Raza Rumi in Himal Southasian:
It is not a coincidence that the earliest novels of the Subcontinent dealt with the intense and memorable characters of ‘nautch girls’. Essentially a colonial construct, a nautch girl referred to the popular entertainer, a belle beau who would sing, dance and, when required, also provide the services of a sex worker. The accounts on the marginalised women from the ‘dishonourable’ profession are nuanced, concurrently representing the duality of exploitation and empowerment.
Long before feminist discourse explored and located the intricacies of sex workers’ lives and work, male novelists during the 18th and 19th centuries were portraying the strong characters of women in the oldest profession. Stereotypes of the hapless and suffering prostitute rarely find mention in texts from that time, but one early novel, written in Urdu, is Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada. While the Lucknow-based poet Ruswa is said to have persuaded Umrao to reveal her life history, many critics have surmised that the narrative was authored by Umrao herself. The tone and candour of the story suggests that Umrao played a significant role in drafting this semi-documentary piece.
Umrao’s woes originated in a typical patriarchal mould. As a young girl, she was kidnapped by a hooligan and sold to a Lucknow kotha (a high-culture space also operating as a brothel) managed by Khanum Jan. This act was the hooligan’s way of seeking revenge against Umrao’s father, who had testified against him. At the kotha, an erudite, elderly maulvi transformed Umrao into a civilised poet-cum-entertainer, educating her in the arts and culture. Her seeking knowledge and acquiring confidence to handle a predominantly male world takes place within this space. Thus, the tale of exploitation turns into a narrative of self-discovery.
An archetypal courtesan steeped in Avadhi high culture and manners, Umrao Jan Ada comes across as a voice far ahead of her times. In her frank conversations with Ruswa, Umrao explains how a sex worker’s only friend is money. The realisation that a dancing girl would be a fool to jeopardise her livelihood by giving her love to a man was a clear expression of her empowerment. The plain rejection of wifehood in Umrao Jan’s worldview was directly rooted in the decision not to trade independence for an institutionalised relationship, despite the respectability that such an association might offer. The empowerment of Umrao is in many ways linked to her profession. In an age where women were completely dependent on men for financial and social sustenance, sex work emerged as a safety valve for her existence. And Umrao remains contemptuous of courtesans who leave their position of power and independence, and subject themselves to the whims of respectable men who may or may not reciprocate by according them social respect.