The room was thrown into darkness: the kind that exudes a certain kind of peace. Once my eyes had adjusted to the surroundings, I saw a woman sitting right in the middle of the stage. She had an aura about her that mesmerized the ones present in the room while her voice and the lyrical music drew in its realm the people standing outside the room. That night I first learnt about the life of a courtesan and she was called Gauhar Jaan.
Gauhar Jaan looked something out of a dream with her sharp features, which bordered on ethereal. She was draped in all white and her diamond studded nose pin gave her an air of regality that was fit for a queen. Her neck drew your eyes to it not for the glittering jewels, but its delicate curve that rippled with her every move much like a sinewy rope.
She might sound like a figment of imagination but she is more than a beautifully carved fantasy. Gauhar Jaan is very much a reality that has been thrown in the dungeons of ignorance rather than being accepted as an integral part of our culture. The reality has been brought to the surface by the renowned Sufi Kathak Dancer Manjari Chaturvedi. She is also the genius behind ‘The Courtesan’. A passion for dance combined with the determination to reignite the memories of these beautiful women, she introduced us to the costumes, jewellery, and dance moves synonymous to them. She too drew her inspiration from the works of Wajid Ali Shah who himself was an ardent admirer of the courtesan culture.
The beautiful night has been dominant in my thoughts and it drove me to unravel the mystical story of the courtesans. Centuries ago courtesans were revered and considered the very soul of ‘tehzeeb’ (etiquettes) and class. It is said that the world used to come to a standstill in the presence of their timeless beauty, which ran skin deep. Courtesans were women whose company was sought by men of high stature and young girls were sent to them for grooming.
It has always been wrongly assumed that courtesans were there to satiate the physical desire of these men. People couldn’t have been more wrong because courtesans were women of high intellect who had strong views about art, politics, culture, literature, music, dance, and a lot more. There was a time when they were looked at with respect and possessed a great social standing. The courtesans reflected elegance, beauty, and intellect that drew many admirers. It would surprise people to know that the courtesans put in a lot of efforts to create their dance routines and did not have any formal training. I believe it would be fair to assume that the dance forms in later times were born in the courtyard of the courtesans.
Sadly, these factors did not hold much weight in the face of cowardly mindset and there on began the downfall of these beautiful women. With every passing generation the orthodox and warped thinking was taking over the liberal thought process that did not mind appreciating culture the right way. Time became a witness to the disgraceful treatment being meted to the courtesans. They were being considered as prostitutes and were being called by demeaning names; tawaif being one of them. The irony of the situation was tawaif wasn’t really a derogatory term, but it was given a negative connotation soon after these women lost the patrons who were real conoisseur of art. Later, men took it as their right to humiliate and exploit the courtesans while the women pulled them down with their acidic tongues and vile thoughts. People and time dealt such a cruel hand to these women that in a short while they were left to live a life of solitude peppered with insults and jibes. There was a time when they were looked at with awe but now it isn’t considered fit to be under the same roof as The Courtesans.
The night ended with a thunderous applause and a standing ovation, but my heart bled for every Gauhar Jaan who was worshipped and punished for passion, beauty, and intelligence. Well, the essence of these women can only be captured by poets and lovers of art, while for the rest of the world they are like those tales that are reminisced over time and again, sometimes with love else nothing but scorn.