Courtesans have been an important aspect of society in ancient and, medieval and modern times in India. They have been represented in plays , captured in art through paintings and illustrations. A courtesan was a very talented woman adept in many skills. She was mostly to entertain the nobility and others through dancing and singing;though originally a courtesan was a courtier, which means a person who attends the court of a king or other powerful person.
Courtesans have been influential in every country and have combined their charm and elegance with politics to gain and improve their position in society since ancient times. She was a paradigm of female embodiment portraying free love and represented power, independence and strength in India. She was referred to as nayika or ganika, a woman given to pleasure. She is not only beautiful but also had literary talents and skills too. Many courtesans penned excellent poetry and dedicated it to their lovers or men they associated with.
The Indian treatise Kamasutra on love and sexuality prescribes 24 arts for the courtesan. The arts include vocal music,dancing,proficiency in garland-making,sewing,knowledge of gems, dice,social etiquette,flower decoration among others. An accomplished courtesan could win favours from her male suitors. In ancient India a courtesan was well accepted and was a nayika or heroine who knew well about the world she lived in. They played a major role and lead hunting expeditions and were invited to victory celebrations.
In the Sanskrit play of Shudraka; Mricchkatika or ‘The little clay cart’, Vasantasena was a beautiful courtesan. He describes her as the ornament of the city . Amrapali was another famous courtesan from ancient times in the city of Vaishali who was both beautiful and talented.
Vasanthasena, from Shudraka’s Mricchakatika,painting, 19th century.
Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
During Mughal rule the tawaif was a highly civilised courtesan who catered to the nobility of India. Tawaifs were excellent in and contributed to music, mujra, theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition. They excelled at the fine art of etiquette. Tawaifs were a North Indian institution that became prominent during the weakening of the Mughal rule in the mid-18th century. Begum Samru, Moran Sarkar , Wazeeran were prominent and powerful in Northern India. Gauhar Jaan is well known for her musical abilities.
Courtesan,portrait miniature,painting on ivory,Mughal style,19th century.
Mahlaqabai Chanda; an outstanding woman and courtesan of late 18th and early 19th century Hyderabad. She was a well known poet in Persian and Urdu. She is the first woman sahib-e-diwan, a poet whose works have been put together as a collection or diwan. She wrote in both Urdu and Persian, but only her Urdu works have survived.She was intelligent, beautiful and could sing, dance write, had a great sense of humour and a gift of repartee.She was a celebrated courtesan in the Asaf Jahi court of Nizam Ali Khan,Nizam II and Sikandar Jah,Nizam III.
Courtesan,Mahlaqabai Chanda,portrait, mid-20th century.
Image source : http://www.deccanchronicle.com/books-and-art/
Courtesan, Mughal style,poster, 21st century.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/proxyindian. Image by Steve Browne & John Verkleir
During late medieval India too the courtesans were present but the free partnership of an earlier era gave way to more rigid ways of life. Courtesans always enjoyed certain privileges but were always identified as temptresses and harlots. The colonial period in Indian history brought their cult to a slow end. The classic courtesan became a memory.
Courtesan, Kalighat painting, 19th century, Kolkata.
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Courtesans, Northern India, 19th century, Company painting.
By Company style, northern India, () [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Paradigms of female embodiment in the Hindu world/Khanna,Madhu,New Delhi : IGNCA, 2007.