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77 c h a p t e r 5 Poetry, Piety, and Performance The Politics of Modesty in M. H. Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada and Junun-­e-­Intezaar As discussed in chapter 4, in the late nineteenth century two different perspectives on the courtesan and her role in Urdu literary culture wrestled to gain ground. These perspectives were moored to ideological debates on the status of Urdu poetry, which underwent critical scrutiny in the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857. By the mid-­ nineteenth century the power of the Mughals, the traditional patrons of the arts, had declined considerably. Awadh, with its center at Lucknow, became the hub of literary and artistic culture. The nawabs of Awadh were known for their patronage of the arts and received scholars, painters, and architects from Delhi and Iran at their courts. Lucknow is the birthplace of several new art forms, such as kathak (a dance form) and thumri and khayal (derived from Hindustani classical music), which were made famous by the courtesans of Lucknow, who performed for the nawabs in their homes and at their kothas (brothels). It was customary for nawabs to have a courtesan or two in their pay, a sign that the nawabs had arrived in polite society. As Pritchett argues, this was also the heyday of Urdu and Persian poetry, as the Mughal Court in Delhi and the nawabs of Awadh patronized poets of all stripes, including courtesans. Courtesans were highly regarded for their skill in the ghazal, monorhymed lyric poetry, in both Persian and Urdu.1 The foremost poet of this century, Ghalib (1797–­ 1869), speaks highly of his association with a courtesan who was a connoisseur of poetry and a poet in her own right.2 This was also the 78 ❘ Poetry, Piety, and Performance moment when Urdu literary poetics was articulated as a critical tradition , distinct from Persian and Indic poetry. In Urdu poetics, poetry is the self-­ conscious articulation of a poetic voice, in which the mazmun, or subject of the ghazal, is split off from the ma’ni, or meaning of the ghazal. Faruqi writes, “The recognition of the poem being splittable in ‘What is it about?’ [mazmun] and ‘What does it mean?’ [ma’ni] meant that the poet could assume any persona—­ now it was not, for instance, Vali the person, who was speaking in the poem, but there was a voice, and Vali the poet was only the articulator of that voice.”3 This delightful split between subject and meaning alters the ontological status of the lover and the beloved into ideal types. The lover suffers madness because his beloved is cruel and indifferent , caring nothing for him. This is an articulation of a poetic voice, and the poet herself or himself is not implicated as the subject of the voice. This meant that while the poet might write poetry about love, erotic encounters, and madness, she did not necessarily live in a state of intoxicated licentiousness. Unfortunately this critical poetic framework was ignored in the reformist zeal unleashed after the Revolt of 1857. The British viewed Urdu poetry as decadent and immoral because they read it through the same literary-­ critical lens that they used for their own poetry, namely Wordsworthian Romanticism, ignoring the conceptions of poetry internal to the Urdu literary tradition. Hence for them the subject of the poem was the poet’s own personal vision of the world, and from this they concluded that Urdu poets were a morally decadent, depraved lot. As purveyors of this art, courtesans came under the same punitive scrutiny and were regarded as immoral and licentious. As Inderpal Grewal argues, the courtesan or “nautch-­ girl” of the colonial imagination represented the dark, illicit mysteries of the East. The civilizing mission of empire thus involved disciplining courtesans’ sexuality, a mission that was mirrored in the rhetoric of social reformers of the period. Grewal suggests that this move to “civilize” “Eastern” women was grounded in the colonial desire to “make them less opaque, to strip them of their veils, and to remove them from harems where they lived lives hidden from the European male.”4 The veiled woman’s invisibility to the European male was thus construed as a threat to the civilizing mission of empire. Colonial discourse produced the women’s quarters as a “harem” where the veiled woman led a blighted life. Unveiled women who lived outside the home in the brothel represented the erotic Poetry, Piety, and Performance ❘ 79 and exotic...


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