The veil falls. The doe eyes winking and sparkling behind bejeweled hands. The intricate facial expressions along with the mesmerizing poetry spewing melodically from painted red lips. The tawaif or the mujra singer of dynasties gone by. Today’s remixed songs do not compare to the Urdu couplets of scorned love of a courtesan. The storyteller. The enigma. The beauty.
Few know of how the courtesans were born and bred. They were taught in the ways of poetry, literature and dance. Due to the conservative nature of society, many believed courtesans to be of poor stature, as common as prostitutes. But cheap prostitutes they were not. Their words were sweet as wine, while enthralling elite members of society.
Rekha, as Umrao Jaan Ada, absolutely captivated audiences, as she winked and sang her way into hearts of sultans. Her gaze was knowing yet innocent, erotic but yet sensual (never vulgar). This was the traditional woman- not the sati savitri virgin- but the independent woman who counted on her skills to thrive in society.
Meena Kumari, in Pakeezah, is another evergreen example of how a courtesan could conquer hearts and memory.
Today, we see none of these types of women in films. We see the feminist, the vixen, the virgin but never the cultured courtesan. Be it that these courtesans had to compromise on their body, but they had beauty and brains combined.
Madhuri Dixit danced in exquisite finery recently in Bhansali’s Devdas, showing us once again what we were missing in movies. With a wink and throwing off her veil in a mirrored court, Dixit portrayed the courtesan perfectly. What’s more, she gave her Chandramukhi depth and compassion.
And audiences were mesmerized.
Today, the courtesan is long gone in movies. We hope for more period movies where we see of the days gone by. An enigma the courtesan will be, and an enigma she will always remain.