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1857: Visibilising the 'Other' in History

By bringing the figure of the courtesan into a political space that is denied and invisibilised in the nationalist discourse in its search for respectability, this article attempts to explore the public roles of courtesans. In a play that foregrounds courtesan Azizun Nisa who participated in the 1857 revolt, playwright Tripurari Sharma ruptures the dominant bourgeois discourse. Azizun Nisa is neither the "respectable" mother nor wife, the quintessential inspirational figures in the nationalist discourse. The play disrupts the trope of "mother India" that dominated anti-colonial and middle class nationalist thought.


Visibilising the ‘Other’in History

Courtesans and the Revolt

By bringing the figure of the courtesan into a political space that is denied and invisibilised in the nationalist discourse in its search for respectability, this article attempts to explore the public roles of courtesans. In a play that foregrounds courtesan Azizun Nisa who participated in the 1857 revolt, playwright Tripurari Sharma ruptures the dominant bourgeois discourse. Azizun Nisa is neither the “respectable” mother nor wife, the quintessential inspirational figures in the nationalist discourse. The play disrupts the trope of “mother India” that dominated anti-colonial and middle class nationalist thought.



istory has been emerging as an important site of contestation, especially for those on the margins. The voice of the common people had been invisibilised in history for a long time. However attempts have been made to bring common people to the forefront of history. The past is being excavated from the viewpoint of the subaltern. Women’s voices are also being brought to the forefront. Still a significant section of women’s history, especially of those on the margins – considered the “other” woman in the construction of middle class women – remains invisible. The “other” women represented common women, considered to be coarse, vulgar, loud, morally degraded and sexually promiscuous. Having greater accessto the public sphere, these women were relatively independent, outside rigid formations and not so clearly contained by caste, class, gender or a demarcated space, and so considered threatening. Bringing these women as subjects into history would unsettle the middle class “respectable” discourse.

One important section that has been excluded from history is women performers. Nationalist discourses have always negated or erased their creative aspect by keeping them out of the framework of the respectable nation. The question of “respectability” assumed its sharpest form with regard to issues concerning women, as redefinition of the female was a crucial feature of the hegemony that brought the middle class into power. If the struggle to represent ideal female behaviour accompanied the struggle of an emergent middle class, then change in the representation of women would be expected to accompany more extensive historical changes. The representation of women as public entertainer and locus of male desire no longer served the interests of the Englisheducated elite, who put in her place the Indian equivalent of the Victorian domestic angel, the “sugrihini” or good-housewife [Sangari and Vaid 1989]. Female performers became stigmatised in educated discourse as “prostitutes”.

This article brings to the forefront one such performing community, that is, courtesans, a section of women belonging to a singing and dancing community. Generally depiction of the characters of courtesans is extremely iconic. There are fictions about them. They acquire in their ordinariness and everydayness an archetypal image. ‘Tawaif’, the term used for a courtesan, has accumulated over time moralistic, value-loaded connotations; in the popular mindset it was equated to a whore, forcing these women performers into silence. When they did speak, they had to reinvent themselves through polite myths to reinforce their self-esteem, which had consistently been battered by references to them as fallen and dangerous women. They had to constantly camouflage their personas, a crucial process to make them into the legends that they were. By the end of the 19th century, tawaif had become an impolite word not used in genteel conversation; in the popular mindset the tawaif was equated to a whore. Unfortunately little remains of the writings of these women, considered to be the most educated women of their times. Many did write poetry, but even this seems to have been censored out of literary canon. Compounding the silence of these women has been the silence of scholars, thus leaving gaping holes in social history [Kidwai 2004]. Even in the writings of feminist scholars, these women have remained invisible. The feminists were limited by their own class bias and by their continued adherence to a “separate sphere” ideology that stressed women’s purity, moral supremacy and domestic virtues.

