Courtesans in the Academia?

On January 28, 2011 by admin


Basuli Deb

The National Women’s Studies Association in the US selected “Outsider Feminisms” as one of the sub-themes for their annual conference at Denver, Colorado, in November 2010. The conference itself was themed “Difficult Dialogues II” in continuation with the previous year’s topic. Drawing on outsider feminisms as a mode of critique, this was an attempt to engage in difficult dialogues around the performative arts which have been the disenfranchised areas of feminist inquiry within the US academia.

In this context, I often keep on wondering how such dispossession is intensified in the context of transnational encounters between US academic feminism and the figure of the woman artist from beyond the borders? So, I thought I’d revisit Muzaffar Ali’s film Umrao Jaan (1981), based on Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s 1905 Urdu novel Umrao Jan Ada about the life of the nineteenth century dancer courtesan, Umrao Jaan and think through the issue.  Is it possible for performative feminism to get an entry into feminist inquiry by way of US film studies? So, this is an attempt to think and if possible, reinvent the position and role of outsider feminisms (like performative feminisms) within the structures of the academia. The larger question is about internal disciplinary hierarchies and boundaries within social sciences and humanities and ultimately about the politics of the job market.

First, using the film Umrao Jaan as our lens, I’d like to think about the relationship in which feminist performative art, especially those embedded in a non Euro-American tradition, stands with respect to Women’s Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies departments/programs in the US. Transnational feminism happens to be the current buzzword within feminist inquiry, and departments and programs look cutting edge and frankly fashionable when such an area of feminist inquiry is introduced. But how has transnational feminism, with its strong affiliations with the idea of crossing borders, incorporated the figure of the woman artist from beyond the Euro-American cultural tradition? What is transnational feminism’s response to women artists, such as Umrao Jaan, who inhabit the courts of the Muslim aristocracy in the nineteenth century British empire in India? How much interest does transnational feminism have in getting to know the lives of these women courtesans who were caught in the double bind of being highly valued as artists and defamed as prostitutes? Why such women, despite their tragic stories of abduction from their natal families and being sold into prostitution, not eligible for entry into feminist studies, while human trafficking is becoming an increasingly significant area of feminist analysis? To draw on Audre Lorde’s famous description of multiple social locations of disenfranchisement for women, Umrao Jaan is perhaps the “sister outsider” of feminist studies; the likes of her hardly enter feminist inquiry, and more so when she belongs not to the underclass of Europe or America, but to the margins of the Indian aristocracy. What other factors make it so hard for some one like Umrao to enter the realm of feminist inquiry in the US academia?

It is true that performance itself remains largely an untheorized and neglected area within feminist scholarship. But Umrao, in her relationship with Nawab Sultan, also embodies romantic love between an aristocrat and a courtesan that has little hope for culminating into wedded bliss. “Under western eyes” Umrao Jaan could have been lumped with the motley crowd of “Third World women”, rendered faceless and homogenous by their victim status. But Chandra Mohanty has already dismantled the authority of such feminisms by exposing the underlying imperialist, and by extension racist, assumptions that mark them. Umrao Jaan could possibly have entered the domain of feminist inquiry as the woman artist, but her art speaks another language—incomprehensible to US academic feminism with its meager interest in cultural studies and art forms outside the Euro-American tradition. This is true even when positions in Women’s Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies programs and departments are opened up in transnational feminism. Contemporary art forms from elsewhere can still make an entry into the rarefied world of academic feminism, but the likes of Umrao Jaan, with their classical traditions and aristocratic affiliations, rarely do.

Umrao’s chosen dance form, the mujra, as we know, sprang during the Mughal period and was heavily patronized by India’s Muslim aristocracy. Mujra is a hybrid form that the pre-sixteenth century theatrical storytellers routinely performed in the courtyards of the Hindu temples space. In mujra, kathak intersect with the vocal musical forms of the thumri and the ghazal. The thumri is the musical form which has an intimate and material relationship of women for Lord Krishna. Pangs of loss or separation, so central to the internal dynamics of the workings of the genre of the ghazal, takes a more formal shape sometime in the sixth century. Umrao, who performs the mujra for the royalty and the aristocracy of India, represents an excess in the realm of feminist inquiry—the sister outsider, debarred from entry even into the domain of transnational feminism, with its strong affiliations with the elsewhere—beyond the borders of the familiar. She is not Phoolan Devi—the bandit queen of India—the beloved of transnational feminist inquiry into Bollywood—the lower caste woman, the outlaw of the postcolonial state, the sensational exception to the rule of Third World women’s victimhood that “Western feminism” loves. Her nuanced, median position becomes her undoing even in the highly slotted academic space as it used to be in her known world.

