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Veena Talwar Oldenburg the Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow India

Veena Talwar Oldenburg the Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow India

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01/18/2013

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Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India
Veena Talwar Oldenburg
Feminist Studies
, Vol. 16, No. 2, Speaking for Others/Speaking for Self: Women of Color.(Summer, 1990), pp. 259-287.
Feminist Studies
is currently published by Feminist Studies, Inc..Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/about/terms.html. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtainedprior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content inthe JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/journals/femstudies.html.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.The JSTOR Archive is a trusted digital repository providing for long-term preservation and access to leading academic journals and scholarly literature from around the world. The Archive is supported by libraries, scholarly societies, publishers,and foundations. It is an initiative of JSTOR, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to help the scholarly community takeadvantage of advances in technology. For more information regarding JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.http://www.jstor.orgSat Dec 1 19:22:11 2007
 
LIFESTYLE AS RESISTANCE:THE CASE OF THE COURTESANSOF LUCKNOW, INDIA
VEENA TALWAR OLDENBURGWhen, in 1976, I was doing the research for a study on the socialconsequences of colonial urbanization in LucknowI1 a city innorthern India situated about a third of the way between Delhiand Calcutta, I came across its famous courtesans for the firsttime. They appeared, surprisingly, in the civic tax ledgers of1858-77 and in the related official correspondence preserved in theMunicipal Corporation records' room.2 They were classed underthe occupational category of "dancing and singing girls,"and as if itwas not surprise enough to find women in the tax records, it waseven more remarkable that they were
in
the highest tax bracket,with the largest individual incomes of any in the city. The courte-sans' names were also on lists of property (houses, orchards,manufacturing and retail establishments for food and luxuryitems) confiscated by British officials for their proven involvementin the siege of Lucknow and the rebellion against British rule in1857. These women, though patently noncombatants, were penal-ized for their instigation of and pecuniary assistance to the rebels.On yet another list, some twenty pages long, are recorded thespoils of war seized from one set of "female apartments" in thepalace and garden complex cded the Kaisar Bagh, where some ofthe deposed ex-King Wajid
Ali
Shah's three hundred or more con-sorts3resided when it was seized by the British. It is a remarkablelist, eloquently evocative of a privileged existence: gold and silverornaments studded with precious stones, embroidered cashmerewool and brocade shawls, bejeweled caps and shoes, silver-, gold-,jade-, and amber-handled fly whisks, silver cutlery, jade goblets,plates, spitoons, hookahs, and silver utensils for serving and stor-
Feminist
Studies
16,
no.
2
(Summer
1990).
"
1990
by
Feminist Studies, Inc.
259
 
Veena Talwar
Oldenburg
ing food and drink, and valuable furnishings. The value of thispart of the booty of war was estimated at nearly four millionrupees (there were approximately two rupees to the
U.S.
dollar in18571.~hesecourtesans appeared in other British colonial records aswell. They were the subject of frequent official memorandumswritten in connection with a grave medical crisis that engulfed themilitary establishment in Lucknow, as well as in
all
the major can-tonments in British India. A greater number of Europeancasualties during the mutiny and rebellion of 1857, it wasdiscovered, were caused by disease than in combat. The shock ofthis discovery was compounded by the embarrassing fact that onein every four European soldiers was afflicted with a venerealdisease. It became clear that the battle to reduce European mortali-ty rates would now be joined on the hygienic front, to ensure ahealthy European army for the strategic needs of the empire. Itbecame imperative that the courtesans and prostitutes ofLucknow, along with those in the other 110 cantonments in India(and in several towns in Britain), where European soldiers werestationed, be regulated, inspected, and controlled. The provisionsof Britain's Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 were incorporated in-to a comprehensive piece of legislation, Act XXII of 1864 in India;it required the registration and periodic medical examination ofprostitutes in all cantonment cities of the Indian empire.4The British usurpation of the Kingdom of Awadh in 1856 andthe forced exile of the king and many of his courtiers had abruptlyput an end to royal patronage for the courtesans. The imposition ofthe contagious diseases regulations and heavy fines and penaltieson the courtesans for their role in the rebellion signaled thegradual debasement of an esteemed cultural institution into com-mon prostitution. Women, who had once consorted with kingsand courtiers, enjoyed a fabulously opulent living, manipulatedmen and means for their own social and political ends, been thecustodians of culture and the setters of fashion trends, were left inan extremely dubious and vulnerable position under the British."Singing and dancing girls" was the classification invented todescribe them in the civic tax ledgers and encapsulates one of themany profound cultural misunderstandings of "exotic" Indianwomen by colonial authorities.These new challenges provoked these women to intensify their

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