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THE POWER OF THE COURTESAN

Going by the social construct that quite bluntly divides existence into shades of black or white, women, especially in India, have had two options to choose from ever since they fell into the initial grip of consciousness. Never step out and the woman is the perfect bride, explore the world and she is veiled from all possible goodness that has ever had any chance of adherence to her character. There is but a thin line between wife and tawai’f and that is brought around only through a change in space and use of thematic 'mise-en-scene'. An added dab of colour and glamour, exposure and expertise, render a woman desirable whereas the other ‘good’ one is possessed and domesticated. The idea of exploration that sort of ‘spoils’ a good woman could range between expertise in art, knowledge in any form, raising the otherwise docile voice that is ‘ought’ to be feminine or the explicit sexual exposure. Bimal Ray’s Devdas, a cinematic classic based on the Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay’s literary masterpiece by the same name had a powerful dialogue between Devdas and Chandramukhi, where the former exclaims how a woman is a mother, a sister, a friend, a wife, a lover and how the latter can comprehend none of the social roles assigned to a woman because she is a tawai’f. Here we see clear distinction between the two social species created around the axis of profession and socially assigned responsibilities, defiance of which literally strips a woman of her respect along with the conventionally promoted ideas of womanhood. Following India’s independence in 1947 for around two decades or more India indulged into a fresh genre of cinema revolving around the concept of tawai’f that translates into a dancing girl, a performing artist expert in the art of music or dance and lastly, a prostitute. The idea of courtesan trails back to a culture quite old and rich and intricately associated with the aesthetics of Indian history. They originated from the Hindu temple dancers or 'Devdasis' who were once known to serve the priestly classes albeit discreetly. However, the image of the courtesan that strongly rules Indian celluloid is imbibed from the Muslim medieval courts. But, quite like the unbridgeable gap between the real courts of history and those projected on screen the real stories of royal courtesans hardly match the ones we see and enjoy so thoroughly in the films. The real ones enjoyed social honour while the ones in cellular adaptations are deprived of it. The imagined ones have internalised pain, hostility, frustration, loss, humiliation and much more to name a few. The battle of psyche combined with eternal patience to wait for the lover mark their existence along with identity crisis that comes easy with all the rest. Just like courts in Indian cinema provided a microcosmic battle field where passionate display of power and authority ruled its way to supremacy, courtesans brought out the ever buried issues of gender equality, elitism, caste, social discrimination and sexual power play between a man and a woman. They were inspiring and formidable simultaneously. We are at the tip of excitement to see Anarkali declare her love so defiantly, challenging the Mughal emperor Akbar and the entire nation or society alongside and we cringe at the heart-wrenching pain suffered by Chandramukhi when she is repeatedly rejected and humiliated by Devdas before he finally submits to her amorous shelter. If Rekha in the garb of Umrao Jaan secretly lays bare the art of seduction, Meena Kumari as Sahib Jaan captures our soul with her unfaltering purity and love for her lover. The court with its dazzling chandeliers that beautifully behold molten burning candles, the rich, velvety draperies, the dark dim stairways smeared in rose water where courtesans await their lovers or simply strike up a storm with their music and jingling anklets to seduce customers, is in real a little cosmos in disguise where we have a whirlwind of emotions and social tensions waiting to be resolved. They are in a way also that little fulcrum of the society that has always been ignored by the world at large. Rekha as Amiran/Umrao Jaan in Umrao Jaan, 1981 Apart from the internal tension and humiliation associated with the life of a courtesan (in Pakeezah, we see Nargis humiliated and driven out of her lover’s home right on the day of her marriage. The grief is so severe that it ends in her death at a graveyard), there is also strong motif of lack of belongingness. All these women are trapped in an ambiance which is outwardly beautiful and inwardly claustrophobic. All of them commonly share a dream of escaping with their favourite patron and they are perennially in search of love, ownership and personal fulfilment. Chandramukhi falls so deeply in love with Devdas that she dilutes her rock solid ego and embraces his agony as her own even after severe mortification all in the hope of being owned by the man she loves. Meena Kumari as Nargis/Sahibjaan in Pakeezah, 1972

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