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Courtesans in Contemporary Bollywood and Their History



Introduction

Watching Bollywood movies, or Bombay films, is an enriching experience, as viewers are able to engage with different forms of art, cultures, and emotions. Among cultural and historical components is the representation of Nautch dancers or courtesan women in both contemporary and periodical stories in Bollywood films. These characters are often shown as dancing women who work at brothels as they are defamed by the society. However, the history of the courtesans is more complex and richer than shown on the big screen. These women once danced in temples and were revered as servant of gods. Due to western influences and their taboo of open sexuality in the 19th century, devadasis were banned from performing in temples. Due to their history of dance and extra marital affairs, the courtesans had to shift to parlor performances as viewership declined, and they were left with a few men to perform for. This essay will explore the historic and current socio-political status of courtesan women through Bollywood films and elucidate how current films exacerbate their reality by exploiting femininity to create sexual desire while appealing to the wider audience and misrepresenting contemporary courtesans.

Devadasi History

Who are the courtesan women in India and where are they now? There are many different groups of courtesan women who originate from different parts of South Asia. One such community comprises of the devadasi women who were prevalent in South India. The devadasi was a style of life, or a professional ethic rather than a caste or jati because the women would dedicate their life and upbringing to perfecting their art of dance. Even after committing to the practice, women were not granted entry because they had to meet two conditions – they come from a lineage of devadasi women, and they had to be competent enough (Srinivasan 1985, 1869). The devadasi practice was so intensive because before the British rule, they were highly revered as the “servants of god.” They would perform dances in temples on songs called padams and javalis which spoke about God and their interactions with mortal beings. Lastly, the devadasis used to get married to a god of their temple which would render them auspiciousness as they would be “free from the adversity of widowhood” (Srinivasan 1985, 1870). These Nautch women were so entangled in temple rituals, that they made up a crucial part of the South Indian bhakti worship.


Outside their temple occupation, the women had considerable power in society. The women were self sufficient in terms of economic and political needs. The devadasis ran the households on their income, while other women were not allowed to conduct work except their daily chores (Srinivasan 1985, 1871). At the same time, they received invitations to all auspicious events at elite homes in account for their title of god’s servants, and their ability to fit in and mingle at elite homes and their economic situation helped them to remain independent, a characteristic very rare for women a few centuries ago. Moreover, they were allowed to have extra marital affairs with brahmins and other upper caste men because of their marriage to a deity. While such polygamy practices are frowned upon in recent years, this was a fairly common practice before colonialization as brahmin men and devadasis engaged in sexual affairs to facilitate good breeding. One might wonder about their current happenstance as these rituals and practices were abandoned more than a century ago. Their downfall and current socio-political situation will be shocking to anyone without prior knowledge about South Indian dance. The devadasis were just one of the courtesan groups, and most of the groups went through the same situation post colonialization as they were distanced from their practices, left to wonder through contemporary society. Now, films have adapted them on screen to make blockbuster periodical films like Devdas and Umrao Jaan.

Devdas (2002) and its representation of courtesans

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Devdas” is a movie that takes the audience back to the early 1900s, the age of brahmin castes and zamindars. Shah Rukh Khan starred as Devdas, the son of a zamindar, while Madhuri Dixit played the role of Chandramukhi, a courtesan or tawa’if residing in a village in Bengal. The movie centers around the dynamics between zamindars and the courtesan families, as Devdas falls in love with Aishwarya Rai’s Paro who was brought up in a family of former Nautch women. Devdas’ family does not allow him to marry Paro because of the differences in the social standings of the families. This setback led Devdas to live a life with vices resulting in him meeting Chandramukhi. We get a deeper insight into Chandramukhi’s occupation of dancing and singing, along with her power dynamics in British ruled Indian colonies.


