The subject of courtesans in Indian history has not been much researched and documented. Critical scholarly work on courtesans emerged as late as the 1980s. Predating even to the times of Mahabharata and Ramayana, courtesans have been an integral part of the Indian society. Unfortunately, from ‘devadasis’ or ‘courtesans’ to ‘nautch girls’ to ‘prostitutes’, these women seem to have come a long way, battered down at each stage.
In the wake of inadequate research and documentation, several myths and misconceptions shroud lives and history of courtesans. Today, it is not uncommon to have the words ‘courtesan’ and ‘prostitute’ being used inter-changeably. This is the greatest error that has been continually done. In an extremely unfair record of history based on gender inequality, the men pursuing these arts are revered as “Ustads” (Masters) while the women pursuing the same arts became “Nautch Girls” (Dancing Girls). The current generations of erstwhile male court dancers talk about family lineage with a sense of pride extolling the greatness of their forefathers as dancers in royal courts. At the same time, the generations of women court dancers live with a sense of shame never disclosing their lineage or any connection with erstwhile courts. Gender discrimination in the field of arts has never been addressed and today this sect of women are ostracised in the society and considered “lesser” than their contemporary men.
It is the need of the hour to question and challenge the “disregard” towards these women artists and their traditions. We must think about this as a collective society and a project like this helps to shape up the collective conscience of the society.
Sufi Kathak Foundation is dedicated to work towards removing social stigmas associated with courtesan thereby giving them much deserved respect and place as artists par excellence.