Embodying Art and Culture


Mughal Painting Showing a Kotha Scene

"They were not indeed the prostitutes seen in the bazaars, but those of a more private and respectable class... Most of these Kenchens are handsome and well dressed and sing to perfection; and their limbs being extremely subtle, they dance with wonderful agility, and are always correct in regard to time." - "Travels in the Mughal Empire AD 1656 - 1668", Francois Bernier


Many are debates about arts and culture that circle the Internet - speaking of both through an analytical approach, often ending in a complaint how there is little true culture and art produced and made in the era of mass consumption of cultural products. Amid all the debate and critique, we seem to have forgotten that art, in particular high art that we enjoy seeing in theatrical performances or monumental pieces of art, requires inspiration and creative power, not an endless debate.


But art and culture are able to be embodied and lived, and because of that, today I explore the world of courtesans - who they were, and their role in both creating and preserving culture and art.

 

The Patron Saint of Arts

Qajar Painting

"I think of Aphrodite consciousness as analogous to theater lighting that illuminates the stage. What we behold in this limelight enhances, dramatizes, or magnifies the impact of the experience on us. We take in and react to what we see and hear. This special lighting helps us to be emotionally transported at a symphony, or to be moved by a play or by the words of a speaker; feelings, sense impressions, and memories are drawn out of us in response to what we see and hear. In turn, those onstage can become inspired by an audience, energized by the rapport they sense being directed toward them. What is in the “limelight” absorbs our attention. We are drawn effortlessly toward what we see, and are relaxed in our concentration. Whatever we see in the golden light of Aphrodite consciousness becomes fascinating: a person’s face or character, an idea about the nature of the universe, or the translucency and shape of a porcelain bowl. (...) Aphrodite’s “in love” way of attending to another person as if he or she were fascinating and beautiful is characteristic of women who personify the archetype (...). Such a woman takes in people in the same way that a wine connoisseur attends to and notices the characteristics of an interesting new wine. To appreciate the metaphor fully, imagine a wine buff enjoying the pleasure of getting acquainted with an unknown wine. She (or he) holds the goblet up to the light to note the color and clarity of the wine. She inhales the bouquet, and takes a lingering sip to capture the character and smoothness of the wine; she even savors the aftertaste. But it would be a mistake to assume that the “loving attention” and interest she pays the wine means that the particular wine is special, valued, or even enjoyed." - "The Goddess in Everywoman", Jean Shinoda Bolen


Around the world, as civilisation and high culture emerged, there appeared a formal or informal institution that was of an internal world of art. This internal world was also, often the world of women. The generalised term used for the women who formed this world, the term "courtesan", came to have negative implications, and while courtesans were sometimes sexually liberal, and were engaging in sexual relationships while not being married to the man, the sex itself was not part of the service or contract itself, and they were generally inaccessible to the masses. More specifically, in the ancient world, we know her as hetaira, in Japan as geisha, in Mughal India as tawaif, in Korea as kisaeng, in Egypt as almah, in Western Europe, they were salon ladies, theatre actresses, dancers. Although they were involved in professions often forbidden to the women in the more conservative roles of a wife or a mother, these keepers of art often enjoyed a degree social respect and prestige.


If the dancing scenes in Bollywood classics like Umrao Jaan (1981) take breath away, one has to thank the legacy of tawaifs, who, as earlier mentioned, were artisans and entertainers in the Indian subcontinent during the Mughal era. They were experts in music, dance, conversation, Urdu literary tradition, ghazal, thumri, arts, and etiquette. Often, they served as finishing school teachers who would instruct noblewomen in adab (politeness) and tahzib (refinement). They would perform, usually, during small, private gatherings, called mehfil. Being generally centered in the Muslim populations of North India, the alcohol was forbidden, but opium, smeared on paan leaves was allowed. Tawaif lived in kotha, a palace, usually in a street or area of a town just for them. It was sometimes known as "Bazar-e-Husn" - "The Market of Beauty". They usually spent their days practicing the instruments or in conversation, while the evening and night were for the preparation and performances. Over time, they'd have a fair list of guests, acquaintances, and patrons, which gave them wide social networks, influence, and even space for anti-colonial rebels to gather in - Begum Hazrat Mahal was among those (x).

