well be illuminated by analyzing the world view of courtesans of Lucknow. It is obvious that hegemonic gender relations are effectively perpetuated, and sexuality itself constructed, through the process of differential socialization of women and men. I would (tentatively) argue further that by systematically reversing the socialization process for females, in order to combat the disabilities inherent in women's existing social and sexual roles, the courtesans have logically "constructed" lesbian existence as a legitimate alternative, just as much as Indian society at large constructs and enforces, through the institution of compulsory marriage, heterosexuality as "normative" behavior. Heterosexual relations for most of the courtesans was work, not pleasure. Right from birth, if we recall the testimony of Chhote Miyan, the female is celebrated, empowered, cherished; those who arrive as adolescents in the kotha are methodically reeducated within the context of this parallel and exclusive society of women, and its "woman-centered" vision of power relations. Their relationships with men in the kotha are congenial but businesslike; except for kin, only very few ever become emotional bondsmen. Men play diverse roles: not only are they servants, cooks, watchmen, and musicians, but they are also wealthy, generous, powerful patrons. The latter relate on equal terms with the courtesans precisely because power is genuinely shared in that cultural setting. Arguably, it is therefore in the kotha, rather than in the "normal" world, that female sexuality has the chance of being more fairly and fearlessly constructed by women.

I do not have the space to explore the subject cross-culturally to offer, in support of this contention, the growing evidence of lesbianism in brothels, salons, geisha houses, and apartments of call girls in international capitals, which is a universal common denominator across time and space. That sexuality competes with economics for priority in the struggle against gender inequality is not surprising, That male sexual control and aggression is neutralized in a setting where the heterosexual sex act is mere routine, and passion and pleasure are simulated or distanced, is perhaps an essential mechanism that women, both wives and prostitutes, have universally used to preserve their emotional integrity and dignity. All the courtesan's nakhre, particularly the sexual pretenses, are brilliantly echoed in the following interview Studs Terkel conducted, in the early 1970s, with a Chicago hooker, Roberta Victor:

Of course we faked it.... The ethic was:... You always fake it. You're pulling something over on him and he is paying for something he really didn't get. That's the only way you keep any sense of self-respect. The call girl ethic is very strong. You were the lowest of the low if you allowed yourself to feel anything.... The way you maintain your integrity is by acting all the way through. Here I was doing absolutely nothing, feeling nothing, and in twenty minutes I was going to walk out with fifty dollars in my pocket.... How many people could make fifty dollars for twenty minutes' work? [and] no taxes, nothing!... The overt hustling society is the microcosm of the rest of society. The power relations are the same and the games are the same. Only this one I was in control of. The greater one I wasn't./39/
Roberta's philosophy of life and her indictment of contemporary American society matches, in startling detail, that of the courtesans of Lucknow, and this "coincidence," including a lesbian lover, gives their stories a timeless, transcultural resonance. In quest of a room of their own and considerably more than five hundred pounds a year, these women had taken control of their lives by reversing not only the social rules but even the sexual fantasies of patriarchy.
 

= = = = = = = = = = =
N O T E S

The research for this paper was conducted in India and in Britain between 1976 and 1986 and was funded by the American Council for Learned Societies, American Institute for Indian Studies, and the Social Science Research Council, for which I am very grateful. I thank Douglas Haynes, Philip Oldenburg, Frances Pritchett, Catherine R, Stimpson, Romila Thapar, Judy Walkowitz, Judy Walsh, and Gauri Vishwanathan for their prompt and insightful comments, The responsibility for the interpretive framework is my own.

/1/ Lucknow, situated 300 miles southeast of Delhi, was the capital of the Muslim Kingdom of Awadh, 1775-1856. Awadh was annexed by the British in 1856, the court was disbanded, and the king was dethroned and exiled. In the following year, the great rebellion of 1857, which began as a mutiny of Indian sepoys (soldiers) against the British, broke out. It was suppressed in 1858 and sweeping changes were made in the city of Lucknow and the provincial government to avoid such uprisings in the future. Lucknow remained a seat of regional power under the British, 1856-1947, and is today the capital of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the Republic of India.

