Here is a book that uses dance, very specifically the dance of the courtesan as presented by Hindi cinema to theorize and discuss a range of very important issues in contemporary India. It is an outstanding example of interdisciplinary scholarship. The book cuts across cinema studies, dance in Hindi films, Urdu and Hindi literature, gender and sexuality studies, politics, history and sociology to name just a few of the disciplinary locations that this book could easily occupy. Ruth Vanita employs the vantage of the courtesan in Hindi cinema to offer the reader a masterful account of the changing societal and political contexts of Hindi cinema, and the projection of the character of the courtesan in it. She demonstrates, very clearly, the shifting nature of gender and sexuality in India, by showing the reader the complex ways in which sexual pleasure and imagery has been used in Hindi cinema. Placing these within a larger political and historical context makes her analysis invaluable to scholars of gender studies, as much as to scholars of film studies.
Dancing With the Nation is a magisterial survey of modern India and its conflicting ideas of gender and sexuality. It analyses the conflict that is ever present between the ideas of a mythical ‘glorious past’ which contained within it a ready and easy acceptance of sexual pleasure in its infinite variety on the one hand, and on the other hand, the nationalist fervour of rebuilding a ‘correct and proper’ sexuality, based on colonial laws and Victorian morality. Many of the films that have the courtesan as one of the central characters seek to address this dilemma. The courtesan films, Ruth Vanita argues, gave an opportunity to Hindi filmmakers to delve deeply into the history of pleasure in the pre-colonial social context. In doing this, Hindi films demonstrated a rather nuanced understanding of sexuality, while of course celebrating heterosexual relations and marriage, and yet not erasing or condemning non-normative family and sexual relations. The primary lens that the author employs in this study is that of gender and sexuality, and not film studies, and yet this book would prove to be a valuable treasure-trove for cinema studies scholarship as well.
Based on a wide survey of Hindi films, Vanita makes a series of important arguments by looking at the depiction of the courtesan’s familial contexts as shown in Hindi films. She then moves on to take a look at the principles of Eros and how it is handled in such films. ‘Courtesans as Working Women’ is a theme that is addressed by her to discuss issues of women and work, and of women and property. The role of men, especially male friends and allies, in the lives of the courtesans is an interesting point of engagement in this book. The last two chapters, dealing with the categories of ‘Nation’ and ‘Religion’, should be a compulsory reading for those interested in contemporary Indian politics and society.
In her introduction, the author argues that courtesans constitute a feature of Hindi cinema (Bombay cinema, as she describes it) that sets it apart from the rest of world cinema. She argues that Bombay cinema is not a derivative of Hollywood cinema, and has its own trajectory, distinctive aesthetics and narrative strategy, as, for instance, the trope of the courtesan. The term ‘courtesan’ of course, is used by the author as a catchall term referring to a range of women workers who make their living through song, dance, poetry and conversation across history.
Vanita addresses the near total absence of a serious and in-depth study of courtesans in Bombay cinema. The book is based on the survey of a total of two-hundred and thirty-five films. Of these, two hundred and eleven films are on the character of the courtesan, and twenty-four are relevant to the analysis in related ways. Of course, there are many more films with courtesans as both the central character as well as in related roles. However, this is the largest such survey of films dealing with courtesans in Bombay cinema. European encounters with courtesans in north India produced many misreadings, and most accounts rendered them exotic by completely ignoring the long tradition of courtesans in European contexts. Typically, courtesans are subjects of biographies or sensational stories; this is perhaps the only serious and scholarly study of courtesans in India and hence, is a very important scholarly contribution as well as a very useful archiving of films and filmmaking.
Vanita has described courtesans in India as representing one of the many voices of indigenous modernity. They were professional poets, musicians and dancers who lived largely in matrilineal contexts and often formed non-sexual friendships with men, while also having a large number of female friends and colleagues. Colonial rule, however, collapsed all women who performed in public into one single category of sex workers and criminalized their life and work. The nascent English-educated middle class, with its keenness to establish the greatness of Indian civilization, accepted this description and joined forces to denounce the long established performance, and poetry traditions.
