ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Setting the Terms of Employment: Traveling Female Performers, Middlemen, and Patrons of the Arts in Colonial North India, c. 1857-1900


Sievers Gianni - University of Pennsylvania, South Asia Studies, Philadelphia, United States


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


 In the aftermath of the Uprising of 1857, many performers (both male and female) had to leave the cities of Lucknow and Delhi in search for alternative centers of patronage in princely states or colonial cities like Calcutta and Bombay. In this paper, I focus on the princely state of Rampur to explore the power dynamics between Muslim patrons and traveling female performers (tawaifs) who remained active across northern India during the second half of the nineteenth century. While building on recent contributions to the field (Khan, 2022; Williams, 2023), this paper aims to render visible some of the many forgotten female performers whose identities, agencies, and histories have been erased by the legacy of colonial policies, moral censure, and the practice of labelling them as “prostitutes.” Based on my analysis of unpublished manuscripts, petitions, and letters in Persian and Urdu, this paper provides novel insights into the complex relationships between patrons, middlemen, and female performers. Arguing that Lucknow retained a certain importance as a regional recruitment ground for courtesans, I illustrate how agents of the Rampur state and other competitors traveled to the city to evaluate and engage dancers and musicians. Moreover, I demonstrate how courtesans aiming to re-negotiate their salaries wrote assertive letters to the Nawab of Rampur, and I provide rare evidence of female performers from the Middle East traveling across the subcontinent in search of patronage.