n this 10-part series, Dastaan-e-Dilrubai, Shreya Ila Anasuya narrates the histories of Indian women who delighted and moved people with their skills in singing, dancing, acting, and writing — bearing witness to their power.
With art by Satwik Gade.
Little is known about Jahanara Kajjan, a singer-actress who was active in the 1920s and 1930s, on the stages of the Parsi theatre in Calcutta, and in early cinema, and whose 105th birth anniversary was observed in February 2020. What we do know about her makes one lament the limitations of the Indian film archive, particularly lacking in information about the interiority of the women who were crucial to the making of the film industry — not only in Bombay, but in other centres such as Calcutta and Madras.
A studio portrait of her, likely taken in the 1920s, shows her wearing dark lipstick, flapper curls and a piercing gaze. The portrait was used to advertise face powder and hair products in the North American magazine The Crisis — the official publication of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), founded in 1910 by writer and civil rights activist WEB DuBois.
According to the Indian Memory Project, this makes her the subcontinent’s first international model — a claim that seems untenable in the face of the popularity of at least one singing superstar who preceded Kajjan, the gramophone sensation Gauhar Jaan, whose image was reproduced on matchboxes in far-away Austria. Nonetheless, it was an era of firsts, and who came before whom was more a matter of chance than talent — with new technology completely transforming modes of performance, women were at the forefront of the public theatre, the radio, gramophone recordings, as well as silent and talkie cinema.
These were not just any women — many were from traditional performing communities of courtesans.
These communities were greatly diverse in terms of social location and access, with relatively more elite or successful (and therefore upwardly mobile) courtesans being able to exercise greater autonomy — and with less privileged performers being more vulnerable to the whims and fancies of those who controlled feudal patronage. But essentially, by the time Kajjan burst into the scene, women who came from these performance traditions were “greatly stigmatised and their liminal social status was the condition for their entry into the dubious new realm of cinema,” as scholar Debashree Mukherjee writes in an essay about another early cinema pioneer (and courtesan), Jaddan Bai. “At the same time, their presence exacerbated anxieties about the negative implications of this new medium,” Mukherjee continues.
As scholars such as historian Saleem Kidwai has pointed out, these so-called “public women” were at the forefront of literary and performing arts cultures because of their talents and ability to adapt to the changing patronage systems as well as performance avenues. In an essay about a few of these remarkable performers, Kidwai writes, “The star value of those who became popular through their recordings helped the ganewalis to successfully transit as concert artistes at ticketed performances. More so once social change and decline of rich patrons made the stage the main platform for the ganewali. The ganewalis, pressured by the shrill voices of their liberal nationalist critics, began to move into areas other than the recording industry. Theatre and films were two other options and the ganewalis naturally left their mark there too.”
In an interview with the Indian Cultural Forum, Ruth Vanita calls courtesans “the first women to actually shape Indian cinema”. This was particularly true of talkies, because the Eurasian, Jewish and Anglo-Indian stars who dominated silent cinema could not successfully transition to the talkie era. For the talkies, the industry needed actresses who could not only speak Hindi and Urdu, but could also sing and perform their own songs. Courtesan singer-actresses fit the bill perfectly — and so flooded the industry, even as moral panic about their presence set the stage for far more privileged women (upper caste, upper class) to subsequently enter the industry.