- Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema by Ruth Vanita
The courtesan is an enduring figure within South Asian visual and literary cultures. She is also an uncomfortable figure to talk about–one that has been constantly re-worked and redefined during the colonial period, in social reformer narratives and in nationalist debates about ideal womanhood, often tied to a mythical Hindu past. In Dancing with the Nation, Ruth Vanita takes a comprehensive sample of 235 films to examine courtesans and courtesan imagery in Bombay cinema. Vanita notes that only one study, in Hindi, has seriously considered the role of courtesans in films and that courtesans are missing in studies of cinematography; they are typically mentioned in passing as the 'other' and/or as antagonists in the analysis of heroines. She looks at how courtesan characters intersect with various activities in the making and representation of the nation. For instance, she challenges the stereotype that depicts courtesans as Muslim individuals in the making of a Hindu nation and argues that the culture of courtesans was one of hybrid Hindu-Muslim identities. However, her main lens for examining courtesan films is gender and sexuality in modern India and she maintains that hers is not "primarily a film studies book" (Vanita 3).
Vanita foregrounds her study with an explanation of the terminology used to describe female entertainers. Courtesan is used as "a catch all term" which includes tawaif, nachnewali, veshya, randi and nartaki (1). This exposition adds to the scholarship of Katherine Butler Schofield (2012), Erica Wald (2009), Veena Oldenburg (1990) and Amelia Maciszewski (2006), among others, which classifies the courtesan as a temporally, multi-layered entertainer. In her previous works on rekhti poetry (2012) and same-sex relationships (2005), Vanita has looked at the salient figure of the courtesan within cultural discourse, but this work connects the centrality of the courtesan to the evolution of the Indian film industry. In doing so, Vanita argues that courtesan characters and real-life courtesans bought classical music and dance to large swathes of modern Indian populations and are intertwined in the cinema industry (18-19).
Courtesans appear in various prisms within the life of entertainment cultures in South Asia from ancient Indian and religious iconographies, Mughal courts and nawabi cultures to becoming the first actresses and playback singers in modern India. Women from tawaif backgrounds were also the first woman producers, directors and choreographers in Bombay cinema. Almost every major female actor has played the role of the courtesan in its various guises; such actresses include Meena Kumari and such films include Namoona (1949) and Shair (1949). Vanita markedly illustrates how tawaif lineages are "deeply embedded in the DNA of Bombay cinema" by providing various examples including the tawaif Daleepbai and her daughter Jaddan Bai; Jaddan Bai was the mother of the actress Nargis and grandmother of Sanjay Dutt (6). Vanita also depicts how discursive representations of courtesans in cinema changed over time. In tracing a direct line from early film cultures of the 1930s and 1940s, Vanita portrays how the figure of the courtesan has shaped the modern Indian imagination and cinematography from romantic heroines in court films and immoral, tortured souls to vamps, item number entertainers and modern 'It-girls'. By doing so, Vanita persuasively illustrates how courtesans undermine the popular stereotype that, before the 1970s, women were either "highly sexed "vamps" or good and chaste heroines" (10).
Through her deconstructions of the dynamics within families, heteronormative and same-sex relationships and kinship networks, she considers various topics. The book progresses thematically starting with Family, Eros, Work and Male Allies, and ending with Nation and Religion. [End Page 70] This thematic structure, as opposed to a tedious, chronological format, enables succinct analyses and allows for readers to develop an understanding of courtesan tropes in cinema. Additionally, courtesan cultures and cinema are heavily invested in aesthetic appeal; thus images are vital to this study. Film stills are weaved throughout the book to reinforce Vanita's arguments, including images of dress, domestic and public interiors, and patron-courtesan interactions. The study...