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From Begums to Beggars: Odyssey of Prostitution in India

By Isha Sharma

Prostitution as the oldest profession in the country has attained new definitions over time. How prostitution changed grounds in India can be described as a shift from Begums to Beggars. The article traverses the journey of prostitutes in India from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial world. Sadly, the defining of identities for women was never in their own hands. Women are the subalterns with respect to their representation in public history. This work is an attempt to create a space for women, a record where women are the centre of their own narratives because, across times and geographies, they had a lot to say.

Nautch girls, Bombay (1880) : Courtesy:  Huronresearch
Nautch girls, Bombay (1880) : Courtesy: Huronresearch

Public History and politics have worked in correspondence with each other for centuries. In the convulsing of these two entities are buried millions of stories of the marginalized. Across geographies, histories, and times, women are at the center of the ones whose stories have remained unacknowledged.

With the passage of time, marginalized women like prostitutes have attained different markers of identity and accord. Unfairly, the chance to define their own identities was never given to these women and was held by the man of reason and logic.

A major apocalypse in the character of the Indian subcontinent was brought with the coming of the bearers of the torch of enlightenment. Just like many realms changed grounds with the onset and going away of colonizers from India, the colors of prostitution attained a different light.

In an attempt to carve the history of the glorious life of prostitutes in the pre-colonial era, writing back to the empire becomes an imminent discourse. In addition to that, a dichotomy exists between the condition of prostitutes of yesterday and the present, an odyssey from Begums to Beggars.

The journey of prostitutes in India can be understood in three phases: pre-colonial India, colonizers’ rule, and post-colonial independent India. The genesis of prostitution in India is mostly traced back to the 7th-century devadasis. As the name suggests, devadasis committed themselves to the service of ‘dev’ or the deity. These women skilled in classical arts are believed to have introduced Indian classical dance forms including Bharatanatyam, Odissi, and Kuchipudi. They were known by different names across varied parts of the Indian subcontinent. Advocates of a matriarchal system, Devadasis were accorded a high stature for being wives to the Gods and giving up all material pleasures to lead the life of a celibate.

Balasaraswati who is often attributed credit for popularising Bharatanatyam to the world belonged to the Devadasi group. Though she faced immense backlash from her community for taking her classical ambitions to the public front, she did not give up on her passion for performance. Eventually, she gave performances and conducted dance classes abroad. She is the recipient of the Sangeet Akademi Award and Padma Bhushan among other accolades. As time and politics took new turns, the female servants of God who did not believe in forming sexual relationships with ‘mortals’ were brought to the status of ‘female slaves’ serving mortal men.

Balasaraswati (1962), Photograph by John Van Lund

Similarly, another group that existed in pre-colonial India was the courtesans. Courtesans unlike modern-day prostitutes were primarily known for their creative inclinations, grace, beauty, and luck. They were given immense significance and many courtesans were put on the same level as kings in India before the British rule. Legends of courtesans float the history of Indian epics. The legend of Amrapali, the most beautiful courtesan of Vaishali is not only to be remembered in terms of what her physical appearance stood for. She is characteristic of power to avenge and the magnanimity of her heart to bridge gaps created between economic classes.

King Shudraka beautifully weaved the character of ‘Vasantasena’, a courtesan in his famous drama Mrichkatika. Vasantasena assumes grace and power, her social standing is reminiscent of the stature she holds. The narrative has been performed across various cultures. Interestingly, the Europeans who carved a very different image of prostitutes have adapted the drama in various forms. Courtesans meant much more than the men they slept with. They are reflective of a history where women assumed power and prestige giving their creative aspirations wings to turn into reality.

Vasantasena by Raja Ravi Varma (1890)
Vasantasena by Raja Ravi Varma (1890)

As men seeking dominance and rule in the name of trade tapped the roots of India, the golden threads of Indian prostitution’s tapestry were dismantled. While the natives of the land became slaves to British rule, prostitutes were brought to the only status of sex slaves. The common thread that existed between prostitution, art, and culture in the pre-colonial era was broken. The Britishers took control of Indian culture and arts into their own hands. An example of the same is the translation of Mrichkatika into English by a surgeon of the East India Company.

