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The Courtesans Of Lucknow Fought Patriarchy Through Social Dissent And Represented A High Culture

  • IWB Post
  •  July 16, 2019

The courtesans of Lucknow were amongst the highest earners, and their names were found in the tax records, who in the 19th century, were treated as influential elites.

These courtesans were the embodiment of a high culture, tradition, and status. They contributed largely to Indian cinema, music, and traditional dance forms such as Kathak. Back then these women were busy creating a league of their own; they fought the dominion of men and created a niche for themselves within the walls of the Kothas.

In the city of Nawabs, these women were well respected members of the court and society. An association with them was a matter of prestige, particularly, if someone was invited to their salon. Moreover, sons of the elite groups were often send to these salons to educate themselves on etiquettes, Urdu Literature, and the polite ways to converse.

The kothas was a place where women were free, economically independent, and could use resources as they desired. Furthermore, here they could celebrate womanhood and develop new friendships. For example, within the privacy of the kothas, they used to perform dances and miming for each other. Through the support of other courtesans, who became their new family, these women were able to escape the dowry system by not making themselves available for marriage. Marriage, which earlier determined their entire worth, was now no longer a problem.

There is a common assumption that the courtesans were victims of trafficking and the kidnap. For example, even in the movie UmraoJaan, the lead protagonist was kidnapped and then later sold to a brothel in Lucknow. However, this was far away from the truth. Many women joined brothels to escape the grim realities of their natal homes, domestic violence, low-paying jobs, which were not sufficient enough to make ends meet and the pity of being rape victims.

Traditionally, women, who followed the purdah system, did so to avoid the lust of men, to maintain the “izzat” or honor of the family. But the courtesans were not required to wear a veil as a compulsion, rather they did it out of choice. This was their way of reversing the patriarchy by blocking the male gaze. They did it, to enjoy freedom of their own bodies.

Within the kothas, these women would receive intense training and education on how to persuade men to give more money. This practice was done so that they could earn decently, buy property, and invest their money into something more profitable. Many could afford to retire by the age of 35.

Courtesans of Lucknow

To cajole these men into giving them some extra money, the courtesans used a skill called “nakra” or pretense. Many of them were devised, while others were spur of the moment developments. This skill included fake headaches, sprained ankles, tears, and fake anger while dancing or singing, so as to reprimand the patron for not taking enough care of them. Through, these skills they managed to get gold coins and more money than the usual. The most critical type of “nakra” was the refusal to a major sexual interlude. On their part, they would do their homework and find out all the possible information about the patron such as their married life, business, property, and public image.

However, the British system reduced their high status to just “common prostitution”.  The colonial power crushed them and made this powerful institution lose its cultural symbol. By taking spiteful actions against them, they degraded the entire profession. They would choose a few girls from the kothas and take them to the cantonment of the European soldiers. Not only did this make them vulnerable to venereal infections but made sex easily available.

The courtesans fought the civic authorities in their own ways. The nurse, who conducted regular body check ups on them, were often coaxed with money to not do so.  Furthermore, they also denied to pay taxes despite threats of imprisonment.

The courtesans of Lucknow were empowered women. Through social dissent they broke away from the highly institutionalized patriarchy and created a liberated space for themselves in the Kothas. Their representation in the Indian pop-culture resulted in a negative connotation being attached to it, reducing the profession to a life of poverty, devoid of any respect and cultural symbolism. Today the society looks at the profession with shame and discomfort.

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