Courtesans in the Living Room
Why, one might ask, have PaIn spring of 2003, the new private teleThe courtesan has been a stock character in popular South Asian literature and movies. vision channel in Pakistan, Geo TV, crekistan’s liberal intelligentsia and femiated some controversy by telecasting nists chosen at this juncture to depict The popular Urdu novel, Umrao Jan Ada, was with much fanfare Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s recently made into a lavish serialized television the life-world of the prostitute and the early twentieth century Urdu novel, figure of the courtesan as metaphors play in Pakistan.
It raises questions about how Umrao Jan Ada as its first serialized tel- popular television performances create a space to argue for sexual freedom and womevision play. Umrao, one of the most exen’s autonomy? for a discussion on gender politics in a rapidly changing cultural, social, and economic milieu pensive TV series produced in Pakistan with lavish sets and costumes, depicts The narrative of present-day Pakistan. he life and times of a mid-nineteenth Umrao, set in mid-nineteenth century century courtesan in Lucknow which was the seat of power for the Na- northern India, is the story of a young girl who is kidnapped and sold wabs of Awadh in North India.
Courtesans in the Living Room Essay Example
Courtesans in Lucknow were recognized to a kotha (lit: roof or household, the courtesan’s salon) in Lucknow. as the preservers and performers of high culture of the court. Courte- Umrao grows up learning the skills of the trade with rigorous training sans held respect within the Nawabi court and young men of noble in music, singing, dancing, poetry recitation, and the various etiquettes lineage were sent to their salons to learn etiquette, polite manners, and and idioms of courtesan life. The novel is written in the first person to the art of literary appreciation. Yet they also provided sexual services, create the illusion of an autobiographical narrative.
This technique is albeit to specific patrons, and were, therefore, not entirely considered retained in the TV serial by the director Raana Sheikh, a veteran TV propart of the ashraf, the Muslim respectable gentry. ducer and ex-managing director of the state owned Pakistani TV, and the script writer Zehra Nigah, a famous poet and literary personality. The politics As Umrao grows up accomplished in the various skills of courtesan The courtesan (tawaif) has been a stock character in popular South life, she is much sought after by many members of the elite that freAsian literature and movies.
Indeed the “fallen woman” is universal in quent the kotha. She is eventually “given” for the first time to a respectits appeal among readers of pulp and highbrow fiction. Yet in Pakistani able Nawab who retains the exclusive right to her company and mainfilms and literature the courtesan’s character remains intertwined in a tains her through gifts and cash. This man becomes the first of many morality play and almost always achieves a tragic end (mostly commits with whom Umrao is shown to, within the parameters of Pakistan’s censuicide), repents for her “wayward” behaviour or, extremely rarely, be- sors, have a sustained sexual relationship.
There are many twists and comes a sharif bibi (respectable woman), which for a courtesan may be turns in the story, but Umrao is always characterized as an extremely akin to a social death. In contrast, in Rusva’s novel the protagonist not sympathetic person—a victim of circumstances beyond her control— only survives, but becomes a respectable poet and a wealthy patron of with whom the audience can empathize and identify. Periodically the art without renouncing her past profession.
In this sense the novel is play does remind us that Umrao is a courtesan (with its contemporary connotation of a prostitute) and hence allows for the audience to creunique in its empathetic treatment of courtesan culture. The last few years have seen the proliferation of several texts and ate a distance from her guilt-free sexual relationships. Yet despite the documentaries that relate the stories techniques that the director uses to and condition of courtesans and sex distance us from the protagonist’s asworkers in present day Pakistan.
Two sertive sexual practices—perhaps to among them are noteworthy: Taboo, satisfy the censor—the audience is a detailed ethnography of sex workconstantly exposed to and remains engrossed in Umrao’s various relationers in Lahore’s red light district by Fouzia Saeed (2002), and Tibbi Gallii, a ships. documentary about the same district In addition, life in the kotha itself is produced by Feryal Gauhar. Both are portrayed in extremely women friendsympathetic portrayals and explicitly ly terms. There is camaraderie among expound a feminist sensibility in their the younger omen in the household handling of their subjects. To allow for and the audience gets the sense of a a wider readership, Taboo was recently caring family. The strongest person translated from English into Urdu. Yet in the entire household is the chief it primarily remains an academic text. courtesan, Khanum, who rules over Gauhar’s film has, however, not been the household as a deft diplomat who widely distributed and has only been has the power of coercion always at shown at select gatherings.
These inher disposal. The interesting aspect of this household is the secondary and terventions do put forward an argument for re-evaluating the space of sex workers in contemporary Pa- dependent nature of the men. In traditional kothas, as depicted in the kistani society; Geo TV’s initiative can be understood as an extension serial, men occupied the more subservient roles of servants, doormen, of this thematic interest in courtesan life by liberal intellectuals. This musicians, and instructors.
Men, of course, were also wealthy patrons opening allows Geo to produce Umrao in a country where extra mari- and benefactors. But even they, within this domain, deferred to the tal sex legally remains a crime against the state and where memories immense power that these women wielded in their own space and of severe punishment for sexual liaisons under the Hudood Ordinance treated the courtesans as equals. Further, in contrast to Pakistan’s recent history of rising Islamic radiof the Zia-ul Haq era in the 1980s still resonate among the populace.