This article is based on a play ‘Azizun Nisa San Sattavan Ka Kissa’ (A Courtesan and 1857 Revolt) written by Tripurari Sharma, who is a playwright, director and professor of National School of Drama in New Delhi. In most of Tripurari Sharma’s work, voices of the marginalised section, especially women, provide the vantage point from which the contest over established norms and practices of the dominant order is brought to the forefront. The main protagonist of the play is Azizun Nisa, a courtesan, who joined the sepoys in Kanpur when they revolted against the British in 1857. Azizun Nisa used to dress like a man. She was very close to sepoys and during 1857 her place becomes an important meeting point for rebel sepoys. She is said to have been behind the massacre of the British women and children in Kanpur, which was part of the history of the mutiny. She was from Lucknow but had settled in Kanpur. She had a very public affair with Shamsuddin Sawar of the 42nd Cavalry, who was on the frontline of the mutiny in Kanpur and died in the revolt [Sharma 2005]. By looking at the role of courtesans in 1857 the author has added an important dimension to the historiography of revolt, which suffers from the same limitation, that is, the invisibility of common women. The study on “ordinary rebels” of the 1857 rebellion remains focused on the participation of men [Stokes 1986; Bhadra 1988]. Barring leaders such as Rani Laxmibai, in most discussions of the rebellion, the participation of ordinary women has received little attention. That is why Sharma’s play becomes very significant from a historical point of view.

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

There is historical evidence of these women playing a very significant role in politics but their political voice is invisibilised in mainstream history writing. The bedia community, a traditional caste whose profession is singing and dancing, associates with the event of 1857 with great pride. Evidence is also coming in as to how women from the singing community raised money for the Congress Party. They generously gave of their time when they had to raise money for charity. Jaddan Bai financially helped the left-leaning Progressive Writers’ Association. But their presence caused an uneasy tension amongst the middle class. The presence of Gauhar Jan, India’s first recording megastar, at a Congress session was objected to by respectable lady supporters and the singer was asked to keep away. It is said that once, piqued that Gandhi did not show up for one of her fund-raising events, sending a representative instead, she donated only half of what she had promised [Kidwai 2004:49].

Thus Sharma’s play can be seen as an attempt to rewrite dominant versions of historical truth and relocate the “loose” subjects of colonial history into their proper roles in anti-colonial struggles too. Besides, what makes the play particularly significant is not just retrieving those on the margins, which were denied agency or a presence by the colonialist project of (mis)representations, but also to bring them back into the creative domain.

The play has an element of historicity as the author has looked at historical records, documents and memoirs in the library and archives. Azizun Nisa’s name is mentioned in historical records and she is reported to have played an important role in the 1857 Revolt in Kanpur. In Kanpur, Azizun Nisa is alive in people’s minds and memory and people talk about her with great fervour and passion.1 There is historical evidence of courtesans playing a role in the 1857 revolt. Their role is documented as covert but get generous financiers of the action. These women, though patently non-combatants, were penalised for their alleged instigation of and pecuniary assistance to the rebels. The British officials were aware that their homes functioned as meeting points and looked upon these places with suspicion, as dens of political conspiracy. In fact, after quelling the rebellion of 1857 the British turned their fury against the powerful elite of Lucknow. The courtesans’ names were on the lists of property confiscated by British officials for proven involvement in the siege and rebellion against colonial rule in 1857 [Talwar Oldenburg 1984].

There is a view that the courtesans participated in the 1857 Revolt because they were under the control of nawabs. Nawabs were against the British as colonial rule had eroded their power. However, this argument denies agency and political voice to these women. According to Sharma, it was not necessary for the courtesans to participate even if they were under the nawabs. Azizun Nisa could have done anything, could have even forsaken the revolt and left, as fighting and dying for a cause is very rare. There was no compulsion or pressure on her to participate in the revolt. In fact, Azizun Nisa was not even under anybody’s protection. She stayed in Kanpur city and ran her ‘kotha’. Her mother was a courtesan in Lucknow. So Azizun Nisa must have left the city of Lucknow, a centre of culture, where the courtesans enjoyed patronage and settled in Kanpur. Sharma feels that her reason for coming to Kanpur may have been her strong passion for independence. She probably did not want to stay under someone’s patronage. In fact, Kanpur was a city of ‘bazaars’ and not liked by the courtesans. They felt that the clients of Kanpur did not have royal taste, culture and refinement as compared to the clients in Lucknow.2 Hence, to examine the reasons for the participation of courtesans in the 1857 Revolt one needs to look at the historical context.