The first roots of the diasporic experience are traced in terms of the migration of slaves from Africa to foreign lands. But what about the multiplicity of cultures that brimmed when women from all parts of the world were brought to India, and treated as sex objects under the British regime? European women were believed to be sent back; however, women from other countries including Russia, Germany, and Africa became objects to be oppressed by the dominant male force. The rich classical culture of Indian prostitutes was crushed as the sexual appetite of men defined their identities. There was a complete shift in the treatment from them being figures of authority to being condemned for their profession. Efforts were made to put these women under the umbrella of ‘advocates of immorality’ who were ruining the religious values of the Hindu community. It is ironic to note that women who once were celebrated for their devotion and religious inclinations began to be seen as opposing those very religious codes. The subcontinent saw the Hindu Social Reform Association and Anti-Nautch Movement making endeavors to cleanse the nation of ‘impure’ and debased members of society. In the creation of prostitution as an illegitimate profession are lost but not forgotten, hundreds of stories of Indian prostitutes who represented prestige with dominance in terms of money, power, and values.

A grim truth lies in the fact that colonization never actually freed the colonized of its control. The same can be seen in how the story of prostitutes changed color forever after British rule. The conditions have acted out for the worse for women as seasons changed. As India announced independence in 1947, with it came one of the most horrific times of violence of division in the history of the world in the form of the partition of Hindustan. Lines of cartography constructed on bloodshed and hatred strengthened borders and boundaries while the real cost was paid by humanity.

At the center of this violence remained women. Women making the choice of being prostitutes aren’t accorded any respect in social spheres but why does no one talk about the unjust treatment women suffered as they were raped, abducted, and sold during the partition of 1947. Their perpetrators or abductors were called ‘protectors’ who saved them from the clutches of death. Several writers of Partition have made attempts to understand the horrors of the time from the lens of women. On being questioned about those times, the most common response that is received is the ‘silences.’ What people often fail to understand is that ‘silence’ itself is a form of expression that speaks volumes more than the voices the public history has inspired over the years. Even today, the duty to safeguard their ‘honor’ is entrusted upon these women who were the biggest victims of the mindlessness and frenzy that took place in 1947. Trauma, oppression, and suffering of women are not acknowledged. These narratives of women aren’t registered in public history because they reflect on the fractures of the nation-state but does that really mean that women had nothing to say?

Just as the personal represents itself in public, the present cannot exist without stories of yesterday. The present always has in it remnants of the past. Sadly, the conditions of prostitutes today have been heavily carved by the image colonizers gave them. While prostitutes in the pre-colonial world represented agency and choice, today prostitution lingers as a profession where both incomes and stature are low. Out of all women who are driven into prostitution in India, 60 percent are attributed to poverty, lack of education, and awareness. Today’s prostitutes are the greatest example of subalterns whose stories are heard but remain unheard. Presenting the narrative of prostitutes in a realistic light, Shohini Ghosh came out with a documentary in 2003 featuring five sex workers who are also members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. The prostitutes stressed the fact that no matter if they were forced to join the profession, they deserve to be treated with dignity and paid the right money for the services that they provide. How can it make sense that women selling their bodies become immoral and their work illegitimate and the men who pay for those services remain legitimate even after availing the benefits of paid pleasure?

Even though Prostitution is a legal profession in India today, how many of us actually treat prostitutes on the same level as people pursuing any other legitimate profession/occupation? Granting mere rights is not enough, the execution of those principles is vital. As the Supreme Court passes laws on prostitutes not to be treated in a discriminated manner by police officers, there have been numerous instances when their complaints have not been addressed and taken into consideration. ‘Mind set’ colored by stereotypes and prejudices lacks morality, not the women.

The journey of prostitutes in India is the transition from begums holding power and economic security to beggars trying to locate means of livelihood while society imposes allegations on them. Women have always been at the center of the greatest wars, even to date, they remain at the core of oppression. Women have to conform not because they are ignorant but because the ability to oppose does not lie with them. The power of decision-making has always remained with the man maintaining order.

Pre-colonial world celebrates women, their artistic pursuits, and their choices. As civilizations moved ahead, humanity continued to take the backseat. Tracing stories of will and cultural tales of women is important as an attempt to rewrite history where women exist not as objects to be taken decisions for but as subjects who can lead their own revolutions. It is also significant to provide a ray of hope for all women not just the prostitutes to acknowledge their womanhood and worth because no matter what geography or time, women always had something to say.


Isha Sharma
Isha Sharma

Isha Sharma recently completed her graduation in Majors in English at Delhi University. She is extremely passionate about the process of translating her emotions into verses. Half sunk between dreams and reality, she often thinks about borders and boundaries and the dwindling humanity in between. From Bulleh Shah to Chitra Bannerjee, she finds a home in words.

Currently, she works as a remote content writer with one of the leading search engines for graduate programs in the US. Her works, including articles and poems, have been published in Kitaab International, Borderless Journal, Indian Express, Indian Review, The Feminist Times, and The Tribune (Student Edition) amongst many others.

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