/2/ For a detailed history of the city and an account of these sources, taxation policies, and the subtle and overt forms of resistance and evasion adopted by the citizens of Lucknow, see my book, The Making of Colonial Lucknow, 1856-1877 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), chap. 5. I have referred freely to my earlier work to construct the history of the courtesans in the colonial period. A full analysis of earlier interviews, especially those conducted in 1980-81, 1983, 1984, and 1985-86, is presented here for the first time. Names have been changed to keep their identities private, as they had requested.

/3/ The last Shi'i nawab, or King, of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, had acquired a large harem of singers and dancers by using a Shi'i variant of Islamic marriage called mutah. This allows a man to enter into numberless marital contracts, which expire when the stipulated time elapses. It saves men and women from the accusation of adultery, and in Wajid Ali Shah's case, gave him the opportunity to be a true patron of these talented women by bestowing on them some of the best real estate in Lucknow. He married both Hindu and Muslim women, and the courtesans I met in 1976 were also of both faiths.

/4/ Oldenburg, passim. For a detailed account of British reaction to the mortality statistics in the colonial army and their control of prostitutes, see Kenneth A. Ballhatchet, Race, Sex, and Class under the Raj (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980).

/5/ Oldenburg, 131-42.

/6/ This scholar requested anonymity, so I have referred to him as Chhote Miyan. The interview occurred in January 1976.

/7/ This section is summarized from Oldenburg, 131-42. Corroborative evidence from other sources will be noted. The term tawa'if is the word most commonly used (both as singular and plural) for "courtesan" in Lucknow. Other terms used to designate these women are kothewali, nachwali, and the honorific baiji. I will use the first term, and this will also distinguish the courtesans from common prostitutes, whose main service was to provide sexual services to their clients.

/8/ Abdul Halim Sharar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, trans. and ed. E.S. Harcourt and Fakhir Hussain (London: Paul Elek, 1975), 192.

/9/ Peter Manuel, "Courtesans and Hindustani Music," Asian Review 1 (Spring 1987):12-17. In this brief piece, Manuel sketches the role of the courtesans in enriching the musical traditions of India and describes the development of thumri and ghazal, semiclassical genres of singing, by the courtesans of Lucknow in their bid to adapt to the taste of their new patrons, the taluqdars of Awadh, after Wajid All Shah and his chief courtiers were exiled in 1856. I have discussed the role of the rural taluqdars (large landowners) and their transformation into an urban elite in great detail in my Making of Colonial Lucknow, 215-30.

/10/ Most Hindi films, called masala, or formula, films, are popular because of the songs and dances in them. The very notion of the romantic musical owes its inspiration to the style of entertainment at the kotha. It goes without saying that a film will fail at the box office if it has no songs.

/11/ The romantic and generous patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, who "fell in love" with a large assortment of "female palanquin bearers, courtesans, domestic servants, and women who came in and out of the palace, in short with hundreds of... beautiful and dissolute women," is legendary and retold by Sharar. He goes on to say (p. 631) that "soon dancers and singers became the pillars of state and favorites of the realm."

/12/ Interview with Gulbadan, aged eighty-three, in August 1980, at her kotha in Lucknow, after the release of the film Umra'o Jan Ada. Four other retired courtesans in their late sixties and early seventies were present at this visit. They had not seen the film but had read the novel (Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa, Umrao Jon Ada, trans. Khushwant Singh and M.A. Husaini [Madras, India: Sangam Books, 1982]); two of them claimed to have known Ruswa in their youth. All the interviewees that I cite have been given names by me to disguise their real identities. I have translated into English the substance of the unstructured interviews I conducted more in the form of conversations in Urdu with these women. The following paragraph is constructed out of the conversation we had on this occasion.

/13/ See Oldenburg, 138-41, for a detailed account. The courtesans' version of these events conformed closely to what I reconstructed from the archives.

/14/ Saira Jan spoke to me for two hours on 2 Nov. 1976, at the kotha in Lucknow, and never failed to add her opinion to those being voiced on countless other occasions, if she was within earshot.