The courtesans were an influential female elite at all Hindu and Muslim courts in the many kingdoms that made up the subcontinent before the British began to displace the rulers. Lucknow emerged as an important cultural centre. The courtesans of Lucknow established themselves as a notable group of women in the 80 odd years that the Avadh dynasty had Lucknow as its capital city, under the lavish patronage of the chief noblemen, merchants, and the official elite. Ensconced in equally lavish apartments in the bazaars of Chowk and in the Kaiser Bagh, they were not only recognised as preservers and performers of the high culture of the court, but actively shaped the developments in Hindustani music and kathak dance styles. Their style of entertainment was widely imitated in other Indian court cities. They commanded great respect in the court and in society and association with them bestowed prestige on those who were invited to their salons for cultural soirees. It was not uncommon for the young sons of the nobility to be sent to the best known salons for instruction in etiquette, the art of conversation and polite manners, and the appreciation of Urdu literature. They were artists who had to undergo rigorous training. Many of the musicians belonged to famous lineages and much of late 19th century Hindustani music was invented and transformed in these salons, to accommodate the new urban elite who filled the patronage vacuum in the colonial period. Courtesans were valued patrons of poets, scholars, holy men and most importantly talented musicians and dancers [Manuel 1987: 12-17; Sharar 1975: 192; Talwar Oldenburg 1984: 131-42; Kidwai 2004: 50].

The play tries to assert this creative aspect of the courtesans. According to Sharma “by asserting that courtesans are creative people I wanted to question the general notion that these women are ‘public’ women and available for all. These women have command over language, music and dance.”3 Sharma emphasises how these women were trained in the art of conversation which is gradually becoming lost in society. The character of Azizun Nisa is portrayed as that of a very talented artiste. She has a deep commitment to art and considers herself a poet-lyricist and an artiste. She emphasises that one does not become a courtesan by just leaving home but stresses that a dancer has to undergo rigorous training. That is why in the play when a British official refers to her house as a brothel full of lust and sin, she feels very humiliated and reacts strongly to the official saying that “such accusations are baseless. I am not a prostitute. I am a dancer. I am an artiste. I do not wear the veil but I’m not a public woman. People in the city…acknowledge me as a courtesan, a poet, a lyricist. I’m not in the flesh trade” [Sharma 2005: 133].

The courtesans were professional and business women, making an independent life for themselves. They organised funds, paid people and arranged for travels. They owned property and paid taxes. Their names were mentioned in Lucknow city’s civic tax ledger of 1858-77. Some of the courtesans were in the highest tax bracket, with the largest individual incomes of any in the city. Their names were also on lists of property (houses, orchards, manufacturing and retail establishments for food and luxury items)

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

confiscated by British officials for their proven involvement in the seize of Lucknow and the rebellion against colonial rule in 1857 [Talwar Oldenburg 1984: 145-80].

They ran full-fledged establishments where dancing girls had to be hired and trained, musicians to be arranged and many other arrangements to be made. Courtesans were usually part of a larger establishment run by a ‘chaudharayan’, or chief courtesan, an older woman who has retired to the position of manager after a successful career as a courtesan. Having acquired wealth and fame, such women were able to recruit and train women who came to them, along with the more talented daughters of the household. The chaudharayan always received a fixed proportion (approximately a third) of the earnings to maintain the apartments, pay to hire and train other dancing girls, and attract the musicians, chefs, and special servants that such establishments employed. The household had other functionaries. Doormen, watchmen, errand boys, tailors, palanquin-carriers and others who – they lived in the lower floors of the house or in detached servant’s quarters and were also often kinsmen – screened suspicious characters at the door, acted as protectors of the house, and spied on the activities of the police and medical departments [Talwar Oldenburg 1991]. Property passed from mother to daughters. The male children became the deprived gender and were entirely dependent on the mothers and sisters. When married, their wives looked after the household chores. It was the girls in whose education investments were made [Kidwai 2004: 50].

The courtesans were intelligent women unlike the notion that was held of them. They had to regularly deal with the local police and ‘kotwals’ in different ways, either through bribing or in their own innovative, ingenious ways. They knew where to fight and where not to and were conscious of their survival. They invented covert, non-confrontational and devious ways for their survival and gradually learnt to relate to or live in man’s world. According to Sharma “running the kotha and organising the performance needs skills and operations at various levels. But people do not recognise their skills and feel as if they are sitting in ‘bazaar’”.4

