ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Poetry and Mobility: Decoding the Mobile and Agentive Self of the Courtesan in Lutf un-Nisa Imtiyaz’s 18th c. Divan


Shaikh Sabeena - McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies, Montreal, Canada


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


 The plethora of recent scholarship about the t̤awā’if, or courtesan, indicates how central her role remains in the shaping of a South Asian history. Whereas accounts prevail in the literary and historical imagination about courtesans, few extant sources remain written by courtesans. Thus, I offer an inquiry of a late 18th c. divan written by Lutf un-Nisa “Imtiyaz”, a courtesan and contemporary of the famous Mah Laqa Bai “Chanda” from Hyderabad.My analysis will focus on two genres–– the qasidah, of which there are eight in total, and the masnavi, which seems to have ample autobiographical information about Imtiyaz. In these two sections of the divan, Imtiyaz employs the use of place and space metaphors repeatedly, which leads me to ask the following questions: Can we conceive of literary genres in an anti-assimilationist manner to create a counter-archive for courtesans? Can we use the theoretical framework of performativity to decode a mobile and agentive self of the courtesan? How can we problematize the scope of mobility to include the quotidian accounts of non-professional and sometimes imagined travel?With the conveners of this panel, I hope to have conversations which destabilize the range of narratives and rigid categorizations which have produced various discourses around the sexualities and gendered behaviors of courtesans. Without universalizing the writings of one author, I hope to integrate a literary criticism with a social and cultural history of courtesans.