The Movie Mujra: The Trope of the Courtesan in Urdu-Hindi Film

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The courtesan is a permanent and prolific figure in the arts of South Asia. She appears in Sanskrit drama, medieval mystical love poetry, nineteenth century Urdu opera, and--until recently--Hindi film. She continued to ply her sophisticated trade on the silver screen long after her real-life counterparts had devolved into common whores. I will address the question of the future of the courtesan in Hindi film toward the end of these notes. First, I will examine the trajectory of the courtesan in the film industry and discuss her role in the evolution of a particular genre of film music, the mujra ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

I will use the English word "courtesan" to translate the Urdu-Hindi word tawaif [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which refers to women who were professional entertainers and arbiters of culture throughout much of South Asian history. The early modern era (i.e., the nineteenth century) was the golden age of the courtesan in North India, especially in Lucknow and Hyderabad, the successor states to the declining Mughal Empire. The courtesans were not directly affiliated with the courts, but their clients were predominantly of the noble classes. It is part of courtesan lore that the nobles (nawab [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) used to send their sons to the courtesans to receive training in literature, culture, etiquette, and, we can assume, sexuality. Essentially performers, the courtesans earned most of their income singing, dancing, and reciting poetry. They also, of course, had contractual sexual relationships with their clients, ideally finding a long-term patron to provide support. If we take nineteenth-century Urdu poetry at face value, however, we can infer that most courtesans had a bevy of young men vying for their favors, and by distributing her attentions thriftily and capriciously, she could significantly raise her price in the market. The downside, as to be expected, was that a courtesan could not marry in the traditional sense, and the merest hint that a girl had tawaif blood running in her veins was enough permanently to destroy her hopes of marrying.

In literary tradition, the Indian courtesan, in contrast to her European and Japanese counterparts, participates in a constellation of metaphors derived from the Bhakti-Sufi tradition. As described in A.K. Ramanujan's book When God is a Customer, medieval mystical poetry in South India often adopted the courtesan as a metaphor for the human soul and the customer as a metaphor for God--loved and sought after but often absent. Why was the courtesan so central? Because courtesans monopolized the voice of feminine romantic love and sexuality in South Asian society. As in many societies, South Asian marriage was a social contract used by families to create alliances and maintain their coffers. Married couples were not necessarily expected to experience love. Love was understood as a disruptive force, threatening the foundations of society. In this normative scheme, love was appropriate only to the temple and the brothel. Artists naturally conflated temple-love and brothel-love, and poems and songs became simultaneously erotic and devotional. This ever-present tension between the carnal and the divine is one of the invigorating and turbulent undercurrents in the ocean of South Asian aesthetics.

There is the separate tradition of the poetess-saint epitomized in North India by Mirabai (ca. 1498-ca. 1547), who, while certainly not a courtesan, has a hagiography that centers on the radical rejection of social norms and family restraints. Mirabai's poetry, which is erotically charged with the torment of longing for God and the ecstasy of union with God, shares many tropes with that of courtesan poetry.

Since many of the early Indian sound films have been lost, it is difficult to identify the first courtesan film. We can say, at least, that P.C. Barua's 1935 film Devdas (made in both Bengali and Hindi) was one of the first Hindi films in which a major character was a courtesan. …