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Courtesans in Indian Art

Courtesans of India have always been a source of inspiration to express art, beauty or emotions. Their representation in traditional Indian art, theatre and the silver screen stands as a testament to their significant position in society. The recent web series release “Heeramandi” has fueled the dichotomy between the romanticism of courtesans and their role during the ancient and mediaeval periods. Having said that, Indian art is one of the major sources to understand their evolution over time. The sculptures, paintings and other artistic mediums capture the grace and socio-cultural aspects of their lives. Here’s a glimpse into their depiction in Indian art through different periods.

Courtesans in Indian art – The Sculptures

Earlier, courtesans also called “ganikas” or “devadasis,” occupied high places in ancient Indian culture as patrons of the arts, etiquettes and cultural knowledge. The elite treated them with respect for their talent. Several sculptures show courtesans in elaborate jewellery and garlands. However, the sculptures heavily incorporated elements of sensuality and eroticism. They also symbolized a celebration of love, intimacy, and fertility. This not only honours the sensuality and beauty of courtesans but also represents the spiritual and divine components of their lives. 

Source: wikipedia

The sculpture of Vasantasena, a beautiful synergy of theatre drama and art, is housed in the National Museum, Delhi, India. The sculpture is based on a courtesan’s character as the main lead in one of the iconic Sanskrit play Mṛichchhakatika. Reportedly, she was described as the “ornament of the city” by the play author. Portrayed as a wealthy and talented courtesan, love-stricken by noble man. The sculpture depicts a scene of the courtesans’ house. Craftsmen created this red sandstone sculpture in the 2nd century AD.

Courtesans in Indian art – Mughal Interpretation

Source – Pinterest
Source – Wikipedia

During the medieval period, particularly under the patronage of the Mughal emperors, courtesans were referred as “memsahibs or tawaifs”.Mughals have left a significant influence on Indian art. One such example is the portrayal of courtesans in Indian art through Mughal, Rajput, and Deccan miniature paintings that spoke volumes about their elegance. 

The miniature paintings illustrate courtesans in a variety of contexts, including imperial courts, a soiree or personal meetings with the king for entertainment purposes. 

Source – Wikipedia

During the transition from late mediaeval to the modern period called as the Bengal Renaissance, celebrated artists like Raja Ravi Verma also captured the life and beauty of courtesans through Indian art. His portrait of Vasantasena exuded a blend of realism and idealism. The portrayal went far beyond exoticism. Artists represented them in strong silhouettes.

Courtesans in Indian art – Colonial Period

Source – Wikipedia

The colonial period brought a decline in the courtesan cult. During their reign, the Britishers imported their own perceptions of gender roles and sexuality into Indian culture. The term “nautch-girls” referred to the courtesans and altered the idea of royalty and the cultural significance attached to them.

An Indo-European style of painting that emerged during the colonial period called Company painting. It was an amalgamation of Mughal and Rajput miniature painting with a more Western approach. Mostly done in Western watercolour technique, the paintings are set apart by the transparency of texture and soft tones.  

The painting seen above sheds light on the courtesans’ lifestyle surrounded by vices. The silhouettes speak more about seductive nature depriving the grandeur attached to these personalities earlier.

A Source of Awareness

Source – theprint

With the change in time and narratives around the perception of courtesans, there was a significant change in artistic depiction. Understanding the social stigma attached to courtesans, artists started using the theme to bring awareness about the same. The portrayal began to explore more about their bane, emotion and conflicts in societal standards. 

Like the one seen here, where the artist explored the scenario post the abolition of Sati. A Bengal art painting illustrates the distraught condition of widows who saved their lives from being prey to Sati but were still rejected by their families. This in turn pushed them to take up the life of a courtesan. This series of paintings was named “Sati & Sundari” at the Delhi Art Gallery. It spoke about the duality of a woman’s life after becoming a widow.

In Conclusion

The illustration of courtesans in Indian art has time and again shed light on the perception of their lives, the myriad facets of experiences and their quest for dignity. Indian artists sought to capture their elegance on canvases through different styles of painting. While some depictions of these courtesans brought grandeur to the painting, others were merely used as an element of beautification.

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By Sayali Parkar

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