Her Mistress’ Voice

Ambika Shaligram
Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Manjari Chaturvedi, who is bringing The Courtesan Project to the city, tells us about the lesser-known connection between begums-bajis and Bollywood

Rivalling today’s Bollywood stars and social media celebrities were the courtesans of the yore, who were exemplary singers, dancers and poets. They were the stars of the royal courts and they contributed enormously to the country’s rich cultural heritage. And, yes, there is a Bollywood connection too. 

“Jaddan Bai was one of the first women (and men) to set up a production house in the 1930s when Indian cinema was in its nascent stage. Jaddan Bai is the mother of Nargis (actress and mother of Sanjay Dutt). There were other singers too...you know this Hamari Attariya song from Dedh Ishqiya. The song was featured on Madhuri Dixit. How many people know that it was originally sung by Begum Akhtar, a former courtesan, a singer par excellence,” says Manjari Chaturvedi, who is bringing The Courtesan Project to the city on Saturday.

Calling it a ‘work in progress’, Chaturvedi, a Sufi Kathak dancer, says she has been researching on it for almost a decade. What made her embark on this project?

“The lack of respect and recognition due to these performers. The men, from whom these women learnt their art, are termed ‘ustad’. But the women are derisively referred to as ‘nachne-gaanewali’. Why such double standards?” bristles Chaturvedi. 

The research work wasn’t easy because most of these singers and their work has faded into oblivion. “We are not really known for documenting our work and more so if we have to talk about a woman’s contribution. Whatever little work has been documented about classical arts, women are barely mentioned in it and if they are, then it’s in the form of appendages — as someone’s wife, mother or daughter. They were not talked about in their individual capacities and that’s what I want to change,” she adds.
At one time in history, the courtesans commanded respect for their talent, their persona and they received patronage from noblemen and royalty. The women led independent lives, they were economically empowered. But this status quo changed when the British came to rule us. “They didn’t know how to slot these women, who were unmarried, but had their independent living. They were also respected by the then, open Indian society. With their Victorian lens, the British perceived them as ‘debauched’ and that impression still persists post-Independence. We have come to question our own traditions,” says the artist. 

Did Partition too play a role in the decline of the art form? Chaturvedi agrees and says, “The real decline came after 1857 when the British rule got firmly entrenched in the country. With Partition, artists and their families moved from Lahore to Delhi, Bombay and vice versa. In post-Independence India, Bombay was fast establishing itself as a commercial centre, supportive of arts. That’s why many artists moved to Bombay, to work in cinema. The Partition has given us more personal stories or history of these artists.” 

The 90-minute show has Chaturvedi performing with her group of dancers; the songs and dances are interspersed with anecdotes and slice of history imparted by two actors. “I would like to believe that The Courtesan Project provides intelligent entertainment. Before we got the push from technology, we got our entertainment in physical form. In the past, if you had to listen to a song, or watch a dance, the artist had to perform in front of you. These were the courtesans. Now you can watch Madhuri Dixit perform or learn from her through video tutorials. That’s a different form of entertainment. I want to educate the viewers about an old art form, the information for which you probably won’t find on Google,” says Chaturvedi.
Next time you watch or listen to Mohe Panghat, a song featured on Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam, please remember it was sung by a tawaif, Indubala. 

ST Reader Service
Manjari Chaturvedi’s The Courtesan Project, will be performed at Creaticity, Yerwada on Saturday, February 15,  7 pm onwards. For tickets, visit bookmyshow.com

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