ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

From self-discovery to self-assertion: the musical journey of Jankibai challenging the courtesan’s liminal space


Caranti Erika - University of Turin, Dept. of Humanities, Turin, Italy


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


Among the most prominent vocalists of Hindustani music and early stars of the gramophone era, Jankibai Illahabadi stands out for being a fabled artiste. A fine singer and poet, Jankibai had a remarkable life in which travel acted as the dominant trigger of change.In this paper, I focus on the three journeys which lead Janki from songstress courtesan to becoming an accomplished artiste who challenged stereotypes. The first journey represented for Janki the opportunity to debunk the cliché of the attractive gānevālī and to assert her autonomy as an artist. The second coincided with the travel of music from the mehfils to the living rooms of the middle class via the gramophone. The third was crucial in solemnizing Janki’s iconic image. The twilight of her career ran in parallel with the end of the golden era of the tavāyafs, the emergence of the anti-nautch movement fostered by reformists, and the decline of courtly patronage.This paper explores the function of the journey as a catalyst in Jankibai’s life as emblematic of the condition of female performers in colonial India and as a means for tavāyafs to articulate and extend their agency and autonomy beyond the limited spaces they inhabited. As Janki’s story shows, the construction of the female artiste’s identity challenges the expectation of a woman’s image and role imposed by society. Finally, the travel is outlined as a journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-assertion in a changing convoluted social milieu