The advent of British power marked the erosion of the cultural power of the courtesan. British rule had marked the loss of the protection and patronage of royal courts for courtesans; they were their main patrons. Courtesans could practise their skills freely in the kingdom of Wajid Ali Shah. However, with the British takeover, even the king became a powerless prisoner in exile along with his influential courtiers. The British government overlooked the artistic and creative element of the kothas and equated them with brothels. The identity of the courtesans was adversely affected. They were targeted by the same medical laws (Britain’s Contagious Disease Act of 1864) to control veneral diseases afflicting European soldiers along with prostitutes, which were implemented for the prostitutes in order to regulate, inspect and control them. The provisions of Britain’s contagious Diseases Act of 1864 were incorporated into a comprehensive piece of legislation, Act XXII of 1864; it required the registration and periodic medical examination of prostitutes in all cantonment cities of the Indian empire. It became imperative that the courtesans and prostitutes of Lucknow, along with those in the other 110 cantonments in India where European soldiers were stationed, be regulated, inspected, and controlled [Talwar Oldenburg 1991:28-33].

The collective impact of these regulations, the loss of court patronage and later the material penalities extracted from courtesans for their role in the 1857 rebellion were a severe blow to them and signalled the gradual debasement of an esteemed cultural institution into common prostitution. The British had perceived the courtesans as an integral part of the elite. In a campaign waged against them to reduce their influence, the new government assumed control over much of the prime real estate given to them by the Nawabs, and discredited the nobility who associated with them as dissolute and immoral. Yet, when it came to matters such as using these women as prostitutes for the European garrison, or collecting income tax, the eminently pragmatic British set aside their high moral dudgeon, and decreed rules to make this possible. It became official policy to select the healthy and beautiful “specimens” from among the kotha women, and arbitrarily relocate them in the cantonment for the convenience and health of the European soldiers. This not only dehumanised the profession, stripping it of its cultural function, but made sex cheap and easy for men while exposing women to venereal infection from the soldiers. Stripped of their privileges under the control of the colonial army, courtesans fought against this assault on their person, their property, and their “immorality”, in other words, from then on down to the present day they struggle to retain their validity and some of the tangible benefits of a professional group [Talwar Oldenburg 1991:33].

According to Sharma, That these women are treasure houses for culture and expressions are devalued,

conveniently forgotten and consequently lost, and they are seen merely as entertainers and available for sex work. These are two distinct things. The kothas had music, dance and entertainment but the courtesans were not available for all. Their relationship was of choice. This has done a great damage to these women, their bodies, their identity and culture. Today in the common parlance the meaning of kotha is brothel. The dancing and singing community have to struggle hard to fight against this identity and insist that they are singers and dancers by caste and not available for money.5

The anger of the courtesans against British rule can be seen in this context. But looking at their participation in the 1857 revolt merely from the point of such anger would be to overlook the courtesans’ political consciousness and agency. They are not seen as political subjects and are even considered to have no values. Sharma’s play has questioned such notions. She wants to stress that these women too had a conscience and values and knew where to compromise and where not to. Courtesans felt the same way about their conscience as soldiers with strong feelings for their homeland vis-à-vis the British raj did. The soldiers were faced with a conflict between their own culture and people and loyalty to the British from whom they were drawing their salary. Sharma highlights that the courtesans were also faced with such conflict. It was not an easy decision for them to participate in the revolt. Taking to bloodshed and war is never an easy decision. So for Azizun Nisa it was a moral and spiritual decision too. Sharma says:

There was a temptation to highlight in the play that the courtesans had lots of anger against the British and wanted to take revenge because of the cases of rape in British mehfils. This anger and revenge would have helped in building dramatic devices in the play but I restrained. I treated it at a different level. I felt that there was a level of rationality involved in courtesans’ participation. Azizun Nisa’s participation was a call of conscience and not a craving for personal gain or political power. A large section of the ruling class and landlords participated in the 1857 revolt because of

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

their political and economic interests. Tantia Tope, Nana Saheb and Laxmi Bai, some of the main leaders, were from the ruling classes who were directly affected. To Laxmi Bai the issue was securing the throne for her son. But for Azizun Nisa there was no such personal interest. Azizun Nisa in that way did not have any connection with any big power or influential man. She was involved with Shamsuddin, a rebel sepoy, who was not a powerful man but has just 30 or 40 horses under him. So Azizun Nisa’s stake does not seem to be personal. She did not participate for personal or immediately recognisable reasons. There seem to be other motivations than just immediate factors. Her stake seems to be that of conscience, more of a desire to transcend.6

The play highlights the political subjectivity of these women performers. Often a rich debate on political matters takes place between them in the play. In fact, courtesans were very politically conscious. They were aware of contemporary politics and law, had connections among the local power elite and were also well informed about the history of the city. In their view, the British had deliberately muddled the truth about their kothas in order to denigrate Nawabi culture and to thus justify annexing the kingdom of Awadh in 1856 [Talwar Oldenburg 1991:33].

