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.
Her views on sex work are startling: “Though it may well be one’s desire to be loved, a desire that swells as she grows older, it is not given to a whore to live out this desire … A tart’s only friend is her money; she is no one’s wife, and if she is foolish enough to give her love to some man, she does so at the considerable risk of jeopardizing her livelihood.”
The empowerment of Umrao is in many ways linked to her profession. For instance, when asked about “love” by the narrator, she is quick to clarify that the need to preserve her livelihood is paramount: “Whenever we want to ensnare anyone we pretend to fall in love with him.”
The novel by Ruswi is a complex and sophisticated portrayal of human character. Through the vicissitudes of her life, Umrao acquires a deep knowledge of human nature, and this brings her wisdom and peace: “Personally, I think that no one is wholly bad, and there is some good to be found in everyone. You have probably heard it said about the thieves of the past that if you make a friend of them, then you will always get along very well. Without some element of goodness, life would be impossible.”
Her more complex understanding of moral issues comes out in several places through her defence of her own way of life. When the narrator asks her what punishment she anticipates for her sinful existence, which has required hurting many hearts, she says: “There should not be any. In the way that I harmed hearts there was also much pleasure, and the pleasure makes up for the pain.”
At a time when women were more or less completely dependent on men for financial and social sustenance, sex work emerged as one kind of a safety net. Also in line with the inner culture of courtesans, prostitutes who decided to leave the profession were looked down on as those who had gone astray. And, Umrao remains contemptuous of such women who leave their position of power and independence and subject themselves to the whims of respectable men who may or may not reciprocate in terms of social respect.
The novel also chronicles the disruptions caused by the deepening of colonial rule; and Umrao is quick to recognise that her survival is linked to the British rule. She witnesses the destruction of Lucknow, which was at the centre of the 1857 war, and the subsequent crackdown by the British and also records how her kotha is destroyed. There is resignation as well as proactive adjustment to political and social changes. Towards the end of this book, Umrao is not only a thoughtful woman but also stronger woman. She is neither fatalistic nor depressed about her life even though she employs a chaste Lakhnawi Urdu style that romanticises the vicissitudes (and tragedies) of history.
For its robust yet ambiguous portrayal of characters and vivid glimpses of mid-nineteenth century UP courtesan culture, detailing the elaborate conventions and rituals, it remains a modern novel unsurpassed for its truthfulness. For instance Umrao tells the narrator that “no man ever loved her, nor did she ever love any man.” The female characters in particular come alive on the pages—Khanam Jan, the kotha Madame, Bua Ḥusaini, a housekeeper in her old age, and Umrao’s contemporaries Bismillah Jan and Khurshid. As a great novel straddling between the quest for self-realisation as well as being a victim of larger, systemic exploitation, it remains matchless.
In Pakistan, Umrao Jan Ada was adapted into a film in 1972, but it transformed the narrative into a moral framework and Umrao into a suffering beauty exploited by destiny and men. Towards the end of an otherwise well-made film by eminent Pakistani film director, Tariq Hasan, Umrao is presented through the middle-class lens: a repentant, sinful, hurt woman who ultimately dies for the respectable (middle class) world that may not have the space for her. The Indian version of 1979, directed by the legendary Muzaffar Ali, gave a better treatment in terms of the ambience and the Avadhi culture, but only partially captured the layers of Umrao’s worldview on her profession and the social commentary on it. Its ending was also melodramatic as Umrao is rejected by her mother and brother. The last frame of the film however redeemed it as Umrao clears a mirror and perhaps hints at a new phase of self-discovery.
This is an extract from Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and The Arts by Raza Rumi, published by HarperCollins India.
Raza Rumi is a journalist and columnist. Currently, he is the editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times. He teaches at Cornell and Ithaca College, USA