The Beauties of Lucknow contains twenty-four portraits of women with descriptive text, and was aimed at an Indian clientele. The book, which exists in two editions, one in English and one in Urdu, states in the preface that its patrons are ‘the nobility and gentry of Oudh’. The photographs show a few of the women in theatrical costumes for a version of the ‘Indar Sabha, a dramatic production popularly attributed to the Lucknow-based poet Amanat Ali, written in 1853. The play incorporated many of the different musical, literary and dramatic styles that were popular at the court of Wajib Ali Shah and, while the origins of the ‘Indar Sabha are still debated, what was important in the 1870s was that the audience ‘believed they were beholding a direct link to the Awadh court and its sumptuous ambience’. The photographs function as glimpses of this now-extinct court, particularly given the traditional reading of the ‘Indar Sabha as a metaphor for the court of Wajid Ali Shah¹
Before British rule in Lucknow, the courtesans were the chief preservers and performers of high court culture. They shaped the development of Hindustani music, fashion and narrative dance. The sons of nobility were sent to their salons to learn etiquette, the art of elegant conversation and the appreciation of Urdu poetry. An invitation to a salon for a cultural soiree brought great prestige, indeed ‘until a person had association with courtesans he was not a polished man.’² Nobility lavished these women with jewels and gold coins and they became among the highest earners in Lucknow. High cultural standing and financial freedom gave them the power to manipulate courtiers and nawabs for their own social and political ends. Despite being under their patronage these ‘Beauties of Lucknow’ were able to subvert the equation of power and gender in the society of their time.
After the British seized Awadh in 1856, many courtesans were penalized for their pecuniary assistance to the rebels (though not necessarily the ones seen photographed here). Their property was seized and the women were relocated for the convenience of the soldiers. The cultural function of the profession quickly faded as the women were forced into common prostitution. The photographs, taken by Darogah Abbas Ali, may well have been done at the request of the British Government who had placed a hundred women in the Lucknow Cantonment bazaar for the “comfort” of the European garrison. The women were exposed to venereal disease, which quickly spread and it has been revealed that European casualties during the mutiny and rebellion of 1857 were caused more by this than combat.
Colonial authorities called the women ‘singing and dancing girls.’ So at odds with their previous wealth and position in society, the classification demonstrates a profound cultural misunderstanding. Colonial rule was to forever mar the reputation of a group of women who once sustained the manners and distinctiveness of Lucknow culture and society. The opulence and grandeur of the photographs give us hint to the tremendous respect and standing these women once enjoyed, but they also provide a terrible reminder of the destructive powers of colonial rule.
– Tyga Helme
- Markel, Stephen, India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow (London: Prestel, 2010), p 161-2.
- Abdul Halim Sharar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, trans, and ed. E.S. Harcourt and Fakhir Hussain (London: Paul Elek, 1975), p. 172.
Further reading: Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow by Veena Talwar Oldenburg (1990)
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