Once Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi got an unusual request accompanied by an application for financial help. It was from Zarina Begum, one of the last mirasis (traditional singer/dancer) of Lucknow where Manjari herself was from, and was now paralysed from the waist down. The pension was granted through the Sufi Kathak Foundation that supports aged or ailing musicians in difficult financial circumstances, but when she called on nonagenarian herself, Zarina unexpectedly requested, “Ek baar Banarasi sari pehen kar stage par nachna hai (I want to dance on stage wearing a Banarasi sari once).” The courage of that hope was the germination of The Courtesan Project.
After years of research, the dancer has brought forward her boldest presentation—The Courtesan Project. Manjari has been stunning Kathak audiences with Sufi interpretations of the form, dressed in all-black with minimal makeup as she dances to the exhilarating magic of Sufi qawwalis. Like elsewhere in the global art establishment, political correctness has afflicted India too. Many of Manjari’s contemporaries deride her for taking ‘kathak back to the kothas’—the traditional brothels of Mughal India. Manjari didn’t care. “People like Zarina Begum are as much an artist as I am. What right do we have to steal their art from them and erase them from the pages of history? Surprisingly, males who performed in royal courts became “ustads”, while the women became “nautch girls”. Such history is unfairly based on gender inequality,” says Manjari.
Inspired by Zarina’s zeal, Manjari embarked on a path of research that would change her perception of the history of the performing arts in India and kathak itself. Kathak is said to have originated from the ancient itinerant storytellers of India called ‘kathakaars.’ Over the centuries, the dance form evolved through the Bhakti Movement expressing the union of Radha and Krishna, until it underwent an erotic makeover in the Mughal court. Kathak themes and costumes changed, it absorbed Central Asian and Persian influences as the sari gave way to a hybrid harem look with a transparent veil. The British coined the term ‘nautch girls’ for Kathak dancers.
The past spurred Manjari’s research, and the more she found, the more surprised she got. The unreal seance with a bygone age yielded stories of court dancers like Gauhar Jaan, Chanda Bibi, Rasoolan Bai and Jaddan Bai which fell out of the musty pages of a handful of books and exploration of the long forgotten lanes of history. “It turned into a junoon (obsession). I regret not having started it earlier. Maybe I could have found more former courtesans who are alive and willing to tell their tales,” she says.
Manjari rues one of the biggest roadblocks to tracing the roots of courtesans was family. “So many times have I approached families knowing their mother or grandmother was a famed courtesan. But the moment I ask, they deny it point blank. It’s a matter of shame to them,” she adds. Courtesans were celebrated because there were no films then, and were fashion icons. They wore the most stylish clothes, were well versed in the art of makeup and cultured conversation, wrote poetry, composed songs, and did not need social approval. “They were earning and had a mind of their own. It’s high time we recognised their contribution. They kept the performing arts alive. It’s because of them that it is where it is today,” she says.
Zarina Begum’s last wish did come true. She performed one last time in 2014 in Delhi at a special programme conceived by Manjari—The Last Song of Awadh. Thus it vindicated her quest.
What and where
Uff Malka Jaan and The Velvet Courtesans
Kingdom of Dreams, Gurgaon
October 14, 6 pm