Lutf hai konsi kahaani mein
Aap beeti kahuun ki jag beeti
(Which story yields more pleasure we shall see/
Of the happenings in the world or my autobiography)
– Umrao Jaan Ada
The figure of the courtesan, better known in Awadhi Urdu as the tawa’if, witnessed a rapid devaluation through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What now remains is a homogenized system of prostitution entangled in complicated legalities, an absence of human rights and a dearth of knowledge about what once was. Throughout this period of decline, the tawa’if’s body has been imagined, written about, spoken of, and enacted within various narrative forms, most of them patriarchally tinged. Using Mirza Hadi Ruzwa’s novel, Umrao Jaan Ada, and its various reimaginings in literature and film, my thesis, titled “Embodying Umrao Jaan Ada: The Courtesan in Literature, Cinema and Theory” interprets the many layers of perception surrounding the tawa’if and her body in colonial and post-independence India.
Needless to say, my MLS experience was as interdisciplinary as my thesis, made effortlessly possible due to Ashoka University’s emphasis on the same. I was working with the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality and the Department of English formally, simultaneously receiving much support from the Department of Media Studies and History.