Sunday, February 24, 2019

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


My latest:

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him. For more about this and my other books, go here.

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.

File:Geisha dance.jpg
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.

File:Geisha in Kyoto.jpg
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.

File:European banquet with geisha.jpg
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.

File:Weeks Edwin Sketch Two Nautch Girls.jpg
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.

File:Nautch girls, Hyderabad; a photo by Hooper and Western.jpg
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.

File:Nautch Dancing Girls by Charles W. Bartlett, etching.jpg
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. 

File:Nautch India.jpg
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.

File:Ninon de Lenclos by L.F.Elle.gif
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.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

396. Beauties, Dancers, Whores

 The Eye That Never Sleeps 

     Pre-order my new novel,The Eye That Never Sleeps, from the publisher, Black Rose Writing, at a 15% discount from the retail price of $18.95; it will ship on the release date, May 2. E-book available soon after that.  Author's copies available now at $20.00 + postage.

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

Summary: The fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York, The Eye That Never Sleeps tells the story of the strangest friendship that ever was. Hired by the city’s bankers to apprehend the thief who is plundering their banks, private detective Sheldon Minick develops a friendship with his chief suspect, Nicholas Hale, an elegant young man-about-town who is in every way the sober Methodist detective’s opposite. They agree to a truce and undertake each to show the other the city that he knows and values.  Further adventures follow, including a cancan, a gore-splattered slaughterhouse, and a brothel with leap-frogging whores.  But when the truce ends, the inevitable finale comes in the dark midnight vaults of a bank.

Not a standard detective story.  Sheldon Minick is scared of women, wears elevator heels, and loves to belt out Methodist hymns at church.  He is fascinated by Nicholas Hale, who is young, dapper, free-spending -- a risk-taker, deft with women, bisexual.

                     Beauties, Dancers, Whores

         This post was inspired by three beauties at the Met, the scandalous Madame X, and a celestial dancer.

         I am fascinated by the works of the Spanish master Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (let’s just call him Goya), who painted portraits, genre paintings, heroic historical scenes, and grotesque works conveying the horrors of war.  Trouble is, you don’t find much of his work outside Spain.  So when, some years ago, the Met announced two Goya works on temporary loan from the museum of Lille in northern France, I rushed to see them.  (Lille?  Yes, Lille.  Because Napoleon encouraged provincial museums to expand their collections, and Lille managed to snag two Goyas).

         The two Goyas, though acquired by Lille separately, were a perfect pair, for they were about the same size and displayed elegantly dresses majas.  At the time I took maja to mean a belle or beauty, which seemed to fit the subjects of these paintings.  One shows two gauzily dressed young women sitting in a box at a bullfight, with two shadowy, mysterious gentlemen behind them.  

File:Goya (attr.), majas al balcon, 1800-10 ca. 01.JPG
Another version, with a balcony, at the Met.

The other painting shows a well-dressed young woman reading a letter, while her maid holds a parasol over her.  (A love letter, the museum notes suggested.)  On the ground near her, presenting a stark contrast, are several working-class women doing their laundry on a river bank.  Clearly, she is a lady, or a good imitation of one, and they are not.

         The two paintings made a great impression on me, and I wondered what kind of a reputation the majas might have.  This was, after all, Goya’s Spain of the early nineteenth century, far more conservative than post-revolutionary France.  And when, recently, I found an online definition of maja as “a Spanish belle of the lower class,” I was even more curious.  If these majas are of the working class, who paid for their finery?  The mysterious gentlemen escorts of the bullfight/balcony scene, one suspects. So are majas simply glorified whores?

         In the nineteenth-century U.S. it was risky for a respectable woman to draw undue attention to herself.  Middle-class wives didn’t want their names in the newspapers, and if they had their portrait painted, it was meant for display only in the home.  This was true even in sophisticated Paris, where the American artist John Singer Sargent shocked the public when he exhibited, in the 1884 Paris Salon, his Portrait of Madame X.  

File:Sargent MadameX.jpeg
Here she is, with both shoulder straps intact.

The work showed a handsome woman in black satin, her head in profile, with one strap of her low-cut gown unfastened.  The subject of the dramatic painting, the world soon learned, was the American wife of the French banker Pierre Gautreau, noted for her beauty and her rumored infidelities.  The work was not painted on commission, but at a request from the artist.  The reaction to it was so negative that Mme Gautreau, who at first thought it a masterpiece, felt humiliated, and the chagrinned young artist left Paris for London and remained there for the rest of his lengthy career.  As for the painting itself, Singer kept it, later displayed it at international exhibitions, and sold it to the Met in 1916, convinced that it was the best work he had ever done.  Another version is in the Tate in London.

         If respectable women were not supposed to put themselves on display, what about actresses?  The public might applaud an actress’s brilliant performance in the theater, but respectable women wouldn’t think of inviting her into their home, and dreaded the thought that one of their sons might fall in love with a thespian (the meaning of which they weren’t quite sure).  So actresses were both acclaimed and excluded -- the same ambiguous position that burdened Molière and his troupe, men and women alike, in seventeenth-century France.  

