Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Re-Inscribing the Indian Courtesan: A Genealogical Approach

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Re-Inscribing the Indian Courtesan: A Genealogical Approach

Article excerpt

The courtesan has been a key figure in the articulation of deep anxieties that have constituted the experience of an 'Indian' modernity. Produced through a complex entanglement of practices and re-significations of social meaning over the course of the 20th century, it is perhaps not surprising that the figure of the courtesan seems to be an enduring object of attention across varied domains of colonial (and now, post-colonial) law, economics and hygiene, from 'canonical' nationalist literature to popular culture. Rather, what ought to be surprising is the relative invisibility of the courtesan in academic discourse, evincing little interest as a subject for critical historical study. Of the few studies that have been done, we find that a number of them seem only to reproduce notions deeply entrenched in the production of 'woman' as a subject/object of colonial modernity, in the process re-affirming the legitimacy of its violence.

We may begin by illustrating this point through a look at two histories of the courtesan and how they replicate a particular logic of containing, disciplining and "silencing" the courtesan subject. Moti Chandra, in his study The World of Courtesans (first published in 1976), attempts to provide a compilation of the various kinds of roles played by the courtesan women since the Vedic period. He talks about their sexual, ritual and sacred roles and, citing various sources, catalogues the various terms that have been employed for the courtesans over the ages--ganika, khumbhadasi--and the hierarchies between these various terms. At the same time, the book is framed by a narrative that sees courtesans as women who "served the baser needs of society but were also a symbol of culture and arsamoris." (3) At the same time, while Moti Chandra sees these women as morally base and "living the life of shame" (4), he nonetheless reveals a deep anxiety towards the "crafty" and "worldly-wise" ways of these women: "... courtesans tempt(ed) their lovers, perhaps depriving the rich Aryans of a part of their possessions in cattle and gold."5 Further, Chandra seeks to configure the courtesan women primarily according to their sexual function, seeing it as the sole aspect that 'explains' all dimensions of the courtesan, sexual, cultural and political. In this sense, Moti Chandra's history of the courtesan women does not explore the complexities of the inter-relationships between these women and the extant patriarchal structures, even though it is a 'women's history'.

On the other hand, Vikram Sampath's My Name is Gauhar Jan (2010) produces a narrative that can be traced through time, garnering a sense of gendered community, in its relationship with the newly arrived modern technology, specifically the gramophone, and how it 'rescues' the courtesan women from their depravity. While Sampath brings to light some unconventional sources like postcards and match-boxes circulated in Austria with pictures of Gauhar Jan on them, he does so only towards the end of signaling her popularity, with no analysis of the economics of the production and circulation of these goods or the discursive formations within which these practices are embedded. Sampath's Gauhar Jan escapes a life of victimhood that her predecessors led as she is saved by modern technology. Sampath's account stands as a history of women that garners a voice for the ignored women communities of the past. The important question to ask would be if it is necessary to write a history of women by invoking such a sense of gender community that reproduces the teleology of the not-yet modern woman being saved by modern technology and the social spaces it produces. Such a problematic does not seem to be on Sampath's agenda, as he seems to miss out on a number of historical questions that cannot but be related to the popularity of Gauhar Jan as a gramophone singer--why are courtesan women like Gauhar Jan the first to sing for the gramophone? What other options in terms of performance venues or audiences are available to the courtesan women singers? …

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