Arts & Media
Courtesans in the Living Room
KAMRAN ASDAR ALI
Pakistan. 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. the 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 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.1 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...
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