“Dhanya dhanya nari jeevan … Auronko hi tuarpan …”
These lyrics from a well-known song echo the sentiment of the book Courting Hindustan: The Consuming Passions of Iconic Women Performers of India by Madhur Gupta. In this book, the intriguing lives of powerful women — often treading on a path granted to them as a part of their ancestry or bestowed on them by social and political circumstances during the period — are brought to the forefront. These women faced every situation with bravery and an innate sense of pride and humility; despite all odds, they have left an indelible mark on the world and remain enigmas to many after centuries.
# We have the protagonist, Vasantasena, courageous with strong individuality, candid yet passionate and intelligent, as described in the Mricchakatikam. She became a strong character as an Abhisarika nayika, along with her love interest Charudatta.
# Amrapali was a gifted artist, a raja nartaki who rose from the ground to become one of the most sought-after courtesans. She later turned to Buddhism and is enshrined in our hearts as the epitome of art and beauty.
# The book describes the saga of Rani Roopmati, who rose from the position of a mere singing girl to become the queen consort. We are told of the love story of Rani Roopmati and Baz Bahadur and how she pined for her lost love till the end of her days.
# There is an interesting insight into the life of Begum Samru, who was petite in appearance and led a fascinating life with her beau, Walter Reinhardt. She proved her mettle in political arbitration as the ruler of Sardhana and had immense influence.
# There are tales of a poor girl named Muhammadi Khanum, who later came to be known as Begum Hazrat Mahal. She was unrelenting and elusive; she rose to become queen alongside Wajid Ali, led a rebellion in Awadh, and played an active role in the insurrection against the Doctrine of Lapse during the 1857 revolt. She then led a life of sanctuary in Nepal towards the end of her life.
# The book contains the story of the superstar Gauhar Jaan, a feisty woman who was way ahead of her time. She was trained as a Hindustani classical musician and became the first woman to record a complicated music style in a disc for three-and-a-half minutes. She received wealth and fame in India and across the world.
# We also learn the story of the determination, grit, and courage of Jaddan Bai, who belonged to the patriarchal yet sophisticated Tawaif culture. With her talent and insight, she became one of the pioneers of Indian cinema as a singer, actor, producer, and director who incorporated both Western and Indian values into her work. Her daughter, Nargis, is one of the finest actors in Indian cinema.
# The book mentions Begum Akhtar, a well-known artist and musician par excellence in the world of ghazals, who was known as the queen of Viraha. She was of the era when courtesans were diminishing in importance and were often forced to bind themselves into marriage and let go of their art; Begum Akhtar, however, broke stereotypes and popularised the ghazal, tappa, and thumri style of singing.
# Born of an illustrious lineage steeped in performing arts, Balasaraswati was brought up in a strict household and went on to become a legend, a world-renowned Bharatanatyam exponent who has been — and will continue to be — an inspiration to every dancer and singer who wishes to pursue this ancient art form.
Interestingly, a few of these women have been contemporaries and rivals but have retained their individuality.
The author’s knowledge of performing arts and in-depth research on both well-known and lesser-known female performers, courtesans, and artists, his detailed descriptions that keep the reader in raptures and his keen eye for facts and figures help us to understand the influence that culture and the arts had on the lives of royal zamindars, and the common man.
The author has skillfully encapsulated the facts and myths surrounding the conditions of their lives, the dedication, perseverance, dignity, immense willpower and strength that only a woman can bring forth in this riveting book that is a must-read for one and all.
By Padmini Ganesh