/15/ An extremely interesting article by Raymond A. Bauer and Alice H. Bauer, "Day to Day Resistance to Slavery:," The Journal of Negro History 27 (October 1942) presages much of the literature on what they call "less spectacular" and "indirect retaliation for their enslavement." It was very useful in formulating the argument that I present here, and I wish to thank Geraldine Forbes for the reference.

/16/ This story is the story of the courtesan I call Rasulan Ba'i, The other widows whom I interviewed were from the same clan of Rajput Hindus from western Uttar Pradesh, and the outlines of the stories were similar. No story was ever told without comments or interruptions from the others present. This life story was related to me in November 1980.

/17/ In the 1860s In Lucknow "a randi... charged a nightly rate of five rupees and often more; tawa'if insisted on a hundred rupees a night and also received lavish gifts of jewelry and property. (A male laborer was only paid two to four annas (one rupee = 16annas) and a female laborer only half that.)" See Oldenburg, 138. A century later, with the number of generous patrons on the wane, the disparities in income were only slightly less ridiculous. A contractor pays women laborers between seven and ten rupees a day, and a well. known tawa'if charges three thousand rupees for a muscial evening. Most have regular income besides, from investments, rents, and sale of produce from orchards or shops.

/18/ Interview with Gulbadan, November 1980, at her kotha in Lucknow.

/19/ Interview with Rasulan, thirty-five, Amina Ba'i, forty-two, and Zehra Jan, forty-eight, in December 1980, at Gulbadan's kotha in Lucknow.

/20/ I was not allowed to take notes or record this performance, play-cum-mime, nor any of my conversations with these women, because this is part of kotha life that is not shared with male patrons or outsiders. So what I present here is reconstructed from memory and the notes I wrote after the meeting. This event occurred in September 1976 and was repeated in a slightly modified version (because oral tradition is not bound by a text) at my request in July 1984.

/21/ These are not the run-of-the.mill obscenities heard in the bazaar; they are special gaaliyan, poetic, funny, stylized terms and phrases of abuse. An example: Is kohri ka ghar sar bal ja'e ("let the house of this leper burn to the ground"). Male genitalia were also a popular target for verbal abuse.

/22/ Similar sentiments are expressed about the bourgeois housewife in Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto.

/23/ Rasulan Ba'i, November 1980, at Gulbadan's kotha in Lucknow. Elsewhere, prostitutes also express a strong aversion to marriage. Geraldine Forbes brought to my attention a late-nineteenth-century account of the profession in Bombay that reiterates these sentiments: "No Bhavin (very degraded catcgory of prostitute) would consent to contract matrimony with a person of her own caste, or remain in his keeping. as prostitution in their view, is more honorable; it enriches and makes them sole mistresses of their liberty and property, and their protectors are ever ready to be at their command:" See.K. Raghunathji "Bombay Dancing Girls," Indian Antiquary 13 (June 1884):165-78. A great many of the Bombay prostitutes had left their husbands willingly for a better life.

/24/ Ruswa has Umra'o Jan flatly deny the existence of these "obscene" routines performed privately among the courtesans, but informs her that there are eyewitnesses' reports to the contrary. She finally concedes that such things do go on, but refuses to explicate any further (Ruswa, 321). Less risqué versions of such songs form the repertoire of village women, and they are sung at weddings or as women go about doing their daily chores.

/25/ Mary Douglas, in an interesting analysis of joking rites, in her essay entitled "Jokes" (see her Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975], 90-114), writes: "The message of a standard rite is that the ordained patterns of social life are inescapable. The message of the joke is that they are escapable. A joke is by nature an anti-rite.... Recall that a joke connects and disorganizes. It attacks sense and hierarchy. The joke rite then must express a comparable situation. If it devalues social structure, perhaps it celebrates something else instead. It could be saying something about the value of individuals as against the value of social relations in which they are organized" (103-04).

/26/ The most comprehensive treatment of the subject of pardah in India is to be found in Hannah Papanek and Gail Minault, eds., Separate Worlds: Studies of Purdah in South Asia (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1982).