Just like South Indian temples and courts had devadasis, there was an abundance of courtesan women who were in Muslim courts in Lucknow and Hyderabad. These women, who were called tawa’ifs, were professional courtesan women who were affiliated to the Islam religion and danced for noble people such as zamindars. After the Mughal emperors dwindled in numbers in the late eighteenth century, the remaining population moved to Calcutta (Thobani 2021, 139). Consequently, Dixit plays her character as a Muslim dancer, performing dances for brahmin men in her “kotha” in Bengal. The movie portrays that courtesans dress up with heavy jewelry and embroidery and dance in parlor and conduct private performances which holds true. Brahmins and zamindars believed that the courtesans are impure women without hearts, uncapable of enduring feelings for others because of them having sexual affairs with different men. Their performances shifted from the temples to parlors because the 19th century saw the Britishers and Indian elitists work towards diminishing their dance due to their sexual practices. Most courtesans shifted their performances to continue earning income and staying connected to their heritage.


While the marginalized figure of the courtesan woman in society is represented correctly through the film, it fails to establish a distinguishment between the dancer and a prostitute. The film creates an overlap between two by showing the dancers as merely prostitutes working in brothels. These women are not sex workers. Even nowadays, people see them and call them out as whores. Courtesans “slowly become synonymous with a prostitute, and is now not at all a reflection of this once noble institution. For, their sphere of entertainment also included the more erotic variety, and that contributed to their downfall” (Wanderfool 2016). The padams were quite erotic in nature regarding the appraisal of the deities; these songs often spoke about the gods having sexual affairs with multiple women and how these women reminisce them often. These songs were supported by a multitude of facial and hand gestures which told this story visually by assessing the emotions conjured by those women. These themes were the epitome of binding love and worship together to carry out rituals, but Western influence was adamant on separating worship from love as we see neo-classical dances like Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi to as more secular dance without any erotic measures.


The courtesan dance changed so dramatically that some women continued their practices secretly, while some were forced to disassociate themselves from their heritage. We see that Paro falls victim to the caste dynamics between zamindars and Nautch families even though her family had abandoned the courtesan ties decades ago. Although this might feel exaggerated because of the extremities in Paro’s situation, the film successfully showcases that women were forced to distance themselves from their art to retain a reputable place in society to boost their marriage aspects. Moreover, brahmin women were strictly prohibited from practicing singing and dancing, while the male household members were established gurus. The gender hierarchy within courtesan dance has been at its peak since India’s freedom as women struggle to establish their identity because they are unable to express their talents and interests in indulging in performances. One such example is Ballaika, a Kuchipudi dancer in Hyderabad who was prohibited from attending her father’s teaching lessons (Kamath 2019, 146). However, after her father’s death, Ballaika carried on his tradition and became one of the few brahmin female gurus and she did so by secretly attending his lessons in her childhood and learning the repertoire herself. This instance directly opposes the view of brahmin men because people should be allowed to participate in their interests and not fall victims to the male patriarchy created by Western influence. Due to the gender and caste dynamics within dance, people often struggle to find their identity because they are forced by societal pressure to confirm to their norms.

Madhuri Dixit’s Maar Dala

A very interesting focal point of Bhansali’s Devdas was the dance sequence called “Maar Dala” (Bhansali 2002, 1:37:30). Chandramukhi performs, orienting her performance towards male gaze, in her brothel in front of multiple men. The song talks about her interaction with a man who came knocking to her door and now her world seems brighter because of her want for this man. This theme resonates with the erotic nature of padams from earlier times, and the parlor performances continue to exploit this feature. Even though the dance does not explicitly show any erotic gestures, the song is enough to display that element of the courtesan dance. Moreover, the song has reiterated references to the god ‘Allah’ because the courtesan songs were centered around their love for God. The song is not directly about love interactions between the courtesan and the god unlike the padams, and this change is attributed to the western influence as love and worship was separated. The Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi songs are about the Lord of dance, Shiva as the lyrics explores the might of Shiva while the padams were based on the God of love, Muvva Gopala and his many relations with different women.


Aside from the differences between the dance sequence and the courtesan performances, there are many similarities between the two. The dances were never about creating sexual desire by exploiting femininity, but the rich association with culture and religion. Hence, they never wore dresses or skirts which would expose their bodies and take away their voice. If they merely performed to attract a large male audience, then people would not be able to see through their gestures to interpret the stories told by them. Chandramukhi comes on the screen dressed “extravagantly, not necessarily exposing skin but style and beauty, a garment to capture the attention of those who lay their eyes on her. This very simplicity of her red veil over her head and body symbolizes her newfound fidelity to this one man, Dev” (Latiff 2008). She does not need to make her body hyper visible to draw attention. Instead, she uses her facial gestures, movements, and stage space to tell her story. Moreover, the intricate details behind the dance are so different from the image of an image of a courtesan being a sex worker, and the sequence is one of the only moments in the movie that sets Chandramukhi apart from a sex worker.


