From Pari Khanas to Lal Bazaars and Further Away: Female Performers in Nineteenth Century Awadh
Keywords:Tawaʾif, nautch-girl, courtesan, prostitutes, Awadh, pari khana, Nawabs, colonialism
While there are a lot of contestations over the identity and subjectivity of women performers and entertainers of Awadh, three terms denote the most popular representations of these women in the nineteenth century. These are: the trained and sophisticated tawaʾif of the Nawabi court, the vulgar and titillating ‘nautch’ girls of the city and the ill-mannered and promiscuous “prostitute” of the British cantonment. For long, these terms have been used to weave a linear narrative about the courtesan’s eventual fall from grace, which does not take into account the politics behind these categorisations nor women’s participation therein. This paper focuses instead, on the making and unmaking of these ontological categories to argue that, while these categories are neither exhaustive nor holistic, they are reflective of the institutions wherein they flourished, the cultural specificities of their existence and the peculiarities of their labour practices. An analysis of these dynamics shall present a more detailed and genealogical history of how women inhabited, embodied, extended and/or negotiated with power structures. This holds the utmost importance in the context of contemporary reminiscence of Lucknow’s past, which, while being marked by a celebration of the courtesan culture, is often accompanied by erasure of their lived experiences, presenting unidimensional imagery that is both unhistorical and ahistorical.
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