Saturday, February 16, 2008

Enchanting Empresses : Two Parallel Asian Traditions of Entertainers

Victoria Hemming was born at Lucknow to parents of European descent: her mother was an Armenian jew and her father English. Victoria was a trained dancer of Kathak thanks to her Lucknow connection and was well versed in Urdu poetry and singing too. Around 1870 she married a certain William Robert Yeoward, who was an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in a dry ice  factory at Azamgadh near Benares. In 1870, she gave birth to a daughter named Angelina. Victoria was however destined to be far off from the secured life of a housewife. Her marriage did not last long due to Victoria’s love for dance and music and her relations with a Muslim friend named Khurshed. So after the divorce, she moved to Benares with Angelina and Khurshed, only to be deserted by her lover soon afterwards. Unable to go back to her parental or marital home, she chose the time tested profession of women fallen to misery and became a Tawaif at Baneras, which was still a centre of power and culture in 1880s. She took a new name of Malka jaan and as there was already two celebrated Tawaifs of that name at Lucknow and Agra, soon she came to be known as Badi Malka jaan. As the strongholds of Mughal empire were broken under British repression following the mutiny, the centre of power was shifting and like other women of her trade, Malka jaan too around 1883, shifted her base to Calcutta. She came here with her daughter Angelina now known as Gauhar. Gauhar also joined her mother’s profession and grew up to become the iconic Gauhar jaan of Kolkata. A woman of legendary beauty and intelligence, she was a skilled dancer, singer and was known for her repartee and poetry too. She was in the words of a historian, “the most famous, most charismatic and perhaps the wealthiest female singer/dancer at the turn of the century”. Gauhar Jan lived a very wealthy life, and she also donated generously to a number of causes. Numerous legends are associated with her. In Calcutta, she used to ride in a buggy driven by four horses, threw a party spending 20,000 rupees when her cat produced a litter of kittens, and donated only half the promised amount to Gandhiji’s ‘Swaraj fund’ when he did not keep the promise of attending the ‘fund raising’ concert and deputed a representative instead. But the glory was not everlasting for Gauhar Jaan; with the grey hair the times also turned grey for her. The lady who was also the first recorded singer of India , was soon left with little means for survival. It must be around second decade of 20th century when she started giving tuitions for wannabe singers and tawaifs. One of her student was beautiful Jardan Bai who later on moved to the newly established Cinema industry at Bombay and become a known side actress cum singer of 1940s . Later an entire generation was charmed by the gorgeous daughter of this Jardan bai - Nargis. After a successful career of film, actress Nargis even served as a member of Parliament and much like Gauhar Jaan and Malka Jaan, was associated with a number of charities. It was an unbroken chain of four women entertainers and a dramatic story of their rise(and fall) with the changes in the society . All this came to my mind as I was reading the book Memoir of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and the book made me think of a similar system back home at Lucknow. The book per se is nothing much except for the information it gave me about the things associated with the geisha.
The comparison came naturally to me. Like the Geisha in Kyoto, the world of tawaif in Lucknow is as complex and hierarchal as the society of which it is a part. In those days when even most women of good families owned nothing in terms of property in their names, these women were among the highest tax payers. Britons with their shrewd sense of business while controlling the activities of these women by legislation and otherwise did not hesitate in imposing tax on them. These tawaifs at the time of annexation of Awadh owned considerable income from the landed properties mostly received as gifts from their benefactors. Much like the Geisha of Kyoto and their okiyas these tawaifs functioned from Kothas (loosely translate as salons /pleasure houses) owned by Chaudharains who were veteran tawaifs of their own times. In a departure to the general belief these women (geisha and tawaifs ) were not prostitutes. Abdul Halim Sharar considered tawaifs as the channel through which the morals, manners and distinctiveness of Lucknow culture and society was sustained. They were not only preserver and performers of the high culture of the court but also actively shaped the developments in Hindustani music and Kathak dance style. They commanded great respect in the courts and in society and association with them bestowed prestige on those who were invited to their salons for cultural soirees. Even the young sons of nobility were sent to them for instruction in etiquettes, the art of conversation and polite manners, and appreciation of Urdu literature. They were the artists and entertainers for noble society- till the British arrived on the scene and change the society and its fabric forever. ( Much like as fate of geisha after Japan lost the war with Americans) Many of the tawaifs could not find the patrons to survive and turned to prostitution. Some other chose a life of anonymity and poverty.
Contrary to the conventional perspective of this profession historian Veena Talwar in a famous essay on the life of these courtesans argued that these women, even today are independent and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male dominated world; they celebrate their womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender of the larger society of which they are a part.
In the book of Arthur Golden, I found a vivid description of the rigorous training of a geisha and a great deal has been said and written (e.g in Mirza Ruswa’s novel Umrao Zaan Ada) about the education and training of the tawaifs. Besides the dancing and singing , poetry and playing instruments , calligraphy and conversation – both sets of entertainers of Japan and India are skilled in the art of Nakhra- pretense, which they have to master in order to spare no opportunity of coaxing money out of their admirers . These well practiced ploys,,- some learned, some invented, some even improvised were so much a part of their lives that even their Bollywood avatars cannot but copy those. The spontaneity of these ploys to attract attention made several otherwise worldly men lose a fortune in a moment . This may sound more like self enrichment than style but in a society which has virtually denied women control over wealth and property, perhaps it was a kind of countercultural way of life.
I try not to judge them with my contemporary morality and values. I visualize them ( much like the Witch of Portobello) as women who faced the life with courage and managed to sail through the current of society and horrors of their past lives – sometimes with relative happiness and sometimes with a resigned disinterest .