Thus by bringing the figure of the courtesan centrally into the political space, a space denied and invisibilised in nationalist discourse in its search for respectability, this article explores their public/ political role. By foregrounding women such as Azizun Nisa, who is neither the “respectable” mother nor wife, the quintessential inspirational figures in the nationalist discourse, Sharma also disrupts and ruptures the dominant bourgeois nationalist discourse. It disrupts the trope of “mother India” that dominated anti-colonial (middle class) nationalist thought.




1 Interview with Tripurari Sharma, May 25, 2005. 2 Interview with Tripurari Sharma. 3 Interview with Tripurari Sharma. 4 Interview with Tripurari Sharma. 5 Interview with Tripurari Sharma 6 Ibid.


Bhadra, Gautam (1988): ‘Four Rebels of Eighteen-Fifty-Seven’ in Guha and Spivak (eds),Selected Subaltern Studies, OUP, New York, pp 129-75.

Kidwai, Salim (2004): ‘The Singing Ladies Find a Voice’, Seminar, 540, August, p 48.

Manuel, Peter (1987): ‘Courtesans and Hindustani Music’, Asian Review, Spring 1987, pp 12-17.

Sangari, Kumkum and Sudesh Vaid (eds) (1989): Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, Kali for Women, New Delhi, Introduction, pp 1-26.

Sharar, Abdul Halim (1975): Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, (trans, and ed) E S Harcourt, Fakhir Hussain Elek, Paul Elek, London, p 192.

Sharma, Tripurari (2005): ‘A Tale from the year 1857: Azizun Nisa – San Sattavan Ka Kissa: Azizun Nisa’ in Tuntun Mukherjee (ed), Staging Resistance – Plays by Women in Translation, OUP, N Delhi.

Stokes, Eric (1986): Peasants Armed: Indian Revolt of 1857, OUP, N Delhi.

Talwar Oldenburg, Veena (1984): The Making of Colonial Lucknow 1856-1877, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, pp 124-180.

– (1991): ‘Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow’ in Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash (eds), Contesting Power, Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia, 1852-1928, OUP, N Delhi, p 31.


Conference on Human Development and Poverty Reduction Strategies in Indian States

Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai will hold a major conference on “Human Development in India and Poverty Reduction Strategies in States” in the later part of this year. The conference is part of UNDP/ Planning Commission supported project on “Strengthening State Plans for Human Development”. IGIDR is the nodal agency for the programme of research and other activities for this capacity development project.

Human development and poverty reduction strategies in the broad based Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) sense are the major themes of this research project and the proposed conference. The conference is expected to be spread over three days, and the agenda will include special lectures by prominent contributors to the subjects. We propose to invite an international pioneer to deliver the first Human Development Lecture, which may become an annual event for some time to come.

Researchers are encouraged to submit abstracts of original papers based on mostly empirical research. Only exceptionally high quality theoretical papers will be considered. Although papers on all aspects of MDG based poverty reduction (and HD issues) are invited, we would particularly welcome contributions which have clear policy implications and are pertinent to the following states: Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Submissions pertaining to other States may also be considered. Depending on quality of the submissions the conference programme will be further divided in themes and sub themes within the above broad conference agenda.

Guidelines for abstract submission: Abstracts of previously unpublished papers should be sent by email, in either Microsoft Word format or Adobe PDF format, to the following email address:

Please contact this address for further enquiries.

Abstracts should reach the above email addresses on or before 23 June 2007. The cover note should contain three pieces of information only – author’s date of birth (or age), academic qualifications and position held at present. These would be relevant data for the capacity development project. Please do not send your CV. Upon review the authors will be informed of acceptance by end July.

We expect to fund all accepted papers for travel within India and stay in IGIDR campus

Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research Gen. Vaidya Marg. Goregaon (E) Mumbai-400065

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

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