Sunday, February 24, 2019

397. Artists or Whores? Geishas, Nautch Girls, and the Dancers of Lahore


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Artists or Whores?  Geishas, Nautch Girls, and the Dancers of Lahore

         This post takes a glance at certain occupations of women in foreign settings that have always enjoyed a somewhat ambiguous status.  I have no personal knowledge of these occupations or the societies that created them, but have consulted knowledgeable friends.  We’ll look first at the geishas in Japan.  We’ve all heard of them and, as Westerners, wondered to what extent their services include sex.  In other words, are they highly trained call girls or not?

The Geishas of Japan

         That Japan, which I have never visited, is a fiercely male-dominated society was first made clear to me when a gay friend who had married a Japanese woman explained,  “In Japan, if a husband wants to go out alone for an evening, the wife doesn’t ask any questions.”  Being addicted to gay sex, my friend took full advantage, and his wife, traditionally raised, let him do it and slowly began to understand where his true sexual preferences lay.  So far as I know, they stayed together, and as he got older, he had companionship at home to cushion the loss of youth and its adventures.  Not that I recommend such an arrangement for everyone; I felt sorry for the wife. That said, on to the geishas.

         The word “geisha” means “art person” or “entertainer,” and the traditional geisha must be proficient in music, dance, storytelling, and small talk.  The profession emerged in the eighteenth century, and its predecessors were indeed high-class prostitutes catering to the male elite.  The first geishas were in fact men who entertained clients waiting to see the most popular courtesans of the day.  So the confusion of geishas with high-class prostitutes dates from the very beginning of the profession.  In time the male geishas disappeared, and many geishas became entertainers only, artists whose services did not include sex.  Their role was distinctly different from that of the wife, who had to be modest, sober, responsible.  And the geisha was single; if she married, she had to leave the profession.

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Geishas dancing.
Jon Rawlinson

         In the aftermath of World War II, women had to go to work in factories or otherwise contribute to postwar reconstruction, and fewer women became geishas.  At the same time, prostitutes servicing the GIs began referring to themselves as “geisha girls.”  But there was also an effort to return to the traditional role of entertainment only, for which a rigorous training was required.  Geishas lived in geisha houses in what were called “tea house districts” or “entertainment districts,” though successful ones might move out and live on their own.  A geisha could have a boyfriend or lover, but this was quite apart from her life as a traditional geisha, which might involve flirting, but no sex.

         The 1953 Broadway play The Teahouse of the August Moon, later made into a movie, was a gentle spoof on postwar Americans trying to Westernize and democratize a village on the occupied island of Okinawa and getting “Easternized” instead.  One of the funniest scenes in the film is when a geisha tries to teach her movements to a bunch of village women; the contrast between her graceful movements and the clumsy ones of the fat and sweaty villagers is hilarious.  The play was even done on Okinawa with an authentic geisha playing the geisha.  Though Okinawans would in time have many complaints about the American occupation, the Americans’ ability to laugh at themselves was appreciated at the time.

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A geisha in Kyoto today.
James Trosh

         And today?  The training of a geisha is, and always has been, long and arduous, and the kimonos and other accessories are costly.  Young women who choose to enter the profession may go deeply into debt to their mentors.  As a result, fewer young women are tempted to do so.  A geisha’s life is glamorous chiefly from the point of view of the male consumer.  When one sees a geisha today in Kyoto, a friend informs me, she is tightly scheduled and always in a rush.  Though geishas are not prostitutes, prostitutes have dressed in similar attire, causing confusion.  Also, Japanese men pressure geishas for sex and often succeed.  So the geishas still exist, but their profession is under siege.  And even by tourists, who pester them in the streets of the entertainment districts and even tug at their kimono sleeves, wanting to take their photograph.

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A geisha at a banquet of Europeans today.
Steven & Courtney Johnson & Horwitz

         And how do the geishas stand in the eyes of feminists?  Japanese feminists have seen them as exploited, but many geishas insist that they are liberated feminists who support themselves while living in a women-centered society where males function only as guests: a special smaller world within the larger male-dominated society that is Japan.

The Nautch Girls of India

         Years ago I read a long Indian novel about life in India either just before independence or soon after.  Among the many characters was a dancer past her prime and concerned about the future of her daughter, who by tradition would become a dancer, too.  The dancers obviously enjoyed an ambiguous status, still in demand but not accepted by polite society.

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Two nineteenth-century Nautch girls; a painting.

         A friend of mine from Calcutta told me how her great-grandfather and his friends debated earnestly over which renowned dancer, or Nautch girl, should be invited to dance for them on a holiday.  The dance was held in a hall from which the women of the household were excluded.  Paid well, the dancer gave them a spectacular performance, with confetti-like bits of colored paper on the floor that she kicked up into sprays of many colors.  My friend’s grandmother viewed the dancers as glorified prostitutes.

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Two Nautch girls in Hyderabad; an 1860s photograph.

