Even as we cast off the imperial age and its romance with the spectacular, modern studies in their quest for truth – which is essentially retrieved from the margins – inevitably stumble upon and get entangled in the very grandeur they seek to critique. Such tales of opulence and performance blur one’s perspective and, therefore, the faculty of judgement, the distinction between the murky and tragic and the tragic bordering on the romantic.
In this issue of Literophile we seek to brave these stories of sexual and erotic (a)normativity and performance and the predicament of the actual lives entangled therein. Understanding the broad scope of such a quest, we deliberately chose an aspect that embodies them in a real persona, a figure at once feminine, tragic, astute, committed to high art and enmeshed in the body politik of the state and of actual lives – the courtesan.
The Tawaiif of Mughalia times, the Geishas whose fortunes were concomitant with Japan’s in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Hetaira of Ancient Athens and all those we generally class as courtesans, these were women steeped in a somewhat shared acumen towards the arts – both performative and literary. In their societies they were the embodiment of manner and courtesy, even appointed to take nobility under their tutelage so as to ensure a rich cultural education to future administrators. Often they found themselves at the centre of a tug of war among jealous elites who longed to reserve their overtures for their own sake against equally placed rivals. Then again, they exercised this intimacy to help affect significant political deals. In this way, the courtesan existed as a woman outside the domain of domesticity and, unlike those bound by it and identified as wives or daughters of men, possessed an identity of her own.
An identity fuelled by the interest of men of significant social standing in their art and bodies. Even as they remained objects of desire, they were paragons of womanhood whom everyone longed to court but not marry (not that marriage implies a salvation of womanhood). This infrastructure of culture was founded in real bodies and even as manners and songs remained a part of their persona their bodies couldn’t support their claim to exemplary womanhood. In such times they took to nurturing potential talent in their tutelage or married insignificant admirers. In that sense, even as these women exemplified beauty and learning they were essentially forbidden to society. Also, even as they exercised significant fiat over the minds and resources of men, experiencing the pinnacle of power up close, they had no real base in society since they operated from the margins.
It is this contradiction that we seek to explore through papers on different aspects of the persona of the courtesan, the ‘courtesan culture’ and its wider implications – political, social and cultural (and especially cultural in view of contemporary society). Papers on the same (or related topics) are invited for issue three, volume four of Literophile. Kindly take note that Literophile is open only to those students and/or scholars of English Literature, Literature in English, Comparative Literature and/or Cultural Studies who are attached with an institute, college and/or university in India and that only original and annotated academic papers and/or semi-academic articles and commentaries are allowed and that these must not exceed 2,500 words. Deadline for submission is 30th September. Papers and queries are welcome at email@example.com.
We would nevertheless like to leave you with a few ideas to munch on:
1. The custom of patronage – the courtesan’s body as the sight of political one-upmanship.
2. Courtesans and modern performance; their impact on contemporary media – music, movies, literature; its manifestations in burlesque, striptease etc.
3. ‘Deewar-o-dar ko gaur se pehchaan leejiye’ – the stage/mehfil as the courtesan’s domain and the identity building thereof.
4. Representation of the courtesan in contemporary media.
5. ‘It’s not flesh we are selling here’ – the case of the courtesan’s mistaken identity.
6. The courtesan as a moving work of art.
7. ‘Agony and beauty for us live side by side’
8. Manners and the business of education.
9. The Machinations of Culture – the courtesans body as the site of its operation.
10. The body politik of the courtesan.