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Sakuntala and Thulukka Nachiyar are among the many women who appear in the book

Why women hold the key to a new history of India

  • A new book looks back on India’s history through the eyes of women who are marginal to the established grand narratives
  • The India that opens up through the eyes of female figures is a very different land from what we might expect

A hundred years ago, if a historian had been informed that large slices of India’s story could be narrated through tales of courtesans, he would either have sneered or taken umbrage at such insanity. For history was about great events, valorous deeds, inspiring heroes and terrible villains—there were clear categories and principles that felt immutable. Women, when they featured at all, were either celebrated for masculine virtues like fighting, or hovered on the periphery as trophies of war, beautiful victims, or sinister influences in the harem. The strangest thing that could be allowed was to transform the female—especially one so sexually threatening as the courtesan—into a medium through which the world of our ancestors could be explained. If today the study of the past is ensnared in political quarrels, back then it was charged with morality—and the “whore" was the last person to possess any relevance to that hallowed institution called history.

If I were, then, to put up my books as exhibits before our historian from a century ago, he might make peace with the first one—after all, it is called The Ivory Throne, a name that suggests much respectability and is reminiscent of such grand memories as the Mughals’ Peacock Throne. My second book, Rebel Sultans, might sound somewhat bewildering, but may yet pass muster as far as appearances are concerned, because at least it conjures up images of kings. But the third would, I imagine, provoke violent protests from our colonial-era historian. For, after all, what history could possibly be encapsulated in a book called The Courtesan, The Mahatma & The Italian Brahmin? How could India’s grand narrative—or at least its dignified, decorous version—have anything to do with what our stern old man would describe as a harlot occupying title space with a monk and a saint?

And yet, in 2019, if we suspend moral judgement and open our eyes, many are the women who emerge as spokespersons for India’s cultural, social and historical memory. But these are not our usual suspects. On the contrary, they are rarely parked on pedestals as goddesses, for these are women of flesh and blood, with strengths and weaknesses. They are not repositories of middle-class virtue, for they are inconvenient women with minds of their own. They are not heroines who appear in school textbooks to “inspire" in old-fashioned ways, for they are more “bad" than “good". And yet they reveal our layered, extraordinary past more completely than official textbooks ever could. In their life experiences are encapsulated moments in Indian history, and a world of human experience. What they represent are not only the motivations of those who made our yesterdays, but also how we negotiate our present and shape tomorrows yet to come.

Who are these fascinating women who enriched Indian history? One of “my" courtesans, for instance, wrote sensuous poetry in the 18th century, winning considerable esteem in her own day. But a century later, when hypocrisy became India’s new normal, married as it was to unhealthy Victorian notions of morality, she was obliterated from memory altogether. When someone first sought to resurrect her, they expunged her female identity—from Muddupalani, she was turned into “Muddu Pillai", simply because the world was uncomfortable with a woman who could speak of desire and articulate a right to pleasure. A scholar in her own time, she was wealthy and respected; but in the ups and downs her memory suffered, we learn also about our own insecurities and cultural regression. To know Muddupalani is not merely to discover the life of a poet, but also, then, to understand the trials of her afterlife in a society uncertain about itself.

The India that opens up through the eyes of female figures is a very different land from what we might expect. One courtesan was a figment of someone’s imagination, but has since become a phantom, enduring to this day in the name of a city; another was a dancing girl who died one of India’s wealthiest women, but in her personal choices smashes our notions of who belongs and who is an outsider. A third set up a colonial-era company, establishing a business venture when most Indian women were still illiterate. The lives of most of these women often ended in tragedy, and many were the mistakes they made. But, as with Muddupalani, what they achieved ought to have been remembered—instead, it was buried under shame as men sought to promote the kulastree (chaste family woman) over the vesya (courtesan) with personality.

Of course, courtesans, given their literacy, mobility and creative freedoms, enjoyed advantages that many other women of their time did not. But even then—and perhaps because of this—envisioning India through them offers something refreshing. They are, in some sense, the easiest female figures in history to tap, but beyond them too lies much knowledge, residing sometimes in factual history, and sometimes even in legend and temple lore. Whether it is a goddess with three breasts, or a woman with none; whether it is the same woman presented one way in an epic and radically differently later—their stories remind us that the past is never a linear narrative, it is not a land of timeless tradition, and that, above everything else, it often only represents history as written and shaped by men. But if we seek to understand these women on their own terms, we might be richer in our ability to grasp history itself better.

The irony, of course, is that not only that historian from a hundred years ago, but many even today, remain reluctant to embrace this aspect of our heritage and tradition. The colonizing of Indian minds in the colonial era by Victorian sensibilities was severe, added to which is generations of patriarchy—it will take time and patience before change comes to how history is imagined. Clubbing a courtesan with a mahatma may not immediately be understood or approved of by some. But that is precisely where the courtesan belongs, for, in the larger scheme of things and the big picture of our civilization, her role is no less significant than that galaxy of saints and monks we have all been taught to venerate.

The Courtesan, The Mahatma And The Italian Brahmin: Tales From Indian History ( 599) is published by Context-Westland.