'Give courtesans the respect they deserve'

Performing arts

The British coined the term ‘nautch girls’ and our films like Umrao Jaan, followed that portrayal,” says Kathak danseuse Manjari Chaturvedi.

Disappointed by the representation of courtesans in popular discourse, especially Hindi films, eight years ago, Chaturvedi decided to take up a project to accord them a status of respect. Named ‘The Courtesan – An Enigma’, she gave her first performance, two years ago, on the theme.

“As a Kathak dancer, I had come across the intricacies of the courtesan’s dance, 20 years ago, when I met the octogenarian Zarina Begum, one of the last surviving courtesans, at an event in Lucknow. But I could never dedicate myself to their cause. It was only eight years ago that I realised that no other Kathak dancer had taken up the cause of the courtesan,” she tells Metrolife, adding, “When I suggested Begum that we
perform together on stage, she was overwhelmed, and all she said was Banarasi saree pehenkar stage pe gaane ka mann hai, and she sang for one of my dance performances.”

Adding elements and stories from the lives of five courtesans to her dance form of darbari Kathak, Chaturvedi is all set to perform in the city, alongside actor Neesha Singh who will narrate the anecdotes and stories of courtesans including Chanda Bibi, Rasoolan Bai, Jaddan Bai and Zarina Begum. “She will shed light upon pre-conceived notions about courtesans, often misconstrued, such as their sensibilities and disposition. And I hope to relive the deep knowledge in poetry, dance and music of the courtesans of the royal Indian courts,” says Chaturvedi.

When she set out to research, she couldn’t get much material except select extracts from the book ‘Nautch Girls of India’ by Pran Nevile. “There was hardly any literature or videos available. So I had to recreate a lot of moves like tukra and salaami from Kathak that was part of the ancient style of the dance,” says the 40-year-old.

“I don’t think they were mere dancing girls or entertaining women. We need to give them the respect that they deserve. I am striving to change the perception,” adds Chaturvedi, who has performed in over 300 concerts.

Catch ‘The Courtesan – An Enigma’ at Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, on
August 31 at 7.30 pm.

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