Abstract: This paper analyses the socio-cultural and historical context of bai culture in Lucknow in the 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries, where it was fashionable for the noblemen to associate with a bai, i.e., a courtesan or a bazaar beauty either for pleasure or for special distinction. This paper compares the findings with a reading of the literary representation of baijees in Indian fiction. One particular text — a novel written in Urdu by Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa– Umrao Jaan Ada is focussed on. The imperative of this paper is to deconstruct the frontiers of literary representations, which have marginalised baijees in colonial India.
Keywords: sex workers, British soldiers, Indian fiction, literary representation, colonial India, Contagious Diseases Act, British Government, marginalisation of baijees
In this paper I shall first analyse the socio-cultural and historical context of bai culture in Lucknow in the 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries. Then I shall compare my findings with an analysis of the literary representation of baijees in Indian Fiction, concentrating primarily on one particular text – a novel written in Urdu by Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa – Umrao Jaan Ada. The imperative of this paper is to deconstruct the frontiers of literary representations, which have marginalised baijees in colonial India.
In Lucknow, the nawabi capital of Oudh and the fourth largest city in British India, it was fashionable for the noblemen to associate with a bai, i.e. a courtesan or a bazaar beauty either for pleasure or special distinction. A person was not considered to be ‘polished’ if he had no such association.
The tawaifs or Lucknowi courtesans were great exponents of Hindustani Classical Music and Classical dance forms and were held in high esteem by the nawab himself and also by other noble men. Things however, started changing with the grounding of British rule in India. Unlike the nawabs who considered the courtesans as cultural assets, the British Raj saw them as a necessary evil, and often, a threat. After the First War of Independence (1857), the city of Lucknow as well as its entire population, lay “at the mercy of the British Government, whose authority it (Lucknow) for nine months rebellion defied and resisted”(Lord Canning, Viceroy : Proclamation, March 26, 1858).
The revolt thus dramatically changed the perception of the British Government regarding Lucknow; it was no longer a ‘safe’ city. It was thus necessary for the British authority to rule Lucknow by a force, which nothing can withstand and also make sure that the authority of the Government should be carried to every corner of the province.
The first ‘safety measure’ that the British Government took was to change the physical structure of the city. Colonel Robert Cornelius Napier of the Bengal Engineers, who was instrumental in this restructuring, did not even spare private properties and religious shrines.
As with the other mohallas, the baijee-mohallas also lost their organic unity with destruction of narrow, blind lanes and construction of new wide roads meant mainly for the soldiers to commute from one part of the city to another. These mohallas, previously meant for, and accessible to, only a selected few now became accessible to all, the British soldiers as well as the common people. Anybody could now access a bai-kotha, at least anybody with enough money to ‘buy’ entertainment.
In colonial India, the boundaries between the private and the public domains were well defined. The reproductive unit of the family was kept distinct from non-monogamous female sexuality. Chastity and fidelity were meant strictly for women as opposed to the ‘natural’ promiscuity of men. The baijees, from the 19th century, thus became the source of ‘entertainment’ for both the promiscuous Indian male as well as the large number of single British soldiers who required special arrangements to meet their sexual appetite. Thus, rather than abolition of the system, the British authority had to call for a form of strictly regulated prostitution. The transformation of the ‘elite’ baijees into a ‘subaltern’ class of sex workers led to the rise of a group who, though lacking skill in music and dance, could provide for the sexual need of a not-so-elite clientele.
In Lucknow, as in other British cantonments, both soldiers and sex workers were quarantined and treated in separate hospitals. The problem of venereal diseases was so acute in the Lucknow cantonment area that in the early 1860’s, twenty-five percent of the British soldiers contracted sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea or syphilis. One of the most important steps taken by the British authority was the incorporation of the provisions of Britain’s Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 into the Indian Act XXII of 1864. The Contagious Diseases Act required “the registration and medical inspection of prostitutes in English ports and garrison towns” (Ballhatchat : 1976. P1) rules which were now being applied to Indian Cantonments.
The Cantonment Act of 1864 also provided for the relocation of some sex workers in the ‘bazaar areas’ – easily accessible by the soldiers. During this time, there were 956 registered sex workers belonging to different categories. Of these, one hundred were chosen and relocated in the cantonment area. Oldenburg’s study (Olderburg:1989) shows that the ratio of European soldiers to Indian sex workers was approximately 20 :1. These ‘selected few’ were examined twice a week by the native dai’s (midwives). There was compulsion to attend twice a month the City Lock Hospitals, specially meant for the treatment of sex workers and soldiers, for examination by British doctors – the civil surgeon and his juniors. This practice continued till 1947.
