Umrao Jan Ada: Unveiling the Courtesan as a Public Intellectual

By Devapriya Roy and Esha Sil.

Published by The Humanities Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

“Lutf hai kaun si kahani mein, / Aap beeti kahoon ya jag beeti…” (“What story will more absorbing be, / How fared the world in which I lived/ Or what fate hath held in store for me?”) Once upon a time a courtesan and a writer met. She, the pulse of Nawabi Lucknow, the inimitable Umrao Jan Ada, one of the finest poets of her time. He, poet, scholar, selfstyled outlier, Mirza Hadi Ruswa , the author of the first true Indian novel in Urdu. The time, mid-nineteenth century Lucknow, on the verge of transition from the dynastic powerhold of the Nawab to the ‘governance’ of the British Crown. The meeting, however, was in the pages of fiction, as Ruswa ‘recorded’ and thereby historicized Umrao’s story as she ‘narrated’ it (“Aap beeti kahoon ya jag beeti…”). The aim of our study is to read her act of ‘narrativising’, through her autobiography and
poetic compositions, and reconfigure her as a “speaking subject”, within the ambit of Islamic thought. Paradoxically, it is by being thrice removed from the mastery of discourse–as one who is colonized, female and ‘fallen’, that she can enter the ‘public’ space as an ‘intellectual’ and interrogate patriarchal imaginings of femininity. A woman who has been forcibly ‘unveiled’ by prostitution, Umrao inscribes herself as a powerful counter-discourse authored in and around the concept of the veil. This paper also draws an analogy between Umrao Jan and Tullia d’Aragona (ca. 1510-1556), a celebrated sixteenth century Venetian courtesan, author, and philosopher, who considered herself first an intellectual, and then a courtesan! Finally, the paper examines how the celluloid ‘unveils’, exploits and packages the tawaif today, with reference to the two Bollywood versions of the life of Umrao Jan Ada.

Keywords: Narrativising, Speaking Subject, Islamic Thought, Thrice Removed, Public Space, Public Intellectual, Tullia d’Aragona, Unveiling

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 12, pp.41-46. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 459.096KB).

Devapriya Roy

MA Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

Esha Sil

MA Programme, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, India


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