Dec 15, 2007

About Queen Harish : The Courtesan Cinema

Queen HarIsh drew inspiration for her romantic character from the Courtesan cinema such as ‘Umrao Jan’, ‘Pakeezah’ … these films shows the golden age of Indian entertainment.

Tudor Parfitt writes about it in her book: "Jews, Muslims,and Mass Media: Mediating the 'other' ":

The courtesan appears throughout Indian cultural texts, so it is not surprising that courtesans feature in many films, mostly in minor roles. However, some of the most popular film in Indian cinema may be class as 'courtesan films', in that their heroines are courtesans, while the usual gender imbalance of the films is reversed in that the heroes have minor roles. In films that have the courtesan in minor roles she is often Hindu but in the major roles she is always a Muslim. The two great films in which the main heroine is a courtesan are set in nineteenth century Avadhi Lucknow and Kanpur ( Umrao Jaan ) and Delhi / the Panjabi Princely state of Patiala in the early years of the twentieth century (Pakeezah/the pure one). Lucknow and Delhi were once two of the great centre of courtly Muslim culture.

The courtesan whose trade flourished in India until the early 20th century, was something like a geisha or hetaira. The most accomplished courtesans were said to be from Lucknow, the capital of Avadh. This city became north India 's major cultural centre after the decline of Delhi and was renowned for the quality of its Urdu language and literature. It was annexed by the British in 1856 and was one of the major centres of struggle in the 1857 uprisings. Although landowners from Avadh maintained a courtly culture in Lucknow at least until independence, it never achieved the sophistication of its earlier days, which are still remembered with great nostalgia by its elite. The world of courtesan also declined during the British period, as other spheres of public culture emerged. The final blow was dealt after independence as the loss of wealthy patrons came about with the abolition of Zamindars ('landowners'), and salons were banned.

Oldenburg's study of courtesans (tawa'if) in Lucknow, drawing on interviews with retired courtesans, shows very close similarities to Umrao Jan's story narrated by Ruswa. Courtesans were either born into the trade or sold into it as young girls by their parents or others. Umrao Jan was born in Faizabad, kidnapped as a young girl by her father's enemy and sold to a courtesan in Lucknow. They lived in households (kotha) run by a chief courtesan (choudhrayan), who had acquired wealth and fame through her beauty, her music and dancing talents, which she used to set up her own house where she would recruit and train younger courtesans. The courtesan had to learn music, Persian and Urdu poetry, Arabic grammar, and to dance the Mujra, a non-erotic dance where she pays her respects to the assembly. The best houses kept skilled male musicians and such householders were important patrons of music. The sons of the gentry were sent to the Kothas to learn etiquette and Urdu poetry, and presumably the art of lovemaking. Other women lived in the establishment, including the regular prostitutes (randi), who is often euphemistically called a courtesan. Although the profession of the courtesan has disappeared, she has remained an important figure in literature and later in film throughout the last century.

The courtesan has also been a popular figure in film, where her attractions give rise to a variety of pleasures in the audience. She is portrayed as a victim of men's lust and as an object of the viewer's pity, but also delights the audience in being the object of the male gaze as she dances for his entertainment. The combination of a beautiful actress, and the opoortunity for music and dance to be incorporated into the narrative are important, but viewers also enjoy the spectacle of the body, the elaboration of scenery and in particular of clothing, tied to a certain nostalgia arising from the decline and disappearance of courtesan culture.

The courtesan in the film makes her living by her sexual charms, and so is presented as an object of desire to the men in the mehfil ('gathering') and to the cinema audience. This usually culminates in the Mujra, where the filmmaler emphasizes the details of lyrics, music, costume and mise-en-scene. The role of the courtesan in films has been given only to the most beautiful actresses, such as Meena Kumari as the eponymous Pakeezah, while the most glamorous actress of her generation, Rekha, has had numerous courtesan roles including that of Umrao Jaan. Although the courtesan displays her sexual allure at all times in the film, she is usually presented as averse to her trade, to which she has been driven by the injustices of society, calling her body a Zinda lash ('living corpse'). An accomplished singer and dancer, she also writes Ghazals in which she expresses her desire for love and marriage, which she knows will be denied her because of her profession. Yet one of her attractions is that she is the woman who is the opposite of the wife, like the beloved of the Ghazal, she is unattainable, remote and perfect. Her sexuality is not associated with reproduction, nor is she expected to offer any nurture unlike the Hindu heroine – rather she is the essence of female eroticism. (Oldenburg argues that most courtesans, like many prostitutes, practiced lesbianism (chapat bazi), considering heterosexuality to be work, not pleasure.)