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Long Live Valentine!

What a day it was today! Though I spent the day in the usual way of fire fighting the trivial issues of office and home , romantics around the world are celebrating Valentine's Day, an occasion named after a Christian patron saint for lovers. Today was the red and white day when Cupid's arrow will dart towards the pockets of many who are looking for ways to purchase gifts or provide special experiences for their loved ones. This evening I was browsing through the news related to the excitement and concerns this day is raising worldwide and was amazed to find the variety of reactions. If you ask me , I think when it comes to Valentine's Day, there are two types of people: those who love it, and those who love to hate it. I am sure shops and hospitality industry loves it much more than the lovers’ themselves as for them it means a sudden boom in revenue. The commercial sector specializing in chocolate, wine and roses see a dramatic rise on the purchase charts. So it is for the mobile companies as with the mobile phone revolution in our country, lovers are using the hi-tech mode to express their love and the telecom companies are reaping the profits. This year's Valentine's Day was the busiest text messaging day ever, according to industry experts. VeriSign predicted that 2.2 billion text messages will be sent in North America alone, representing a 40 per cent increase over normal daily traffic and a 300 per cent increase over Valentine's Day in 2007. However, for agencies, activists and businessmen Valentine's Day is no longer confined to just roses, chocolates , messages and cards. In the Arizona Republic for example Valentine's Day is a big day for divorce. On average, 19 more divorces are filed on February 14 than on any other business day in the County Superior Court, according to an analysis of divorce filings over the last decade. Ironic isn’t it ? Can you guess why it is so? For some it is the disappointment of not having the V-day as expected for others it is a statement of poetic revenge- or so believes the local social analysts . Hence while hot and heavy couples are exchanging little blue boxes and designer ties over romantic dinners today, other couples are celebrating in another was-- Divorce. Moving on to the Africa , where though Kenya's post-election reconciliation talks have not yet come up roses, the nation's crucial flower industry is blooming for Valentine's Day. The annual festival of romance is a key pay-day for Kenya's flower producers, who sell more flowers on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day than during the rest of the year combined. Most are exported to Europe of course .
The fellow traders in Israel are not that lucky . For Palestinian flower growers in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, it was a holiday of love's labour's lost. Unable to ship their blooms to Europe for Valentine's Day because of Israeli export restrictions, they dumped two truckloads of flowers at the Sufa border crossing with the Jewish state on Thursday and fed some of the crop to sheep. And nearer home, at another border of dispute, it was an altogether opposite reaction. A rubber tube decorated with flowers and messages of love was set afloat on river Chenab for people in Pakistan on Valentine's Day by members of a political party in Akhnoor , a Jammu and Kashmir border town . In a south Asian country the health ministry is on its toes in distributing condoms as their survey shows that every third teenager will celebrate V-day by having unprotected sex.
Things are dramatically different in the northern towns of India where Hindu hard-liners are showing no love for Valentine's Day. A few dozen protesters blocked a road in New Delhi on Wednesday, burning Valentine's Day cards and chanting "Down with Valentine." In my own city Lucknow, extremists threatened to beat up couples found celebrating their love. I find it sad. Though I am neutral towards this day and the hype about it, I feel that Indian culture and values are not that fragile as these fanatics would like to believe. Their reaction is one of ignorance about their own tradition and culture.
And yet another reaction of the day for emailers --the Valentine's Day campaign that the bot-building Storm Trojan horse has been running for weeks is running at such volume that even the FBI had to issue a warning The Storm Worm virus has capitalized on various holidays in the last year by sending millions of e-mails advertising an e-card link within the text of the spam e-mail. Valentine's Day was identified as the next target.
Reminds you of the HSBC ad line : No two people have similar reactions in this world .
I really don’t know how real is all this hype and hullabaloo about the day . Some say it is the market that is driving the people for these celebrations and some believe it the other way round. Now, who is driving who is again a debatable point? Reminds me of the story of Winter prediction of red Indians which my boss told us in one of the meetings recently . The story goes like this that the red Indians by virtue of their traditional knowledge could predict how severe the next winter will be with much accuracy. The custom was that much before the beginning of winter, the group will go to their chief asking how the next winter is going to be and the chief will smell the leaves, check the moist of earth and feel the water before giving his verdict. But one year, the old chief died and his American University educated son took over . This new chief thanks to his superior education has lost the skill of predicting weather the Red Indian way. So when the tribe came for his verdict in August he called the local Met office and asked them. They replied it will be severe winter and the new chief repeated the words to his tribe and advised them to collect wood . People again came in September and October and both times the chief on Met office’s advice predicted ‘very severe winter’ and asked them to collect all the wood they can cut . Now it was November and winter was not at all severe. So the chief again called Met office and asked if they are sure it will be a harsh winter. They replied “ Of course sir, Just go to the wood and you will find even the red Indians have cut down the forest to collect wood. Take my word sir, these people are never wrong about the weather .”
But what the heck, for most of us was just a day like all others ….full of an exotic mix of happiness and excitement, disappointment and loneliness, work and leisure .One cannot however, help feeling bit envious of the lucky ones who have time for V-day celebrations .And let’s be honest, its always nice to see people in love, people who celebrate their relationships, people who dare to show that they care ….and nice to watch lovey dovey movies on TV too .So in a limited way, I am also joining the bandwagon and am watching Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle saying –“Winter must be cold for those who have no warm memories.” Long live Valentine !