‘Maar Dala’ is an iconic tawa’if sequence on screen and it is filled with the rich kathak repertoire which is famously used by the tawa’ifs. To remain true to their legacy, the producers employed one of the most prominent Kathak trainers, Pandit Birju Maharaj. Yes, the repertoire is accurate to that of contemporary tawa’if, but the problem which remains is that they are unable to attain a space on or off the screen. Although Devdas is one of the few periodical Bollywood movies that cover courtesan women, they do not display an actual one. There were so many spaces where they could have been involved in the production process, such as the choreography of the songs or the background dancers so that they could contribute to telling a story about themselves and their ancestors. Consequently, Devdas addresses the courtesan figures as they dwindled in societal importance, but they failed to provide a space for them to voice their stories.

Kajra Re


The ‘Kajra Re’ dance sequence is one of the most popular Bollywood item songs featuring a local dance girl (YRF 2015). Aishwarya Rai plays the role of an item girl who performs at a village, executing her routine with other Bollywood icons. Rai does not have a role in the movie except for her dance. By excluding her from the plot, the filmmakers narrowed down her contribution to attracting a wide audience. The filmmakers exploit Rai’s feminine body to express her desires to attract the mal, or her client in the movie. However, the implications of ‘Kajra Re’ extends beyond the on-screen happenings as the sexual; desire extends to the viewers, attracting viewership from a wider audience. The inclusion of item songs in Bollywood movies is a threat to the image of local dancers that is conveyed to the audience.


One of the ways through which the courtesan’s sexuality was envisioned was through the dancer’s attire. Rai wears a tiny choli and skirt which depicts an image of village dancer rather than a courtesan, as courtesans usually put on lavish sarees and other traditional wear (Nijhawan 2009, 106). Choosing this attire resulted in Rai’s body becoming hyper visible, which is one of the superior qualities assessed by male gaze. Hence, the filmmakers stray away from the truth of the courtesan figure to facilitate the commercialization of their production. These decisions created an impersonated figure of historical characters which leads to their marginalization because viewers often unconsciously adapt the new image as the reality. Consequently, the importance of those characters ends up being lost in the history books.


Except the costuming choices, the dance sequence exacerbates the diaspora between the courtesan repertoires and the neo-classical Bollywood mix genres of dance. The earlier forms were more about conveying an engaging story to the audience which relied to facial gesture and usage of stage space, however, nowadays dance is more about utilizing jerky movement, which require high feats of athleticism, to draw the viewers’ attention. More specifically, courtesan women even danced entire pieces while seated on the floor, only highlighting the changes in their tone and facial expression. Baithak performances were once a revered form of art, but their adaptation to the big silver screen has sacrificed the valor of the predecessors of the Bollywood item dance choreography. This eventual change is the result of a theory called “gestural migrations” – certain gestures in dance are more often accepted in certain cultures or time periods than others (Khubchandani 2020, 136). Earlier in the early 1900s, there was a strong Anti-Nautch campaign because people were enraged by their overly sexual dances and lifestyle practices. However, the same sexualization of the female dancer has been brought back to life through the film medium, and people are embracing it. The fact that they were removed and pushed towards the hidden streets of India just for their element to be embodied by famous Bollywood divas brings up the question as to why they have been pulled out of their heritage.