In Hindi cinema, the courtesan is pure (Pakeezah) and part of this is that she never appears in any way immodestly dressed. In fact one of the pleasure of the courtesan film lies in its elaborate use of clothing and make up. While Stella Bruzzi has discussed the meaning of clothes in western cinema, the semiotics of costume in Indian cinema has been little explored although it is an important source of symbols and signifiers of codes concerning status or class, westernization and the symbolic use of colour. Clothing in cinema is clearly a source of spectacle, sometime taken to extremes in song sequences where the heroine, and sometime the hero, has numerous costume changes to present a heady excess of consumption. As Bruzzi has argued, clothing is an important component of eroticism. This is foregrounded in the courtesan film, where the heroine's clothes heighten sexuality by their opulence and rich colours and textures, and their elaboration presents an exaggerated exhibition of gender difference. The veil is used to effect in the film to hide and conceal, in a display of eroticism rather than modesty, seen in the first song in Pakeezah (Inhen logon 'Those people') where the courtesan sings how men have taken her veil or her modesty. The courtesan is the woman who is constantly available for the male gaze, yet she remains concealed within her kotha, away from the eyes of wider society.

The courtesan film also fetishises the woman's body, usually the feet, which is one of the few uncovered parts of her body, although they are decorated with colours and jewellery. This is very clear in Pakeezah, where the lover leaves a note tucked into Pakeezah's toes on the train; Aap ke paon bahut haseen hain. Inhen zameen par mat utariyega, maile ho jaayenge! ( Your feet are very beautiful. Do not let them touch the ground, they will get dirty!') and her dance at her lover's wedding where she lacerates her feet on broken glass to leave symbolically resonant bloody marks on the white sheet of her performance. The only parts of her body which are usually visible are her hands, hennaed, manicured and bejeweled; and her mask-like face, again elaborately painted and jeweled, her hair tied back, and covered with a veil and more jewels.

The courtesan is a totally romantic figure: a beautiful but tragic woman, who pours out her grief for the love she is desied in tears, poetry and dance. Yet although denied marriage and respectability, she is also a source of power. The courtesan in the film live in splendid buildings, which are decorated exquisitely. As Veena Oldenburg has pointed out, the courtesan achieved her material and social liberation by reversing constraints on women's chastity and economic rights, succeeding through her combination of talent and education. The courtesans set up their own society within the Khotas, where they inverted many of society's rituals such as celebrating the birth of a girl like the birth of a boy in mainstream Indian culture. Perhaps women enjoy the pleasures the courtesan film as they find a figure of masochistic identification , a woman who canot find the love she wants, yet knowing that a woman's sexual attractions can provide her with power. Men may also enjoy the voyeuristic pleasures of looking at a beautiful sexually accomplished, woman yet whose status as victim allows for male fantasies of "saving her" – mostly from other men.

The beauty of the actresses in the courtesan film was not the only reason for their popularity. They were also women who had strong star personas, as the most beautiful, most tragic stars who themselves were never lucky in love. Their offscreen lives were read onto the image of the courtesan in film, as can be seen most clearly in the taking up of these stars as camp and gay icons, notably in the case of Meena Kumari (1932-1972).

This filmi view of the courtesan is very different from that presented in the book. Instead of the exquisite Rekha portraying an innocent Umrao Jaan, who falls in love with one of her clients while her story is told as a failed love story; in the novel Umrao admits she was rather plain and never fell in love although she had a number of significant affairs in addition to her regular clients. Rather than pining for an impossible love affair, she loves her work, her poetry and the pleasure, luxury and respect that this brought her. Aware of the pleasure of nostalgia, the last chapter in the book is the account of Umrao's reading of Ruswa's story of her life, where she sums it up herself in a clear, insightful manner. She was a prostitute, no beauty, but a woman of intelligence and skill:

It was my profession to dance and sing and steal men's hearts.

I was happy or unhappy depending on whether I was more or less successful than others in my profession.

I was not as pretty as the others, but because of my talent for music and mastery of poetry, I was one of the best.


Miss Rose Lee said...

This was a most SPECTACULAR article about the Tawaif. I have since long been very captivated by the tawaif, and reading this was a pleasure...It was more fulfilling than the Wikipedia article about tawaif for sure... I did watch a documentary about the modern-day tawaif, and even though they do claim that it is not yet dead, the lifestyle is nothing as it was back then and definitely nothing like it is portrayed in films.

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