"A Hot House Flower", Edward Poynter (20 March 1836 – 26 July 1919), English

Tawaif, of course, is very similar to her Japanese cousin, geisha, who while being the most well-known in the West, is also often misunderstood - where sexuality is brought into main focus, while her role in art and culture is less emphasised. Geisha enjoys a high status in her native Japan, and many of the teachers are designated as the country's Living National Treasures. Geisha lives in a "Flower Town", in Japanese known as "Hanamachi" - it is her area and she does not work outside of it. Each Flower Town has its own okiya, a palace or a house where geisha lives, and ochaya, or tea houses, where they entertain and perform. Geisha, just like tawaif, mostly performed for nobles. Access to geisha was difficult - money alone could not buy entrance into the flower world, he had to be invited into the society, and he was not to contact her personally, rather through people who make her appointments. Normally, men were hardly allowed in the geisha's world - tradesmen were allowed only in the late morning when most of the inhabitants were outside of the okiyas, and if they were to sell something, they would sit on a bench outside of the okiya. Male relatives were allowed only in the dining room, and male dressers, only in the main dressing room.


Geisha is guardian and performer of all arts - poetry, literature, intricate tea ceremony, conversation, and she spends many hours, days, and years perfecting her art. She often had patrons who would support the geisha financially or through gifts like kimonos for many years. Because of this, she, just like a tawaif, had a wide social network, the famous geisha Mineko Iwasaki (x), said she would know her visitor's entire family, and sometimes, entire families would visit the tea house.


Salonnieres like Sophie de Condorcet or Madame du Deffand in Paris were known for organising salon gatherings, bringing together many thinkers, philosophers, artists, politicians and other prominent figures. Sophie's salons saw Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, and du Deffand was a friend to Voltaire. Madame Rolands was prominent in the group the Girondins, and she organised salon more than once a week.

"Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia",Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904), French

The woman who hosted a Salon was known as Hostess - she took care of the organisation, place, and people who would be invited to the Salon. The Salonniere was very important for the philosophers who had different or novel ideas, as Salonniere would allow the space for them to meet politicians and other important people - eventually helping them get into spotlight. She was also usually navigating the conversation or debate, preventing it from erupting into a serious conflict. Aspasia, who lived in classical era Athens, and who gathered prominent thinkers of her time in her house, including Socrates, is perhaps the prototype of every other Salonniere. Unlike Salonnieres, who organised Salons but were sometimes married, and not always artists themselves, the Western courtesans like Cora Pearl (x), Lola Montez (x), Liane de Pougy (x) or the famous La Belle Otero (x) were often dancers, poets, novelists, actresses, and, consequently, mistresses to powerful men - similar to hetairas like Lamia of Athens (x), who was a mistress to Demetrius I.

 

The Microcosm

Portrait of a Tawaif / Artist Unknown

"I have a mistress, fair Archeanassa of Colophon, on whose very wrinkles sits hot love. O hapless ye who met such beauty on its first voyage, what a flame must have been kindled in you!" - Epigrams of Plato


Whether it is her kotha, okiya or her salon, the "patroness of art & skill" inhabited a microcosm, a world away from the duties and obligations of the day, and the world which promised the freedom - the open, empty, darkness of the night, in whose embrace everything is possible, permissible, forgiven and forgotten. She did not offer simply a performance of art - she herself was art, not as a lifeless doll moulded to some shape, but as someone who lived and breathed a beautiful word, a beautiful melody, a beautiful movement. A visitor into her world did not just arrive to see a performance, he arrived to experience a whole separate world, a microcosm, a mini world in which anyone can be whatever they dream to be. A world in which the straining talk of morality or virtue is lost in the dream of endless delight and beauty. Perhaps her world is false, a fancy lie, an offense to the reality that demands strain and effort. Or perhaps not, perhaps her world is what everyone and everything is, and they visit her so they would remember, and not forget. She barely exists now, labeled a whore, an enchantress, a demoness - insulted and hurt, she has closed her flower town for everyone. But who knows, maybe she will appear again and say: "Do go gentle into that good night."

 

For the translation below, I thank a generous soul:


Dil cheez kya hai? Aap meri jaan lijiye

[What is this heart worth? O take my life instead!]

Bas ek bar mera kaha maan lijiye

[But just this once, please accept what I say]


Is anjuman mein aap ko aanaa hai baar baar

[Time and time again you must return to this gathering]

Divaar-o-dar ko ghaur se pahchaan lijiye

[Then learn to carefully recognise these surroundings]


Manaa ki doston ko nahin dosti ka paas

[I admit that companions may not always hold their relations in high regard]

Lekin yeh kya ki ghair ka ahsaan lijiye

[Yet does this mean you should not accept kindness from strangers?]


Kahiye to aasmaan ko zamin par utaar laayein

[If you ask for it, I shall bring the sky down to the ground]

Mushkil nahin hai kuch bhi agar thaan lijiye

[No task is too difficult if you pursue it sincerely and firmly]


Dil cheez kya hai? Aap meri jaan lijiye

[What is this heart worth? O take my life instead!]

Bas ek bar mera kaha maan lijiye

[But just this once, please accept what I say]


 

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