Through a long and tortuous history, many of these women re-arranged themselves and their art to become a part of ‘respectable’ theatre groups, cinema studios and recording companies, and partnered in the new zeal of the nationalists, keen on ‘recovering’ the lost classical arts.
Vanita draws our attention to the depiction of courtesans in Bombay cinema as the earliest group of single women who worked for their living in domestic settings that were free from the patriarchal family. Often, they created unlikely family settings, unlikely because they were not based on shared caste/kinship or religious ties. Rather the basis of the family often was emotional attachment, loyalty and kindness and of course, a love for the arts. Cinematic depiction of courtesans represents the ideals of hybrid and heterogeneous cultural traditions of India, where Hindus and Muslims lived and worked together simply because they liked one another or admired the other’s poetry and music.
The author in her introduction to this book draws our attention to the fact that up to the eighties of the last century, tawaifs or courtesan-like figures were still to be found in some major Indian cities and many film makers or their friends were likely to have encountered these women. However, by the end of the last century this is no longer the case, and women who dance for hire have replaced the tawaif on the one hand, and on the other hand are the women from middle and upper class homes who have virtually taken over the field of classical performing arts. However, the ‘imagined courtesan’ still appears in Hindi cinema. Many films have heightened cinematic drama by pitting the wife against the tawaif–providing a very real feminist dilemma. Both women claim to be subjected to injustice; the question, however, is whom do they blame? Do they blame each other? Or do they blame men and their morality, as they exist? Films are of a varying nature when it comes to providing answers to this and other similar important questions.
From the 1970s onward, the girlfriend in Hindi cinema gradually begins to replace the tawaif, with the portrayal of the girlfriend becoming less and less inhibited, and she would often be depicted as a public performer who sometimes engaged in sexual banter.
Vanita has suggested, and rightly so, that the cinematic courtesan brought to life the Indic traditions of public eroticism to the spectator, while also presenting the courtesan as a victim of circumstances who was coerced into the trade. Very few films, based on the author’s survey, show a courtesan choosing this profession voluntarily. In the era of social reform, dancing seemed more despicable than singing in public, for the former involved the body. However, the irony is that most female actors who established themselves as major stars were trained in classical dance and played the courtesan in various hit films of theirs. Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Rekha, Meenakshi Seshadri to name but a few who played the role of a courtesan in their careers, and have danced on screen to memorable songs. Very few films have cared to focus on the professional and artistic worth of the courtesans; rather they present all of them only as sex workers. Vanita mentions the fact that it is only in the film Mandi (1983) directed by Shyam Benegal that a distinction is drawn between the two types of work that courtesans engaged in. The more talented women focused on song and dance on the first floor—the kotha, while the others engaged in routine sex work on the ground floor.
The author makes an interesting point when she suggests that courtesans in Bombay cinema are far more likely to have relationships with men who are conventionally seen as outsiders—the outlaw, the dacoit and the homosexual.
The depiction of the courtesan has been central to the nationalist project in Hindi cinema. Often, they have been depicted as vestiges of the exploitative feudal systems in which lecherous men exploited innocent women. Reprisal for the nation required that these women be freed. Yet, the filmmakers could not possibly ignore the role of courtesans as repositories of great civilizational heritage upon which the nationalist project is based. This dilemma has produced many interesting cinematic resolutions that find mention and careful analysis in this book.
Over time, real life courtesans began to emulate the performances of courtesan characters as depicted in Bombay cinema. Often small town performance troupes dance to songs popularized by courtesan characters in Hindi cinema. Films continue to be made where the lead female actor is a courtesan of sorts—for instance, Bajirao Mastani (2015). Clearly, another book is waiting to be written by Ruth Vanita on the complexities of depicting this character in the neo-liberal context, and what kind of appeal might it hold for the ever-increasing diaspora audiences.
Krishna Menon is Professor at the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.