A common theme in these item songs is the usage of feminine sexuality, and we can see this happening through the video. For example, Rai in Kajra Re “extends a lamp toward Amitabh Bachchan in invitation, looking at him, looking down at the lamp, biting her lower lip, looking up at him with one eyebrow raised in a question. The camera focuses on her bare back, with just the one string of her choli holding things together” (Nijhawan 2009, 106). Rai uses a few elements extensively – the stage and hand movement from the kathak repertoire and the more generic thumkas and other waist movements from western genres like hip hop. Yes, so many of the contemporary parlor performances are created through influences from different styles and repertoires. Hence, it is very rare that a person would find hereditary dancers performing their repertoire in front of a live audience because of the dwindling cohort size. However, remnants of their legacy can still be seen today in the form of mujra, which combines broken hip hop jerks with kathak movements and is widely used Bollywood movies. These movements which were frowned upon a century ago is now the hallmark of Bollywood dance. ‘Kajra Re’ is one of the filmy works which adds on to the impersonations of courtesans, straying away from an already blurred image of the Nautch dancers.

Conclusion

Bollywood films have become an integral part of our lives and has had a significant impact on society. While they are a useful medium to communicate history and culture, they have their drawbacks. For example, they spread misinformation or exaggerations about themes, history, and socio-political status of characters like courtesans and dancing women. Their hyper visible bodies portrayed by Bollywood stars often deducts them down to ashleel women or even prostitutes. Or in Devdas’ case, they embody their royal characteristics like their attires, songs, and elegant dances accurately. However, their negligence towards looking at the courtesan issue from the community’s perspective led the filmmakers to disregard their practices and culture. This failure to account for their history led them to use the Chandramukhi and her colleagues as local dancers and sex workers.


Film and media, in general, are often misconstrued to create an easily understandable so that more people relate to the happenings on screen. However, if these popular mediums fail to tell their stories about the downfall and weak social status, then these impersonated characters will replace the factual ones (Chakravorty 2011, 145). Given the widespread impact of film communication, people should develop a conscience while producing new media to protect the rights and image of people. Recently, man hereditary dancers have gone on to take to social media apps like Instagram themselves to create an awareness of their issue and spread their personal stories. Some of the most notable examples of women in this virtual area is Nrithya Pillai who posts about her dance regularly, along with talking about relevant issues in the contemporary society (Pillai 2023). At the same time, Dr. Yashoda Thakur is another active voice on the internet as she talks about her lineage and the gender dynamics within dance through different media like podcasts and interviews. The importance of these women who belong to this marginalized community speaking on their behalf is important because they exhibit the ability to get their stories and voices out in the world.


Works Cited


Bhansali, Sanjay Leela, director. 2002. Devdas. Red Chili Entertainment. 3 hr., 5 min. https://einthusan.tv/movie/watch/0480/?lang=hindi

Chakravorty, Pallabi. 2011. “Global Dancing in Kolkata.” A Companion to the Anthropology of India, edited by Tarini Bedi. 137–153. Oxford, UK: Wiley‐Blackwell.


Kamath, Harshita Mruthinti. 2019. Impersonations: The Artifice of Brahmin Masculinity in South Indian Dance. California: University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/luminos.72


Khubchandani, Kareem. 2020. Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Latiff, Natasha. 2008. “An Interpretation of Maar Dala from Devdas.” Natasha Latiff, June 28, 2008. https://natashalatiff.wordpress.com/2008/06/28/an-interpretation-of-maar-dala-from-devdas/.


Nijhawan, Amita. 2009. “Excusing the Female Dancer: Tradition and Transgression in Bollywood Dancing.” South Asian Popular Culture 7 (2): 99–112.


Pillai, Nrithya (@nrithyapillai). 2023. “Didn’t I tell you not to have anything to do with him?” Instagram photo, March 19, 2023. https://www.instagram.com/reel/Cp-1z8PPd-P/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link.


Srinivasan, Amrit. 1985. “Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance.” Economic and Political Weekly 20 (44): 1869–76.


Thobani, Sitara. 2021. “Locating the Tawa’if Courtesan-Dancer: Cinematic Constructions of Religion and Nation.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 33 (3): 138–153.


Wanderfool. 2013. “A Tawaif’s Palace | At Chandni Chowk, Delhi.” A Date With Delhi. July 15, 2013. https://adatewithdelhi.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/a-tawaifs-palace-at-chandni-chowk-delhi/.


YRF. 2015. “Kajra Re | Full Song | Bunty Aur Babli | Aishwarya, Abhishek, Amitabh Bachchan | Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy,” February 2. Music video, 7:54, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dsFQFCvVGU.





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