/27/ Interview with Saira Ba'i, July 1984, at Gulbadan's kotha in Lucknow.

/28/ The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana (trans. Sir Richard F. Burton [New York: E.P. Dutton, 1962]) describes the sixty-four arts the courtesan was supposed to master as a skilled practitioner of her profession (69ff). Ruswa describes in great detail the musical and formal education of Umrao Jan Ada (119-23), and throughout the book comments on her mastery of Urdu poetry and the styles of the leading poets, her ability to write poems and converse with wit and wisdom.

/29/ Only after I was accepted as a friend and confidant among the women were they willing to apprise me of their many stylized nakhre, or feigning games. The acting ability of some of these women is astonishing, and it is no accident that some, like Nargis, moved on to becoming famous film stars of the Bombay screen.

/30/ Interview with Gulbadan, November 1980, at her kotha in Lucknow.

/31/ Ruswa, 71.

/32/ I am grateful to Catherine R. Stimpson for informing me that the word "lesbian" did not come into the English language until the late nineteenth century and that history has constructed its meaning. I was unable to find another Hindi or Urdu equivalent. Platt's Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English Dictionary does not give a root or even an English definition of these terms. It only defines them with customary bashfulness in Latin: "capat, s.f. [feminine] = capti (used in comp.): capat baz, s.f. Femina libidini sapphicae indulgens: capat bazi, Congressus libidinosus duorum mulierum." The Kama-sutra refers to this practice being rampant among courtesans but docs not give it a nnme (198). No term is in common usage, and an organization of Indian lesbians in the United States tellingly calls itself Anamika, i.e., "nameless."

/33/ This is discussed in C. M. Naim, "The Theme of Homosexual (Pederastic) Love in Pre-Modern Urdu Poetry," in Studies in the Urdu Gazal and Prose Fiction, ed. Muhammad Umar Memon, South Asian Studies Series, no. 5, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 120-42. Shaikh Qalandar Bakhsh Jur'at, an Urdu poel from I.ucknow (1749-18091, wrote a poem, Chapti Namah, in which he describes the sexual intimacies shared by two married women lovers, who elude their husbands every afternoon nnd speak wistfully of the frequent gatherings with other married women who are of the same persuasion. I am grateful to C. M. Naim for the reference.

/34/ I have to confess that I wanted a precise head count of the lesbians, because I wanted to bolster these facts with figures, but the women refused to oblige, for it militates against their interest to have me as a credible witness who might want to "testify" in writing one day. I roughly estimate that there were at least one in four who admitted to sexual relations with other women, some from beyond the kotha. Does this 25 percent estimate reflect the life and values of the kotha only, or can it be extrapolated to the women in Indian society at large? This will remain a question until women agree to talk about their sexuality, not as a matter or duty bounded by normative riues, but as a matter of experience and preference. Although the thirty women I have spoken to over the past decade is a somewhat self-selected sample from that society, this finding has interesting implications about female sexuality in general, because that is the truly hidden text, which defies investigation even by women scholars of South Asia. Certainly women in the "normal" world use their sexuality, by denying it, by making it available, or by disguising it entirely, to gain varying measures of autonomy in a world dominated by men.

/35/ Romila Thapar, Ancient Indian Social History (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1978), 73-86. The essay is entitled "Renunciation: The Making of a Counter-culture?" (63-104).

/36/ James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 292-93, 295. The theoretical implications of his analysis of everyday forms of peasant resistance are contained in the two final chapters of this exceptionally lucid and compelling work.

/37/ Ibid., 284.

/38/ Interview with Gulbadan in July 1984, at her kotha in Lucknow.

/39/ Studs Terkel, Working (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974), 94-103.



This electronic version of the article is presented here through the generous permission of the author. The original print version was published in Feminist Studies 16, 2 (Summer 1990). This present version contains minor adjustments of punctuation for clarity, and minor improvements in transliteration, made by FWP. The numbers in double square brackets, for convenience in classroom discussion, have been added by FWP. All editorial comments in double square brackets are by FWP, May 2008.
-- Umrao Jan index page -- fwp's main page --