More Than ‘Dancing Girls’ – A Peek At The Courtesans Of Ancient India

Posted: September 13, 2017

Courtesans may have evolved as entertainment for kings, but they were far from being just objects of desire for men! A new historical novel, The King Within, explores.

The dark narrow lane that leads to the place where ‘decent’ men are not supposed to go…where kids and women from ‘good families’ are not allowed. A place reverberating with the beats of the tabla and a bejeweled woman dancing amongst men sitting all around the sketchy hall…this is the picture that Bollywood has painted of the courtesan.

However, this is not the reality and many courtesans who lived in ancient and medieval India were women who managed to make a mark in the male dominated society of those times. These were women who knew their talents, were confident of their abilities and did not hesitate to question the norm. Much like women of this age!

Here are some interesting courtesans who are inspirational and challenge our idea of who a ‘courtesan’ is.

Tilottama, a woman who knew her mind

Before history, we begin with mythology. Stereotyping has not spared the apsaras also! As a result, when we think of Menaka, Ramba or Urvashi, the common perception is that all they did was to entice men, particularly rishis, for their own gains.

However, Tilottama was an apsara created for a purpose. She led to the destruction of demon brothers Sunda and Upasunda who were granted a boon by Brahma that no one except each other could be the cause of their death. Although Tilottama used her beauty for carrying out this task, that was beauty with a purpose! She knew her mind and her powers – so when King Sahasranika refused to listen to some facts that Tilottama wanted to share with him, she cursed him in fury. She was one strong woman who always knew what she wanted.

Courtesans of Ancient India

While the legend of Amrapali is too well known to need detailing, Lady Purasati and Barani are two other noteworthy courtesans of ancient India. Living at a time when the Buddha and his teachings were influencing the world, these two women also chose the path of philosophy along with their profession.

Lady Purasati was in fact the lineage holder of the Mahasandhi instructions. Mahasandhi in Sanskrit translates to ‘the great perfection’ in English and is an important part of Tibetan Buddhism, which aims at no discrimination between caste, gender and age to achieve the state of the primordial being. Respected for her knowledge, she wrote many songs to spread this message to the common man.

Barani is known as Barani, the Courtesan in the history books. However, she was much more than just someone who sang songs – she was a spiritually evolved being and learned Buddhism under the lady Bodhi of Yakshini. Once a master herself, she taught the son of Bhibhi Rahula, the King of Kashmir, and a Kashmiri scholar.

The evolution from Courtesan to Star

The 16th and the 17th centuries in India saw the rise of the ‘tawaif’ culture – tawaifs were known for their music, dance, poetry and theatre skills and part of court culture centered around the King and his court. This continued up till the early 20th century when the perception about them started changing.

Begum Akhtar (1914-1974), a noteworthy courtesan of that era, was a trained Hindustani Classical singer and gave her first public performance at the age of fifteen. Married in 1945 in Lucknow, her husband prevented her from pursuing her dreams. However, such was her love and affinity to her profession that she fell ill due to this abstinence. Ultimately, she came back to singing in 1949, as prescribed by the doctors, and for her contribution to music, the Government of India awarded her the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan.

Another multi-talented performer was Fatma Begum (1892-1983), the first female director in Indian Cinema. In 1926, she established her own banner, Fatma Films and produced her film Bulbul-e-Paristan. This was a fantasy film with trick photography being used to produce many special effects.

Did this brief peek at some of the courtesans of ancient and medieval India gave you pause for thought? If yes, you will enjoy this new historical novel by Nandini Sengupta, The King Within.

Set in 373 AD, this sabre-rattling tale of love, revenge, friendship and ambition brings together a young courtesan, Darshini with Deva, the younger son of Emperor Samudragupta. When Deva rescues Darshini from bandits, that chance encounter with him, and later with his two friends, the loyal general Saba Virasena and the great poet Kalidas, forges a bond that lasts a lifetime. From a dispossessed prince, Deva goes on to become one of the greatest monarchs in ancient India, Chandragupta Vikramaditya. But the search for glory comes with a blood price. As Chandragupta the emperor sets aside Deva the brother, lover and friend, to build a glorious destiny for himself, his companions go from being his biggest champions to his harshest critics. The King Within is about the often-difficult choice between the power of passion and the passion for power.

Get your own copy of The King Within here!

Post supported by Harper Collins

Top image is from a miniature painting created in the Mughal area, of dancing women at court; credits the Ministry of Tourism, Rajasthan

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Ruchi Rajan is a woman on a mission of self-discovery. An avid reader since

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  1. I do not know if this book is a fiction, but long ago femina had write up on women in freedom movement. Incidentally despite of all the sanctification by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mastani was courtesan. the prototype of courtesan was Vasantasena.

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