         Nautch girls existed in the Mughal period in India, when, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Muslim emperors ruled northern India.  Quite distinct from the temple dancers who performed for the Hindu gods thought to reside in a temple, Nautch girls performed for the ruling elite, and to do so were taught, at an early age, the art of music and dance and reciting poetry.  They were specialists in refined conversation, and used their beauty and charm to entertain their wealthy clients.  Often they had a long-term monogamous relationship with one client, who might be a British officer, a nawab, a rajah, or a wealthy landowner.  They flourished throughout India, but those from Lucknow, a prominent cultural center, were especially in demand and could charge high fees.  But when British women and missionaries began arriving in India, they put a stop to the Nautch girls seducing the British men.  Many influential Indians likewise began condemning the dancers, whose glory days were over.  Once independence came to India, the government did away with the large landowners, who then could no longer patronize the dancers, and the Nautch girls became a thing of the past.

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Nautch girls dancing; a 1920s etching.

The Dancers of Lahore

         What prompted this post in the first place was an article in the Times of January 6, 2019, whose caption announced: They Once Danced for Royalty.  Now It’s Mostly Leering Men.  In an interview a Pakistani dancer tells how she once danced in rooms adorned with plush velvet pillows and fine carpets to the music of a troupe of trained musicians, entertaining the wealthiest men of Pakistan.  But now she travels with a boom box and dances for ogling men who want just one thing: sex.  Quite a comedown for a profession that for centuries performed in palaces for maharajahs and their guests.  Once a respected tradition akin to the geishas of Japan, the dancers offered not sex but refined companionship; they had to have knowledge of the arts, music, and even politics.  But it was always a risky occupation, especially for young dancers who might be sexually exploited.  Yet some of the dancers acquired wealth and influence, and even married into the elite. 

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A dancer performing, 1899.

           The dancing girls of Lahore were closely related to the Nautch girls of India, for in the Mughal period and the time of the British Raj there was no Pakistan separate from India.  When British rule came to what is now Pakistan in 1858, the dancers were criticized by the Victorian colonizers as examples of the voluptuous indolence of the East.  But the dancers persisted, and more than one colonizer became colonized.  When independence came to Pakistan and India in 1947, and with it, violence, many Muslim dancers in northern India fled to Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, where the art form enjoyed a renaissance.  If a dancer was courted over time by a customer, she might finally enter into a monogamous relationship with him and bear his children.  But as Pakistan became a more conservative Islamic state, it became less tolerant of the dancers, who were driven underground.  Now a dancer waits discreetly at home for phone calls from men who want to entertain their friends.  Some young dancers have fled abroad, but there are those who remain and insist that their art form is legitimate and strive to keep it alive.

In the West Today

         In male-dominated societies some women have always found ways to acquire a degree of independence, and these women in Japan, Pakistan, and India are good examples.  That they were at times confused with prostitutes reflects the fact that there were also gifted and successful courtesans who also achieved a degree of independence.  In Western societies these Eastern traditions did not exist, but some women escaped male dominance by presiding over salons frequented by the ruling elite, or by taking the veil and in time becoming a mother superior in charge of a community of nuns.  And in all societies some women have specialized in providing refined companionship and diversion to men other than what their wives could provide.

         In seventeenth and eighteenth-century France, ironically, marriage was a way to freedom.  Unmarried girls were closely supervised, so they could make a satisfactory marriage, but married women enjoyed considerable freedom.  This is seen in one noble’s dictum to his wife following their wedding night: “Madame, I give you full freedom, except for princes of the blood and lackeys.”  Princes of the blood posed political risks, and lackeys, being mere servants, were too demeaning, but otherwise the world – meaning the male world – was hers to conquer, preferably with a bit of tact, and he would be doing the same with women.  Of course one can question whether marital freedom was true freedom for women, or simply a form of subjugation by sex.

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Ninon de Lenclos, a noted courtesan of seventeenth-century France.  She frequented salons, had one of her own,
encouraged the young Molière, and years later left money 

to the young Voltaire so he could buy books.  Power of a kind.

         In England and the U.S. the cause of women’s liberation was taken up by militant suffragettes, who after years of campaigning finally did win the vote.  But in the U.S. it’s no coincidence that Prohibition followed, banning the saloons that working-class males had always seen as their home away from home, and where much of their wages might disappear, before they went home to a peeved wife needing money to run the household and feed the kids.  One man’s (or woman’s) freedom can be another’s subjugation.  

Carrie Nation, a fiery temperance campaigner,
who took an ax to U.S. saloons and their contents.

           In France, women got the vote only in 1944, because the male ruling elite, fiercely anticlerical, were afraid that the women would vote for Catholic candidates.  And when I visited friends in Germany in 1953, my closest German friend, no stodgy conservative, thought American women much too independent.  And when his younger brother came to this country and served in the Air Force, he married not an American, but a young woman from Germany.  How it will go in the future for this country, where feminists have in many ways triumphed, but are still campaigning for more, I don’t profess to know.  But it will be interesting to watch from the sidelines as the fight sparks on … and on.

Source note:  For information about the dancing girls of Lahore, I am indebted to a Pakistani friend and to the Maria Abi-habib article mentioned earlier, which appeared in the International section of the New York Times of Sunday, January 6, 2019.

Coming soon:  Sin.

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