Association for Asian Studies

Annual Conference | Seattle, Washington | March 14-17, 2024

Women at South Asian Courts

Too often South Asian court women are still imagined behind purdah, remaining invisible, silent, and passive, especially if non-elite. But when looking at the archives, digging into them in search of muted voices, then new stories can be told. From there, we can notice that women’s agency developed in multiple ways, having a deep impact on the cultural and political life of royal courts. It shows also how women were negotiating their life and their role inside this male dominated arena in which peoples’ relationships and conduct were structured by multiple rules. This gives us the opportunity of writing a more inclusive history of South Asian courts.

This panel seeks to bring into focus the ways both elite and non-elite women played important roles as evident from newly discovered source material. Paying attention to the writing of women from various courts of North India during early modernity, it will discuss women’s involvement in the literary, political, and intellectual life of their court and beyond. Through their poetry or their translation of important texts of the tradition, they addressed a wide range of questions on religious matters, courtly life, as well as on their intimacy. Doing so, they produce new definitions and imaginaries of the court, challenging established authorities.

This panel is part of a series working towards a volume (Women and the Court: Space, Time and Power, eds N. Cattoni/M. Gravier).

The Voice of a Courtesan at Amber Court: Kingship, Bhakti, and Intimacy

In Jaipur, in the royal library of the City Palace, a manuscript is attributed to a courtesan (pātur) named Mohan Rai. Her work is titled Krīḍāvinoda, ‘The pleasures in sports’, a poetical work written in Brajbhasha and dedicated to Maharaja Ram Singh I, ruler of theAmber court from 1667 to 1689. Ram Singh was a fine connoisseur of arts, a collector, and a patron of poets. He was a devotee of Krishna, as her mother was. Mohan Rai’s text, as suggested by the title of her work, is a collection of poems describing the king’s pleasures in sports, in a bhakti tone. More precisely, the text is a eulogy to Ram Singh, which describes various moments in his life, from Holi festivities to the celebration of his birthday.

If women’s agency in South Asian royal and imperial courts has already been investigated and demonstrated, the role of poetesses in Rajput courts has yet to be discussed in order to have a better sense of their involvement in the literary culture of their place and to hear their voices. This paper will explore one of these voices through the analysis of the Krīḍāvinoda, which delivers a double discourse. On the one hand, an official discourse of legitimacy of sovereignty through the melting of Ram Singh’s reign to Krishna’s mythological realm, and on the other hand, a more concrete and secular discourse on the life and intimacy of palace women around Mohan Rai, showing another geography of the court.

A Woman Musician in a Men’s World: Jānā Begum

This presentation focuses on a musicological text, Risālā-yi Mūsiqī by Jānā Begum, a rare example of a woman theoretician in the elite Mughal court. Recently, research by Katherine Schofield and Richard Williams has clarified the picture of music theory and theoreticians at the Mughal court, especially of the Kalāwants, the family claiming descent of Tānsen. While a female student of Bilās Khān is mentioned as an aside in Faqīr Allāh Sayf Khān’s Risāla-yi Rāg-darpan, thus far women composers have remained under the radar. Yet, an important manuscript in the Bodleian, bringing together several crucial treatises, and written for the Mughal patron Qubad Khān, includes the aforementioned treatise. Composed in Hindavī, possibly while Shāh Jahān was still alive, it was written down in Nastaliq in1668. The talk explores the enigma of the unusual introduction of the work that features dramatic elements, paying close attention to idiom and form to demonstrate a woman’s unique interpretation of court dynamics at this delicate political juncture.

Unveiling Narratives: The Pluralistic Realms of South Asian Courtly Women and the Poetry of Lutf un-Nisa ‘Imtiyaz’

Within the narrative of women in courtly settings, two frequently overlooked elements emerge: the realm of South Indian courts and the intriguing lives of courtesans. Despite the abundance of narratives about courtesans in literary and historical realms, only a few surviving sources are written by the courtesans themselves. Thus, I offer an inquiry of a late 18th c. Dakkani/ Urdu divan written by Lutf un-Nisa “Imtiyaz”, a courtesan from the Hyderabadi court of Asif Jah II. 

This analysis primarily centers on three qasidahs from Imtiyaz’s divan, each dedicated to praising Asif Jah. In these verses, Imtiyaz employs the use of place and space metaphors repeatedly, in combination with religious allusions. I question how the inventive use of the tashbeeb might allow us to understand the pluralistic experiences of women in a courtly context. Drawing on Bourdieu’s theories, the paper scrutinizes the cultural production landscape, which is molded by hierarchical power dynamics, fostering a battleground between dominant and subordinate entities.

This interpretation underscores that the court’s essence and dynamics transcend mere physical attributes and the influence of prominent male figures. Collaborating with this panel, the goal is to engage in discussions that disrupt the established spatial interpretation of the court, utilizing insights from the poetry of a woman to unveil the intricate social, political, and cultural dynamics. Without universalizing the voice of a solitary author, the intention is to amalgamate literary critique with the social and cultural history of courtesans, spotlighting their significance as pivotal women within South Asian courts.

Intergenerational Imaginings of Court: A Mother-Daughter Duo from Kishangarh

This project focuses on literary output of elite court women from early-modern Kishangarh in Rajasthan. This small principality founded by the Rāthore Rājput prince of Jodhpur, Kishan Singh in 1611 CE has thus far mostly been on the map of Hindi literature for the devotional poetry of its men, in particular that of the eighteenth-century prince Sāvant Singh who became famous as the bhakti poet-saint, Nāgarīdās. Scant attention has been paid to the imaginings of court in the literary writings of its women. Yet the literary output of Sāvant Singh’s stepmother, Brajkunvarī Bānkāvatī alias Brajdāsī, is significant and includes a translation of the complete Bhāgavata-Purāna in the local idiom. So is that of her daughter and Sāvant Singh’s step-sister Sundar Kunvarī. Despite being trained in poetics, the mother-daughter duo remains understudied. Their gurus were some of the most powerful men of the times, the Nimbārkan leader, Vrindāvandev, and the Vallabhan, Braj Nāth. This project then has implications for the relationship between vernacular languages and the development of women’s literary canon in North Indian centers, and contributes to a growing corpus to examine the protean textures of the court.