         A woman’s respectability is the subject of Henry James’s delightful story “The Siege of London” (1883).  It opens with two Americans at the Paris opera, a newcomer,and a seasoned widower wise in the ways of the world.  The newcomer confesses that he doesn’t understand how his friend can tell at a glance if a woman is respectable.  Eyeing a box with his opera glasses, he asks the old hand if the woman there is respectable or not.  His friend takes a look and immediately says she isn’t, but adds that the young man with her is.  Then he realizes that he once knew the woman and decides to say hello to her at the intermission.  So begins a story that hinges on whether or not a much-married American woman can in any way be called respectable.

         The women mentioned so far – Goya’s majas, Sargent’s Mme Gautreau, and James’s protagonist – risked society’s rejection, but they were not performers.  If in the nineteenth century respectable women were not supposed to put themselves on display, what about actresses?  Respectable women and their husbands might applaud an actress’s brilliant performance in the theater, but they wouldn’t think of inviting her into their home, and dreaded the thought that one of their sons might fall in love with a thespian (the meaning of which they weren’t quite sure).  This applied even to Sarah Bernhardt, the acclaimed French actress whose first tour of America in 1880 garnered attention, rave reviews, and money (which, being debt-prone, she could use), but not respectability.  Not that she needed it, preferring freedom and a series of male lovers.  “Have you seen my latest?” she would ask an old acquaintance, usually referring to some fledgling actor discovered in the provinces, whom she had annexed and, to the annoyance of her troupe, given roles he was unequipped to handle.  (The annexed young man lasted a season or two.)  So society’s wariness of actresses was not without foundation. 

File:Joseph Karl Stieler-Lola Montez1847.jpg
Lola Montez in Munich, 1847.

         So how about dancers?  Worse still.  A dancer’s ability to wreak societal havoc was demonstrated by the career of the Irish dancer who took the name Lola Montez. After engaging in numerous dalliances and provoking a duel between two admirers with fatal results in Paris, in 1846 she performed in Munich.  There she became the mistress of the smitten king, Ludwig I, who created her Countess of Landsfeld and gave her an annuity. She then meddled in politics, and when the 1848 revolution erupted, Ludwig no. 1 had to abdicate, and she too fled the country.  Coming in time to the U.S., she shocked and titillated audiences, especially the gold miners in California, with her wiggly Spider Dance.  In and out of marriages, she began wasting away, spent her last days doing rescue work among fallen women, and died in Brooklyn in 1861, at age 39, of syphilis.  She is buried in Green-Wood cemetery, a repository of celebrities that also harbors Boss Tweed, assorted minor Roosevelts, and mobster Albert Anastasia.  Good company, indeed.

         Mention of the notorious Lola brings to mind – at least to my mind – the life-size sandstone statue of a contorted Hindu dancer in the South Asia hall of the Met.  

File:India semi-devine attendant Dancing Celestial.jpg
Though she lacks arms and legs, she looks wonderfully supple and sensual.  Identified as a celestial dancer of the mid-eleventh century, she must be performing in honor of the gods, who are thought to inhabit temples and consider them their home.  Presumably the real-life celestial dancer would be performing in a temple, but I can't help wondering about the status of her secular equivalent, perhaps a dancer at court.  Would she hope to captivate a monarch, as Lola did, or to advance her position in society otherwise? 

         Such matters will be considered in the next post; see below.


For my other books, go here.

Coming soon:  Artists or Whores?  Nautch Girls, Geishas, and the Dancing Girls of Lahore.

©   Clifford Browder   2019


Sunday, February 10, 2019

395. Gay Slang of the 1950s, plus Thoughts on Camp

                   The Eye That Never Sleeps 

     If you want my new novel, The Eye That Never Sleeps, and can wait until the release date, May 2, pre-order it now from the publisher, Black Rose Writing, at a 15% discount from the retail price of $18.95; it will ship on May 2.  The e-book will be available soon after that date.  The more sales I have online, the better.  I will sign copies later on request.  If you can't wait, buy a signed author's copy from me now at $20.00 + postage.

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

Did you ever have a friend who at times acted like your enemy, or an enemy who at times became your friend?  The Eye That Never Sleeps tells the story of just such a friendship.  To be released May 2, this is fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  Detective Sheldon Minick, one of the two main characters, is already known to readers of my novel Bill Hope, for characters in the series turn up in more than one novel.

Summary: Hired by the city’s bankers to track down and apprehend the thief who is plundering their banks, private detective Sheldon Minick develops a friendship with his chief suspect, Nicholas Hale, an elegant young man-about-town who is in every way the sober Methodist detective’s opposite. They agree to a truce and undertake each to show the other the city that he knows and values.  Further adventures follow, including a cancan, a gore-splattered slaughterhouse, and a brothel with leap-frogging whores.  But when the truce ends, the inevitable finale comes in the dark midnight vaults of a bank.

