Culture & Society

Understanding Gaṇikā, The Courtesan In The Indian Cultural Memory

We hear various references to gaṇikā in many literary sources as a woman who was qualified and talented (nipun) in as many as 64 arts (chaunsath kala). The 64 arts are all the variety of talents, ranging from your dancing, singing, playing instruments, and tattooing to art of making beds, making perfumes and magic potions.

Courtesans singing ghazals in a Mushaira, Hyderabad, India.

“… La Païva, a second generation horizontal, stipulated to a wealthy and ardent Banker that the price of her favours would be twenty bank notes of a thousand Francs each, which he must burn one by one during the amatory session. The banker brought the notes, but the sight of them going up in flames was so harrowing that he couldn’t accomplish his part of the session.” 

—    Cornelia Otis Skinner, 1962

La Païva was one of the most famous courtesans of 19th century France. Each time I think of this anecdote, it takes me to the quarters of the courtesans and gaṇikā that we read in Indian literature and view in the Indian cinema. 

A lot has been said about the courtesans in different parts of the world. They are the artists, performers, and symbol of charm. In the early Indian context, it was gaṇikā who was placed highest in a cultural and social hierarchy of public women. The popular memory constructs her in movies and literature that either revolves around her or places her as an important trope in the story. 

The millennials may think of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002), while the generation earlier would imagine nothing other than formidable Rekha in the movie Umrao Jaan (1981). The parallel cinema lovers would recall Utsav (1984) which was based on Surdrak’s Mrichakatikam of 5th century CE whereas generations further back might swear by only Pakeezah (1972) or Amrapali of (1966). The lush imagery of aesthetically impressive and urban setting of the quarters of a courtesan, and the fame that they represent in both literary writing as well as in Indian cinema are unmatched.

We hear various references to gaṇikā in many literary sources as a woman who was qualified and talented (nipun) in as many as 64 arts (chaunsath kala). The 64 arts are all the variety of talents, ranging from your dancing, singing, playing instruments, and tattooing to art of making beds, making perfumes and magic potions. Some of them are downright fascinating — knowledge of language and vernacular, speaking by changing form of words, writing in cypher, art of war, arithmetic, gymnastics, and so on. 

Kamasutra, the treatise of kama (a difficult to translate word, which is a combination of desire, romance, and erotic, all put together), mentions how proficiency in these 64 arts is what separated a gaṇikā from any other sex worker. The impressive list of these arts are so much more than mere suggestive kalas. These arts probably also gave proficiency in being a useful part of the espionage system for their clientele — the urban rulers, nobles, merchants, and other urban elites were the nayaka (hero) of the milieu.

One of the obsessions of pop culture is to constantly define gaṇikā in relation to other ‘common’ public women and sex workers — how elevated her status was, how she was just an artist and so on. Sadly, it often takes the form of chastising the gaṇikā as it takes away the sense of agency from her. In her defense, artha (material wealth) was the end and kama her erotic appeal and artistic merit that invoked desire were the means to it. She was the one with palatial mansion as the space she owned, had trainers for few —if not all— the 64 art forms, and there must have been people to run the space, live musicians for the gatherings, and so on.

Without starting out with binaries, the question one needs to ask is this — if the woman with musical talents, fame, beauty, who has sophisticated patrons vying for her attention, was a complete antithesis to the wife? The wife’s figure is expected to remain within the social confines, bound by duty, whereas the gaṇikā, the bejewelled artist, with not just a room, but an entire quarter of her own (pun intended), seems to have more say in many important matters, or at least over her own life.

Here comes the conundrum, something that always leads women to be divided into binaries. Historically, the courtesans are as heterogeneous and complex a group of people, as they could be. But still, since they stand outside the domestic and familial, they are often portrayed as a coherent group, disallowing them any complexity. We neatly stack them in boxes of victim or make them into some romanticised versions of a nostalgic past. 

In the early modern West, it is often seen from the Freudian paradigm of the ‘madonna and the whore’ dichotomy that pits the good and chaste woman versus the bad and ‘promiscuous’ one. Maybe the idea is to see one as within the boundaries while the other outside it. Here too, we have one whose sexuality is understood and experienced within marital structure, and the other’s is completely outside its purview. Hence, the gaṇikā with her erotic, economic, and intellectual persona was a challenge that could not be controlled by her social role because her social role was not defined in familial but social and economic relationships. Whether those economic and social relationships were outside the bounds of patriarchy is the question we face. Here, we see that both the women in their roles were bound to the man who one offers male heir and other one her intellectual, cultural, and sexual company. The definition of one defined the contours of the other.

Vatsyayna, the author of Kamasutra, famously advised the gaṇikā to behave like a dutiful wife to extract money. If historically and in literary writing, these complexities and conjunctions were recognised, why has Indian cinema reduced their portrayal to merely simplistic tropes? Some of the binaries of mind over body, characterised in the dilemma of the portrayal of a gaṇikā or a tawa’if are too reminiscent of the British Victorian morality. The Europeans, and particularly British, in early colonial India could never come to terms with the normalcy of public women in India. For them, public dancers, nautch women, devadasis, all existed without the moral baggage they associated with them. They filled pages, fascinated by the dancers —particulrly nautch women— but reduced her to the erotic appeal and often nothing else. Interestingly what we read in European travelogues and memoirs is a lot similar to the moral dilemma and saviour complex our cinema showed in 20th and 21st centuries. Which brings me to a historian’s talisman — without context, you can read as many descriptions you like, but you would never be able to place it in context.


International Women’s Day is upon us and we often think of its origins and hence history from the 20th century. For a historian, the centuries are so much more than mere numbers — they are milieus, contexts, and how societies functioned. What the gaṇikā was in early India, or tawa’if in 18th and early 19th centuries, is not how we understand her today. We see her in glory on big screen, but we want to understand her in binaries that even her own time did not bind her into!

(Dr. Ruchika Sharma is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Gargi College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal to the author.)