ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Courts, Kothas and Quotidian Bazaars: Women Performers and Popular Politics in Pre and Early Colonial North India


Shrivastava Noble - Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for Historical Studies, New Delhi, India


13 – The Travelling Female Performer: Mobility and Agency in and beyond South Asia, c. 1760-1940


 As artists, entertainers, political figures, patrons, and ‘aesthetic workers’, tawaifs (or high-class courtesans) attained unprecedented popularity in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century north India. Interactions between the peripatetic communities of matrilineal hereditary performers and other social groups not only shaped the urban cultural landscape but also produced new forms of asymmetric relations of dependency. From performing in coronation ceremonies at the imperial court, holding private and semi-private gatherings for patrons at their kothas (salons), to travelling all over the region as part of marriage processions and other celebrations (such as the spring festival in Delhi), these women continuously negotiated the boundaries between elite and non-elite and fostered new social patterns, habits and aspirations. Their establishments emerged as throbbing nerve centres of the social life of the bazaars and nurtured a distinct form of elite sociability and conviviality. This paper, therefore, aims to study the social interconnections in the everyday lives of these skilled performers and offers fresh insights into the shared cross-cultural milieu. Using Persian and English sources from Delhi, Allahabad and Kunjpura (Karnal), the paper examines the performers’ access to mobility, patronage systems, hierarchisation, and the impact of imported western notions of morality and obscenity on contemporary gender norms.