This is not a standard detective story.  Sheldon Minick is a bit scared of women, wears elevator heels to add to his height, and loves to belt out Methodist hymns at church (though he leaves the praying to his wife).  He is fascinated by Nicholas Hale, who is young, dapper, free-spending -- a risk-taker, deft with women, bisexual.

                 Gay Slang of the 1950s, 
                plus Thoughts on Camp

         Self-conscious subgroups have always had a lingo of their own, and that has certainly been true of gay people, especially when they constituted an underground society, hidden from the majority straight world but known to the knowing few.  Gay men needed their own society and slang, for the straight world – with exceptions – viewed them with scorn and distaste.  Or worse still, with pity.  Here are some of the straight world’s terms for gay males back in the 1950s, ranging from the least to the most offensive.

1.    Homo
2.    Queer
3.    Faggot, fag
4.    Fairy
5.    Pervert
6.    Degenerate

To which I might add "fruit" and the adjective "fruity," except that today I wouldn't add it at all.  Instead, I can imagine a gay kid saying, "Fruit?  What's wrong with being soft, ripe, sweet, and good to eat?  I'll buy into that, you bet!"

         When I first entered the gay world in New York in the 1950s, I learned its lingo effortlessly, picking it up from gay friends and from the talk in gay bars.  Using it made you feel special and in the know; it stamped you as a member of your tribe.  So here are some of the terms I learned.  I suspect that some are still current today, and others forgotten or remembered fondly as “quaint.”

butch / nelly:  a masculine / feminine gay person  (also used as adjectives)

queen:  feminine gay guy  (often used loosely for gay men generally)

fluff:  nelly  (used by the macho leather jacket crowd for non-leather gays)

trick:  a gay guy you’ve had (or hope to have) sex with (as in “to pick up tricks”)

an ex:  a gay guy you once had sex with  (“one of my exes”)

trade:  hetero males willing to have sex with gay guys (often with a suggestion that they are latently gay, as in the saying “Today’s trade is tomorrow’s competition”)

rough trade: violence-prone trade

S and M: sado-masochism (a kind of cult among some gay men)

hustler: a male prostitute

chicken: a young gay guy new to the game, innocent

swish: an effeminate gay man (also used as a verb and adjective)

auntie: an older gay guy (pejorative)

sea food: sailors

jail bait:  a gay kid below the age of consent

fish: a woman (pejorative)

fag hag: a hetero woman who hangs out with gay guys (not pejorative)

blow job: oral sex

69: simultaneous oral sex of two male partners (a verb and adjective)

tea room: rest room, john

to cruise: to go looking for a partner for sex

to camp: to talk or behave in an ostentatiously gay manner

         The term “camp,” whether a verb, an adjective, or a noun, is of unknown origin, though many origins have been proposed.  Be that as it may, it has quite a history.  I first knew it in the 1950s as a gay verb, as just noted.  By the 1960s it was used more broadly in the meaning of “excessive” or “over the top,” and as such was akin to “theatrical” and “artificial.”  It might or might not be pejorative, but often suggested a trendy and “with it” pattern of behavior.  Very influential was Susan Sontag’s 1964 article “Notes on Camp” in the Partisan Review.  She defined “camp” as “one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon,” but went on to call it “failed seriousness,” which some have labeled not “camp” but “campiness,” meaning frivolous and “so bad it’s good.”  For some, it was identified not only with artifice and ostentation, but also with naïve middle-class pretentiousness, in which case the trendy became teasingly pejorative. 

File:Carmen Miranda in The Gang's All Here trailer cropped.jpg
Carmen in all her glory, in
The Gang's All Here, 1950.

         One example of “camp” cited by Sontag was singer and movie star Carmen Miranda, "The Brazilian Bombshell," whom I recall appearing in old musicals wearing tropical fruits that came off as outrageously and implausibly funny.  In time, “camp” came to include drag queens and other performers like Dame Edna, Divine, Boy George, and Liberace.  And if some of those names don’t register with you, it shows how the concept has morphed over time.  

File:Dame Edna (7105780145).jpg
Dame Edna in 2012.
Dame Edna

File:Liberace Colour Allan Warren.jpg
Liberace in 1974.
Allan warren
          “Camp” is ambiguous, elusive.  One may well ask if it is frivolous or serious, or a combination of both.  Is it a gay term or has it lost that connotation?  Is it trendy or hopelessly dated?  Ask a dozen historians, and you’ll get a dozen answers.  So I’ll leave it to younger generations to use the term as they wish, or to bury it in oblivion.  But let’s face it, “camp” has always been fun.


For my other books, go here.

Coming soon:  No idea, but something will happen.

©   Clifford Browder   2019