Unlike the modest reach of the above-mentioned academic works, calism and the Islamization process of the Zia era, the play seeks to Geo’s production brought courtesan life into domestic spaces (50 mil- display a much more tolerant atmosphere not only in terms of gender lion of 150 million Pakistanis have access to TV) as it also intervened relationships, but also in its depiction of Islamic authority. There is a into a debate on morality, sexuality, and gender politics in present day retainer in the kotha, Moulvi Saheb, who is married to the main female
The creators of this play… use the mid-nineteenth century milieu…to make a more contemporary case for women’s emancipation and equity. ISIM REVIEW 15 / SPRING 2005 Arts & Media servant in the household. Moulvi Saheb teaches Umrao the Quran and religion, literature, and morals. He is portrayed as a man of religion, yet accepts the lifestyle of his surroundings with ease and grace. Similarly, in one episode Umrao runs away with her paramour and ends up in an unknown village after being abandoned.
Here she finds the shaykh of the local mosque who generously gives her shelter and then helps her to establish herself as a local courtesan with her own kotha and clientele. These portrayals use the midnineteenth century Muslim society in North India, and its imagined tolerant social space where religious leaders and courtesans could co-exist, to implicitly critique the moral and theological extremism of contemporary life. Gender, religion, and ethnicity The choice of Umrao Jan Ada to argue for women’s liberation and religious tolerance is an intriguing one.
Historically modernist Muslim reformers of late nineteenth century opposed Nawabi culture, of which courtesan life was an integral part. Post-1857 Muslim reformers like the author Nazir Ahmed, Sayed Ahmed, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, and the poet Altaf Husein Hali (inlcluding Deobandi religious reformers) in their writings argued against the extravagance, impiety, and ignorance of the Nawabi era, which according to them was the cause of Muslim backwardness. In contrast they advocated the pursuit of knowledge, piety, and restraint.
Describing this transformation among the late-nineteenth century Muslim middle class households, Gail Minault rightly points out that the emphasis was on being noble rather than high born. A sharif gentleman was “pious without being wasteful, educated without being pedantic and restrained in his expression of emotion. ”2 This ideal was in sharp contrast to the Mughal Nawabs and the wealthy land owning aristocracy, those that are depicted in Umrao and who sustained the lifestyle of the courtesans themselves.
It appears that the female director and script writer of Umrao sought to make an implicit argument against those tendencies of Muslim reformist thought, whether secular or religious (Deobandi), that asked women to distance themselves from the realm of custom which was deemed superstitious, un-Islamic, and irrational. This reformism indeed aided some women to gain more rights within the emerging middle-class household. For example, literacy skills along with modes of reformed behaviour did open spaces for women to articulate their rights in marriage and property.
Yet, these gains were at the cost of losing separate spheres of female activity that were condemned by the modern reformists as the realm of the nafs, the area of lack of control and disorder. 3 The creators of this play through their depiction of female spaces, use the mid-nineteenth century milieu to invoke this sense of disorder/sexual themes and link it to an older oral tradition of women’s narrative construction and other forms of popular performances—the arena of reformist attack—to make a more contemporary case for women’s emancipation and equity.
In invoking this past the producers present an alternative narrative of custom, traditional space, and Muslim religious practice. This move to reinvent the past as tolerant and inclusive is linked to a liberal political agenda that is in opposition to an earlier generation of modernist thinkers. Using late-nineteenth century North India as a backdrop, this serial confronts the more homogenizing elements of Islamic politics in Pakistani society; a major political task for liberals in present day Pakistan.
The play’s implicit portrayal of a more tolerant and inclusive national entity interestingly enough also relates to President General Musharraf’s propagated rhetoric of a modern, moderate, and Muslim Pakistan. This resonance perhaps allows liberal intellectuals the space to use media outlets to promote agendas of diverse freedoms and tolerance without the fear of state censorship. The long-term implications of this tentative cultural alliance between liberals and the Military junta require a detailed discussion and analysis that cannot be provided here.
However, in conclusion I would raise another politically important question that the liberal intelligentsia rarely confronts. As issues of gender equity and tolerant Islam are emphasized in the play, the idiom of this discussion remains within the parameters of high Urdu culture. In this play as in others, the de- piction of late nineteenth century North Indian life is depicted as PaPoster from kistani Muslim culture and in doing so remains oblivious to extremely Pakistani TV vital issues of cultural and linguistic diversity within Pakistan.
Serial, Umrao Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, Urdu’s dominance of the culJan Ada tural center has bred a sense of exclusion among other linguistic groups (Pashtun, Sindhi, Punjabi, Baluch, among others) hindering the emergence of a national culture that democratically includes the diverse voices and languages present in Pakistani cultural spectrum. Where Geo’s Umrao Jan Ada tackles the issue of female emancipation using North Indian ashraf (respectable Muslim elite) culture, it addresses an audience that is also culturally steeped in other traditions, vernaculars, and cultural ethos.
The imposition of nineteenth century high Urdu culture, though in this case ostensibly well meaning, retains within it the hegemonic aspect of centralizing state projects of cultural homogeneity which have continued to undermine the rights of the various linguistic and cultural groups that constitute Pakistan. In this sense the liberal feminist agenda in its attempt to re-interpret “tradition” and Muslim social practice in South Asia, may still be entangled in modernist projects where experiences of specific linguistic groups who have a longer urban history (as in the Notes case with Urdu speakers) takes precedence over 1.