Book Review: ‘Courting Hindustan’ by Madhur Gupta

Saga of unsung fighters – the courtesan women back in Indian history.


Book Title: Courting Hindustan
Author: Madhur Gupta
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Number of Pages: 208
ISBN: 978-9357021036
Date Published: May 05, 2023
Price: INR 284

Courting Hindustan by Madhur Gupta Book Cover

Book Review

Do you remember Madhubala as Anarkali?
Do you remember Meena Kumari as Paakezah?
Do you remember Rekha as Umraojaan?
Do you remember Kiron Kher as Sardari Begum?
Do you remember Karishma Kapoor as Zubeida?

What is the common thing all these four damsels have?

They are all courtesans. As the ages and dynasties passed, withered, the concept of courtesan underwent a significant metamorphosis.

Courtesans in India have been known by various names for hundreds of years, depending on what they have done and where they are social – from tawaifs, who performed in Mughal India’s courts and salons, to baijis and gaanewalis, the first recording superstars, to lavani dancers, who perform at theatres across Maharashtra.

The courtesans of India did not appear out of nowhere; their history dates back thousands of years. Courtesans were present in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, according to the facts. This group of ladies, known as courtesans, had a specific job: to pleasure the court males. Despite the belief that courtesans were a despised segment of society, these women were often so wealthy and politically involved that they made enormous contributions to Indian history.

Courting Hindustan“, authored by Madhur Gupta, is a well-researched, exquisitely created depiction of some of the most attractive female individuals involved in traditional Indian entertainment arts such as music, dance, and poetry. It re-creates 2,500 years of elite traditional female performers and how, over the ages, they have caught the imagination of the country and the globe, causing their work and lives to be a complicated response to social pressures and cultural contexts.

The book featured the 10 most important, unforgettable, and enchanting women. The story of Amrapali is the first one in the list of contents in the book. According to historical accounts and Buddhist texts, Amrapali was born into a humble family in Vaishali.

She possessed exceptional beauty and talent as a dancer, which earned her great fame and popularity. As a courtesan, she entertained and performed for ordinary people and influential figures, including kings and nobles.

Her life took a significant turn when Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, visited Vaishali during his travels. Impressed by her grace and charm, Buddha is said to have accepted an invitation to Amrapali’s residence for a meal. This encounter profoundly impacted Amrapali, and she became a devoted follower of Buddhism.

Many tales and movies have been developed, taking this as a significant storyline. Vipranarayana of Telugu veteran superstar Akkineni Nageshwara Rao and ace actress Bhanumathi’s story is almost equivalent to Gautama Buddha and Amrapali. Such is the effect these women from history have bestowed on the people.

Madhur Gupta, the author, has skillfully revived the tales of forgotten figures, reminding us of their significance. It is our responsibility, particularly those who possess knowledge about Indian courtesans and their contributions, to acquaint the younger generation with these inspiring individuals.

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Indian history would be incomplete without acknowledging the role of these women. Regrettably, recent films often portray courtesans solely as pleasure providers, disregarding their esteemed positions within the Mughal administration in bygone eras.

The prologue by respected Shri Birju Maharaj Ji and reviews by people of certain stature like Mallika Sarabhai, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Anoushka Shankar, Shashi Tharoor, and such dignitaries make “Courting Hindustan” a must-read!