What you did this time, oh God, don’t do it again!
Don’t let me come as a daughter in my next birth.”
From the song: Agle Janam Mohe Bitiyaa in Umrao Jaan.
Such is the lament of Amiran, a young girl who is kidnapped and sold into prostitution to a courtesan in Lucknow (a city in northern India) by a man seeking revenge on Amiran’s father.
Upon being sold, Amiran’s name is immediately changed to Umrao (Queen), and enters into a world of luxury, money and culture. Since she is a young girl, she will be schooled and protected until her virginity can be sold to one of the wealthy patrons, and she is enthralled by the beauty around her. As Umrao (played by Aishwarya Rai), she becomes a great dancer, poet and singer––a tawaif. Her exquisite beauty and talent makes her very desirable, and she becomes the exclusive courtesan of a young Nawab (prince) Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan). They fall in love. He promises to marry her.
There is so much more to the complexity to the life of the 1850s courtesan than has been developed by J.P. Dutta, the director and co-screenplay writer, in conjunction with his father, O.P. Dutta., of Umrao Jaan.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Lucknow, in the Province of Awadh, was famous for its kothas. Kothas, multi-story mansions made of brick often owned by the head courtesan, were centers of high culture and flourishing businesses. Before and in the time of the British Raj, courtesans were tax-paying business women. The women in a kotha were much more than prostitutes. Tawaifs were the best of the female entertainers, similar to the Japanese Geisha, highly educated–– skilled in dance, music, singing, poetry and etiquette. Courtesans’ clientele were kings and nobility. Often the men chose one woman to patronize and paid a monthly stipend to keep her for him. The head courtesan received at least one-third of the fees to provide for her establishment. The courtesans were enlisted to entertain at palace functions. There were all levels of employees including servants and lesser prostitutes who served non-royalty and working men in the kothas. Men were not part of the management of a kothas.
These centers of arts and culture were also centers of influence on the patrons. One such patron was crime-story novelist Mirza Hadi Ruswa, and it was his personal knowledge of the kothas on which he based his 1899 novel Umrao Jaan Ada. He understood the woman and the kothas business, and knew that women did not come to the kothas as victims of kidnapping as young girls. This storyline was more literary license to sell novels than truth. Most women left abhorrent lives of poverty or abuse voluntarily chose this life. Some girls were sold to a courtesan when the parents could no longer afford to feed their daughters. The novel was very popular, and sadly, tainted the reputation of the kothas with his fictionalization of making it seem that the majority of the women were kidnapped as young girls.
However, the British were the real destroyers of these centers of culture while they seized control of the Province of Awadh. When disease became a problem for the British soldiers, the British enacted a law to inspect the health of the women in the kothas. The life of the courtesans became harder as the British decimated the structure of the group by removing courtesans from the kothas and placing the best and healthiest within the walls of the British cantonments. These savvy business women found ways to survive through bribery and deception.
Good Golly! It's Bolly! Course Leader
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at RIT & Program Chair, Women's Council of RIT
- Umrao Jaan can be translated in several ways. In Hindi or Urdu, Umrao means “queen.” Jaan means life or the loved one and can be used as a term of endearment such as “darling.” In Punjabi it means “sexual drive, strength/power or courage or valor.” In terms of a courtesan and her Pathan lover, Nawab Sultan, this is an interesting and perhaps more fitting translation.
- Nawab is the honorific title bestowed by the reigning Mughal emperor to Muslim rulers in the south Asian princely states. The British government also gave the title along with cash or land to deserving ruling families in the British Raj.
- Nawab Sultan refers to his Pathun (Pashtun) blood and this is often referred to in Bollywood movies. The characterization is instantly established as hot-tempered, strong, fight-to-death, formidable warriors (or Kshatriyas which is the official caste title). In reality, Pathans (Pashtuns) are tribal people of Iranian descent who live in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is the Pashtuns who drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. They make up 38% of the population and have a strict ethical code and traditions.
- Shabana Azmi plays Khaanum Jaan, the chaudharayan, or chief courtesan, an older woman who has retired to the position of manager/owner after a successful career as a tawaif. Shaban’s mother Shaukat Azmi played the same role in the 1981 version which starred the Bollywood icon, Rekha.
- Current Bollywood star & rising American cross-over Priyanka Chopra (TV’s Quantico star) was initially considered for the role of Umrao role but couldn’t clear her calendar for the 90-day shoot.
- Saif Ali Khan was considered for the role of Nawab Sultan. Saif is the tenth Nawab of Pataudi although officially the Government of India abolished all the princely states in 1971 so his father was the last official ruling Nawab.
Afghans: Their History and Culture. web.archive.org/web/20100127081653/http://www.cal.org/co/afghan/apeop.html#1.
Courtney, David. 1998. The Tawaif, The Anti-Nautch Movement, and the Development of North Indian Classical Music.chandrakantha.com/articles/tawaif/2_tawaifs.html.HindiLyrics.Net. 2006. Pehle Pehel Song Lyrics Translation, Umrao Jaan. www.hindilyrics.net/translation-Umrao-Jaan%20-%202006/Pehle-Pehel.html.
Oldenburg, Veena Talwar. 1990. Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow. Feminist Studies 16(2). www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urdu/umraojan/txt_veena_oldenburg.html.
Wahab, Saima. 2012. In My Father's Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate. Crown Publishers.