Click here for all links

Social media links

Courting Hindustan: The Consuming Passions of Iconic Women Performers of India
- Dr. Ragothaman M. Yennamalli

December 4, 2023

Courting Hindustan: The Consuming Passions of Iconic Women Performers of India. Madhur Gupta, Rupa Publications, 2023

Picking up the book 'Courting Hindustan' by Madhur Gupta was a delight. It was a breeze reading through it. I loved how the chapters chronologically trace from the famous Amrapali to T. Balasaraswati. Within the ten chapters, there is a lot of information along with familiar content that as dancers/artistes we know about. The good thing about this book is that if you are traveling, you would have finished it before reaching the destination. Packed within the pages are stories of how strong-willed women, ostracized by the society, fought with the system, survived and shone like bright stars for everyone to be inspired about.

Courting Hindustan by Madhur Gupta

If Amrapali was projected as the epitome of art and beauty and held her stand for equal rights, we have the imaginary Vasanthasena taking a conscious decision of getting married and embracing motherhood. Similarly, if we have famed Roopmati committing suicide either by powdered diamonds or poison, who was known for her singing, we had the rebellious Begum Samru and Begum Hazrat Mahal.

Indian dance history is vast and cannot be contained within 200 pages and it is here that I find the selection of the ten iconic women performers by Madhur Gupta diverse and captivating. Especially for a reader who is stepping into the world of performing arts. At the same time, societal norms and practices were cruel to these women performers and there are vast anecdotes to back this up in this book. From a scholarly perspective, the book is researched and provides enough references but falls short of deeper insights on their art and their performances. Since these selected short biographies are chronologically placed, there are instances of overlap due to their life happening in near timelines. For example, Janki Bai, Jaddan Bai and Begum Akhtar's life have huge overlaps as they performed in identical venues and situations. So, while reading their respective chapters the same passages are repeated and it feels the author had some paucity of materials, which is the bane in Indian dance history. We have scant information about great dancers, and even if it did there is a lot of misinformation and myths spread out that veracity is difficult to ascertain. For example, the author states that T. Balasaraswati's arangetram happened at the Kamakshi temple in Thanjavur, which I believe is not correct.

The role of these women in the Indian Independence movement is a sub-thread that is woven in some of the chapters. They were patriotic but that their contributions were shunned by society is a hard fact. However, that did not stop them from being themselves and pushing the art form. As observed and noted by scholars, women performers were the first to adapt to new technology and own it. We can find some of these recordings on YouTube, and I find these recordings thrilling and gives me goosebumps, especially the struggle they overcame to reach this pivotal point in history.

Coming back to the subtitle "iconic", the book does justice to how iconic each of them were given the patriarchal society they lived in and navigated. The gumption these performers had triumphs in each page and their legacy lives on. Books like these are essential reading for dance aficionados and dancers for two reasons: orient the current dance scene with the struggles of the past, and to honor the legacy of the great performers.

In retracing the past, most biographies end up being hagiographies. Madhur Gupta avoids this to a large extent by keeping to the narrative. Also, most biographies fall into the trap of "romanticizing the past", where we judge/relate to the past with current era goggles. Madhur Gupta evades this trap in his book, which makes this a must addition to a library. At the same time, I felt that there could be more iconic performers added to this to have a pan-Indian narrative.

Dr. Ragothaman Yennamalli is a student of Bharatanatyam.

Post your comment
Please provide your name / email id when you use the Anonymous / blog profile to post a comment. All appropriate comments posted in the blog will also be featured in the site.

Click here for all links
Book Reviews | Home | About | Address Bank | News | Info Centre | Featured Columns