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  • The Courtesan and the Birth of Ars Erotica in the Kāmasūtra:A History of Erotics in the Wake of Foucault
  • Sanjay K. Gautam (bio)

This article investigates the role played by the courtesan in determining the nature and origin of the Kāmasūtra (Treatise on pleasure), the Sanskrit text from ancient India, in critical engagement with Michel Foucault’s notion of ars erotica.1 In particular, this article focuses on the courtesan as the historical anchor of a subtle—but critical—affinity between erotics and the discourse and practice of theater evident in the Kāmasūtra. An understanding of this affinity is crucial for determining the nature of pleasure and the precise mode of its pursuit in this foundational text on erotics. What is at the heart of this affinity, this article contends, is the question of identity as it relates to the discourse and practice of pleasure. More generally, this article argues that it was the courtesan and the set of practices that developed around her that constituted not only the historical and cultural context of the Kāmasūtra but also one of its most important sources of ideas. The courtesan thus holds the key to both the nature and historical origin of ars erotica as it took form in India.

The Kāmasūtra, attributed to Vātsyāyana, was composed in the third century of the Common Era.2 After its translation into English for the first time in 1883, the Kāmasūtra emerged worldwide as an iconic text in the field of erotics.3 Its impact in India, however, was felt far beyond its own [End Page 1] field of erotics on literature and culture in general.4 Given its significance, however, the Kāmasūtra has attracted surprisingly little scholarly attention. With rare exceptions, the Kāmasūtra continues to be out of bounds for much of the academic world.5 Ivo Fiser, a historian of erotics—or “sexology,” as he characterizes it—in premodern India felt compelled to conclude after a survey of existing scholarly literature on the Kāmasūtra that “ancient Indian sexology is by far the most neglected discipline in the wide spectrum of Indological studies, however much lip-service has been paid to it in the past. It shows clearly that the ‘Victorian mind’ is by far not a thing of the past.”6

The contrast of ars erotica, or the erotic arts, and scientia sexualis, or the science of sexuality, played a key role in Foucault’s problematization of the history of sexuality in the West.7 Yet, in view of its critical significance for the formulation of his original project, Foucault’s own comments on the subject of ars erotica are all too brief. Given that Foucault’s works on the history of sexuality have been decisive in setting the agenda for a history of sexual practices not only in the West but also for much of the rest of the world, a historical exploration into the Kāmasūtra—the most iconic work in the domain of ars erotica—acquires enormous significance. Aside from occasional comments and criticisms, there has been no serious attempt to explore the nature and origin of the discourse and practice of ars erotica in the Kāmasūtra in light of Foucault’s observations on the subject.8 [End Page 2]

While broadly delineating the field of the history of sexuality, Foucault noted that, “historically, there have been two great procedures for producing the truth of sex”: ars erotica and scientia sexualis. While ars erotica flourished in a number of non-Western cultures that included India, the West alone developed scientia sexualis.9 One of the ways in which Foucault distinguishes ars erotica from scientia sexualis is in terms of the contrasting relationship between identity or self and pleasure in the two discourses. While in scientia sexualis pleasure is subordinated to the notion of identity, in ars erotica it was the notion of identity that was subordinated to pleasure: “If identity is only a game, if it is only a procedure to have relations, social and sexual—pleasure relationships that create new friendships, it is useful...


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