Juddan Dancing Girl, from Beauties of Lucknow
Anna Deavere Smith: In the 1850s, in the royal court of Lucknow, India, the courtesans of highest rank enjoyed extraordinary status, influence, and fame. These elite women, known as Tawa’if, helped shape artistic culture through their mastery of poetry, song, and unique styles of dance.
But in 1856, the British took control of the region, defeated an uprising, and dismantled the traditions and institutions of the royal court. Seen as threatening symbols of resistance, the courtesans were targeted by the British and conscripted into prostitution. Dr. Veena Talwar Oldenburg is a historian at the CUNY Graduate Center. She grew up in Lucknow and has studied this pivotal moment.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg: You know, I call it the riches to rags story, because now they are completely controlled. They are inspected three times a week by the civil surgeon. They are utterly controlled, utterly regulated. And courtesanship simply begins to wither away.
Anna Deavere Smith: Nearly two decades later, in the 1870s, an Indian photographer named Abbas Ali was asked to photograph the Tawa’if. The image you see here is one of two dozen portraits Ali published in his book, The Beauties of Lucknow.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg: So, he was doing a job. But he also wanted to convey to the British, in his portraits, a refutation of their prejudice against dark skin and perceiving Indians as coarse-featured and ugly. He managed to do the two things very succinctly in those portraits that he created.
Anna Deavere Smith: Ali’s stately photographs celebrated the beauty of these women, while reasserting their previous status and nostalgically revisiting a bygone time.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg: But, I think, to be photographed, and to be called the Beauties of Lucknow, it’s a moment of triumph, even as they are being robbed of all their cultural functions and, actually, robbed of all their wealth.
End of Transcript
Dr. Veena Talwar Oldenburg is Professor Emerita at Baruch College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Dr. Katheryn Hansen of the University of Texas at Austin, Rajika Puri, and Arshiya Sethi.
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