Saturday, February 16, 2008

Enchanting Empresses : Two Parallel Asian Traditions of Entertainers

Victoria Hemming was born at Lucknow to parents of European descent: her mother was an Armenian jew and her father English. Victoria was a trained dancer of Kathak thanks to her Lucknow connection and was well versed in Urdu poetry and singing too. Around 1870 she married a certain William Robert Yeoward, who was an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in a dry ice  factory at Azamgadh near Benares. In 1870, she gave birth to a daughter named Angelina. Victoria was however destined to be far off from the secured life of a housewife. Her marriage did not last long due to Victoria’s love for dance and music and her relations with a Muslim friend named Khurshed. So after the divorce, she moved to Benares with Angelina and Khurshed, only to be deserted by her lover soon afterwards. Unable to go back to her parental or marital home, she chose the time tested profession of women fallen to misery and became a Tawaif at Baneras, which was still a centre of power and culture in 1880s. She took a new name of Malka jaan and as there was already two celebrated Tawaifs of that name at Lucknow and Agra, soon she came to be known as Badi Malka jaan. As the strongholds of Mughal empire were broken under British repression following the mutiny, the centre of power was shifting and like other women of her trade, Malka jaan too around 1883, shifted her base to Calcutta. She came here with her daughter Angelina now known as Gauhar. Gauhar also joined her mother’s profession and grew up to become the iconic Gauhar jaan of Kolkata. A woman of legendary beauty and intelligence, she was a skilled dancer, singer and was known for her repartee and poetry too. She was in the words of a historian, “the most famous, most charismatic and perhaps the wealthiest female singer/dancer at the turn of the century”. Gauhar Jan lived a very wealthy life, and she also donated generously to a number of causes. Numerous legends are associated with her. In Calcutta, she used to ride in a buggy driven by four horses, threw a party spending 20,000 rupees when her cat produced a litter of kittens, and donated only half the promised amount to Gandhiji’s ‘Swaraj fund’ when he did not keep the promise of attending the ‘fund raising’ concert and deputed a representative instead. But the glory was not everlasting for Gauhar Jaan; with the grey hair the times also turned grey for her. The lady who was also the first recorded singer of India , was soon left with little means for survival. It must be around second decade of 20th century when she started giving tuitions for wannabe singers and tawaifs. One of her student was beautiful Jardan Bai who later on moved to the newly established Cinema industry at Bombay and become a known side actress cum singer of 1940s . Later an entire generation was charmed by the gorgeous daughter of this Jardan bai - Nargis. After a successful career of film, actress Nargis even served as a member of Parliament and much like Gauhar Jaan and Malka Jaan, was associated with a number of charities. It was an unbroken chain of four women entertainers and a dramatic story of their rise(and fall) with the changes in the society . All this came to my mind as I was reading the book Memoir of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and the book made me think of a similar system back home at Lucknow. The book per se is nothing much except for the information it gave me about the things associated with the geisha.
The comparison came naturally to me. Like the Geisha in Kyoto, the world of tawaif in Lucknow is as complex and hierarchal as the society of which it is a part. In those days when even most women of good families owned nothing in terms of property in their names, these women were among the highest tax payers. Britons with their shrewd sense of business while controlling the activities of these women by legislation and otherwise did not hesitate in imposing tax on them. These tawaifs at the time of annexation of Awadh owned considerable income from the landed properties mostly received as gifts from their benefactors. Much like the Geisha of Kyoto and their okiyas these tawaifs functioned from Kothas (loosely translate as salons /pleasure houses) owned by Chaudharains who were veteran tawaifs of their own times. In a departure to the general belief these women (geisha and tawaifs ) were not prostitutes. Abdul Halim Sharar considered tawaifs as the channel through which the morals, manners and distinctiveness of Lucknow culture and society was sustained. They were not only preserver and performers of the high culture of the court but also actively shaped the developments in Hindustani music and Kathak dance style. They commanded great respect in the courts and in society and association with them bestowed prestige on those who were invited to their salons for cultural soirees. Even the young sons of nobility were sent to them for instruction in etiquettes, the art of conversation and polite manners, and appreciation of Urdu literature. They were the artists and entertainers for noble society- till the British arrived on the scene and change the society and its fabric forever. ( Much like as fate of geisha after Japan lost the war with Americans) Many of the tawaifs could not find the patrons to survive and turned to prostitution. Some other chose a life of anonymity and poverty.
Contrary to the conventional perspective of this profession historian Veena Talwar in a famous essay on the life of these courtesans argued that these women, even today are independent and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male dominated world; they celebrate their womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender of the larger society of which they are a part.
In the book of Arthur Golden, I found a vivid description of the rigorous training of a geisha and a great deal has been said and written (e.g in Mirza Ruswa’s novel Umrao Zaan Ada) about the education and training of the tawaifs. Besides the dancing and singing , poetry and playing instruments , calligraphy and conversation – both sets of entertainers of Japan and India are skilled in the art of Nakhra- pretense, which they have to master in order to spare no opportunity of coaxing money out of their admirers . These well practiced ploys,,- some learned, some invented, some even improvised were so much a part of their lives that even their Bollywood avatars cannot but copy those. The spontaneity of these ploys to attract attention made several otherwise worldly men lose a fortune in a moment . This may sound more like self enrichment than style but in a society which has virtually denied women control over wealth and property, perhaps it was a kind of countercultural way of life.
I try not to judge them with my contemporary morality and values. I visualize them ( much like the Witch of Portobello) as women who faced the life with courage and managed to sail through the current of society and horrors of their past lives – sometimes with relative happiness and sometimes with a resigned disinterest .


Advait said...

What a wonderful little piece.

sarat said...

nice one.

Gallimaufry said...

Hi Atoorva!
I found you blog on (of all places!) the IAAS Google Group. Really enjoyed reading your post on Victoria Hemming and the tawaif tradition.
And I'm thrilled to meet someone who also likes Umberto Eco!!
Geetali Tare