Even in the first half of the twentieth century, the sex workers were subjected to inspections of both their rooms and bodies – incidents which were outrageously humiliating. It is not surprising to note that the benefits of all ‘sanitation measures’ thus taken by the British Government were directed not at the sex workers, but the European soldiers. The former were ostracised if and when diagnosed with any infectious disease. Their humiliation was severe to the extent that policemen and government spies frequented their mujras to report on the attendance of British soldiers and sanitary condition of the house of a sex worker.
How much sensitive was Indian fiction written in the 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries to this change in the lives of baijees or / and sex workers? Umrao Jaan Ada published in 1899 is the earliest text belonging to a sub genre of Indian fiction with ‘marginalised’ women as leading or prominent characters. Ruswa brings to the reader the ‘true’ life story of a famous Lucknowi baijee – Umrao, in a first person narration. From Umrao, we come to know how she was brought into this profession, how she was trained in dance and music and the life she led. However, it is not only the baijee Umrao’s voice that constructs the entire narrative. A second narrator, Ruswa himself, interrupts the narrative and the two narrators’ voices often contest each other. And the reader might not be surprised to find out that the male voice of the mainstream society, through Ruswa, more often than once, emerges out victorious. For example, when Umrao starts speaking in favour of a baijee who had been harassed in the hands of a young wife(the former was the ‘mistress’ of the latter’s father-in-law), Ruswa firmly points out that a ‘deviant’ woman should always be treated in such a manner by the ‘chaste’ wives.
There is also a second level of contradiction operative in the main narratorial voice. It is not only the two narrators voices that are contradictory. Umrao’s own narration also abounds in disjunctions and the readers do not fail to note that these contradictions are perhaps not Umrao’s own – but imposed upon her by the meta-narration of Ruswa. Umrao is thus, on the one hand, very happy with the life she has led, content of her stable economic independence and extremely proud of her intellectual and creative abilities. But at the same time, she often speaks of herself as ‘deviant’ , her life as one directed by the ‘cruel turns of Fate’ and confident that she deserves an afterlife ‘in hell.’ (Ruswa:1983).
It is interesting to note that how, in one of the earliest examples of ‘realist’ narrative in Indian fictions, contradictory viewpoint in the portrayal of a baijees life points towards the clearly emerging double standard of Indian male promiscuity. The narrator – character Ruswa himself enjoyed listening to Umrao’s songs and read out his poems to her. But never did he forget to mark her as ‘deviant’ and ‘marginalised’ and assign her a social status far below of the ‘chaste’ wives.
As in Umrao Jan Ada , Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta, with Rajlakshmi, a baijee as one of its female protagonists, also fails to address the specific social problems that baijees and sex workers faced in colonial India. Representations, thus have often been partial and contradictory. Stories such as ‘Jalsaghar’ by Tarashanker Bandyopadhyay though tries to map the socioeconomic and ideological tension between the decadent feudal class and emerging bourgeoisie, however fails to point out how and to what extent such a tension would influence the life of a baijee.
Thus, throughout the 19th and early part of the twentieth centuries, with the spread of British colonialism and emergence of the Indian middle class, changes in social relations gave rise to legal and ideological reconstruction of this group of marginalised women. However, Indian fiction remained, to a large extent, insensitive to this new restructuring and tried to construct the identity of a baijee as the ‘other’ as opposed to the ‘self’ of the mainstream Indian society. This a-priori construction of a baijee’s identity was not sensitive to the fact that any identity has a specific spatio-temporal location. It has been almost always the ‘gaze’ of the middle-class Indian male that tried to construct the identity, and in its effort to read the marginalised ‘other’ and portray her as an ‘object’ it has ended up constructing certain socio-cultural frontiers which act as closures in an understanding of the lives of this group of marginalised women.
Lord Canning, Viceroy. Proclamation, March 26, 1858. Kenneth Ballhatchet. “Race, Sex and Class under the Raj, 1887 – 1905”. 1, 1976; paper read at the European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, Leiden, 1976.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg. The Making of Colonial Lucknow 1856 – 1877. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa. Umrao Jaan Ada. Tr. Khushwant Singh and M.A.Husaini, New Delhi: Disha Books, 1983.
SEEMANTHINI GUPTA. Teacher in Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University. Interested in Gender Studies and Urdu Literature. Has translated women’s writing from Oriya and Gujarati into Bangla.