Courting Hindustan – The Consuming Passions of  Iconic Women Performers of India. By Madhur Gupta. [Published by Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd 2023. New Delhi. Pp. 198. Rs. 295. ISBN: 978-93-5702-103-6.  Also available as an e-book].

“Dhanya dhanyanarijeevan … Auron ko 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, yet they remain enigmas to many after centuries.

The author’s deep knowledge of performing arts, in-depth research on well-known and lesser-known female performers, courtesans, and artists, and detailed descriptions keep the reader in raptures. His keen eye for facts and figures helps us understand the influence of culture and arts on the lives of royal zamindars and the common man.

t We have the protagonist, Vasanta-sena, courageous with strong individuality, candid yet passionate and intelligent, as described in the Mricchakatika. She became a powerful character as an abhisarika nayika, along with her love interest Charudatta.

t Amrapali was a gifted artist, a rajanartaki, who rose from the ground to become one of the most sought-after courtesans. She later turned to Buddhism and is enshrined as the epitome of art and beauty.

t 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.

t 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, and as the ruler of Sardhana she had immense influence.

t There are tales of a poor girl named Muhammadi Khanum, later 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.

t 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.

t We also learn the real 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 was one of the pioneers of Indian cinema as a singer, actor, producer, and director who incorporated Western and Indian values into her work. She also gifted Indian cinema with one of its finest actors, her daughter Nargis.

t 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 singing style.

t Born into an illustrious lineage of Devadasis 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 were contemporaries and rivals but still managed to retain their individuality.

Without a doubt, the author has skillfully encapsulated the lives of the performers and courtesans, the facts and myths surrounding the conditions of their lives, the dedication, perseve­rance, dignity, and immense willpower and strength that only a woman can bring forth in this riveting book that is a must-read.


(A dance teacher and connoisseur of music)