But what if Umrao Jaan tries to enter the realm of critical inquiry via an analytic of the British Empire in India in the nineteenth century? It is in the context of the 1857 series of wars between the British and the natives of India and the British repression of resistance against foreign rule that we need to understand the figure of Umrao. The British, in their imperial interests to rule India, annexed large territories of the princely states by dethroning the native kings of the region, often by claiming that they were inefficient rulers because their lives were spent in debauchery rampant in the Indian courts. Ray’s Satranj ki Khiladi graphically demonstrates how tactically the British did engage in this game of chess with the Nawab of the northeastern kingdom of Oudh and ousted him eventually. The British East India Company forcefully annexed Oudh by deposing its last independent ruler, Wajid Ali Shah, in 1856. This was one of the reasons that led to the outbreak of native resistance to British rule in 1857 in that part of the emerging nation. The film shows that what seemed to the British inefficiency in the royal courts, was actually a different kind of relationship between the ruler and the ruled—one based on kinship relations rather than bureaucratic control. What was debauchery was an atmosphere of court patronage of the arts. It is this Oudh of 1856 where Umrao Jaan lives and performs her art. She is the woman artist whose art is threatened by British imperial interests and its imposition of Victorian morality. She loses her courtly profession and is compelled to flee when the British invade the court in Oudh where she has lived as a courtesan for years. The British render her destitute. She is the outsider artist in the British Empire.

But her art becomes a site and action of resistance as well. After losing her livelihood she returns to her family, only to be rejected by them for her profession. However, she continues to perform her art as and when she receives a request for a mujra. Her performances continue to create feminine spaces of labor that contest prevalent schemas of moral order. At the same time the woman artist makes a statement against aristocratic court patronage and indigenous varieties of patriarchy. One particular number in the film, “In ankhon ki masti ke mastane hazaron hain”, for instance, (these intoxicating eyes draw many admirers), critiques the plight of the woman artist whose life draws romantic attention from numerous men, but at the end is relegated to recount a life of solitary existence. Men like Nawab Sultan might fall deeply in love with the likes of Umrao, but all the same they leave her to marry other women according to the dictates of a proper aristocratic marriage.

In the light of the above, I reiterate the question: What if Umrao Jaan tries to enter the realm of critical inquiry as the woman artist in the context of the British Empire in India? In a post 9/11 world postcolonialism’s position in the US academia has become even more suspect, at the same time as it has become even more important to use the anti-imperialist tools of postcolonialism to critically question the US academic project of scholarship and pedagogy. It has become crucial to identify what values have entered the academia in the context of a world that has created lists about the most dangerous US intellectuals—many of whom are postcolonialists! Postcolonialism is remarkable slippery and glamorous and its precise dubiousness paradoxically leads to its being cutting edge.

Umrao Jaan might enter the world of the US academia via a rhetoric of anti-imperialism, but from such a space marked by its ties to a transnational feminist vision, she is unlikely to create any dialogue with the world of US film studies, with its heavy emphasis on European and American cinema. Postcolonial cinema, such as Umrao Jaan (and the text has even more remote chance of being accepted in the canon), is fated to remain an outsider. It is terribly hard to recognize the postcolonial woman artist of color from elsewhere as a legitimate figure within the white washed walls of the US academia, within the recognized entry points that are currently available. She has inherited the legacies of prodigies like the eighteenth century African-American poet, Phyllis Wheatley, who likewise had to prove before the Boston Brahmins her legitimacy in the world of letters, not as a poet, but as a black poet.

It is thus surprising that the majority of students and scholars who want desperately to work on the likes of Umrao Jaan, a lot of them South Asian scholars who came to the US as international students, do so neither through Women’s and Gender Studies programs/departments, nor through film studies. They are either recruited/hired as students pursuing postcolonial studies or postcolonialists, specializing in postcolonial cinema, rather than film studies hires. Alternatively, they enter the US academia through South Asian studies programs that embrace a cultural studies perspective. These programs remain outsiders in the world of the US academia. Nonetheless, students and scholars working from within these departments and programs constantly remind the US academia that it still has a lot of listening to do. I am not sure whether they essentially do the listening bit too without being patronizing. These areas nevertheless remind us about the tactical defining of fields of knowledge that academics embrace as legitimate and fields that are systematically marginalized and excluded. The power structures in academia are insidious and deep seated. In this case, racial thinking and slotting in niches go a long way. This game is manifest enough, notwithstanding our moments of denial. Even as we critique those who are out to muzzle humanities and the social sciences, it would not be a bad idea to take a pause and look inwards into own complicity in this whole affair.

[A version of this article was presented on the panel “Performative Feminisms and Outsider Interventions” at the National Women’s Studies Association’s annual conference in November 2010 at Denver, Colorado]

Basuli Deb is Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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