In his recent book, Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and The Arts, the Pakistani writer and senior journalist Raza Rumi argues that culture in Pakistan is not unique to the nation, but rather a part of a shared South Asian identity. The book explores various aspects of the visual arts, literature, music and heritage of Pakistan, probing its impact on global narratives and its contemporary significance. In a section on devotion, he writes about the songs of Kabir, Bulleh Shah and Lalon Shah, and their rejection of both Hindu and Muslim orthodoxies. Another chapter looks at how Pakistani writers in Urdu and English are responding to the country’s current social and political realities, and the narratives of terror and violence. In a section on arts, he explores Pakistan’s neo-miniature movement, the work of contemporary artists, and activism through art.
The following extract is from a chapter exploring the portrayal of nautch girls—entertainers who would sing, dance, and sometimes, sex workers—in Urdu literature. “Contrary to the perceptions about the inherent moral inferiority of women associated with this profession today, early Urdu novelists of the subcontinent portrayed them to be defiant of conventional morality, sophisticated and, paradoxically, socially empowered,” Rumi writes. This excerpt looks at how the courtesan Umrao Jaan has been depicted in literature and film.
Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada is an early novel written in Urdu. The novel’s origins itself are of note as the Lucknow based poet Ruswa persuaded Umrao to reveal her life history in several parts. Many critics have inferred that the narrative was perhaps authored by Umrao herself and the forthrightness of the story suggests that she had a huge part in drafting this classic, semi-documentary. Although to treat it as an historical account—or even a semi-historical account—will have to be done with a pinch of salt; it still remains relevant to the authentic portrayal of the nautch girls’ circumstances in that period.
Umrao’s woes originate in a typical patriarchal mold. As a young girl, she is kidnapped by a hooligan in an act of vengeance against Umrao’s father for giving testimony against him. The villain sells her to a Lucknow kothi—a high-culture space also operating as a brothel—managed by Khanam Jan.
There, Umrao receives an education and induction into arts and culture by an elderly Mawlvi who recreates Umrao as a civilized poet-cum-entertainer. Her quest for knowledge and attainment of self-confidence to handle a predominantly male world takes place within this space. Thus, the tale of exploitation turns into a narrative of self-discovery. Umrao Jan Ada, an archetypal courtesan steeped in Avadhi high culture and manners, emerges as a voice far ahead of her times.