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Courtesans in Colonial India: Representations of British Power through Understandings of Nautch-Girls, Devadasis, Tawa'ifs, and Sex-Work, c. 1750-1883

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Title: Courtesans in Colonial India: Representations of British Power through Understandings of Nautch-Girls, Devadasis, Tawa'ifs, and Sex-Work, c. 1750-1883
Author: Howard, Grace
Department: Department of History
Program: History
Advisor: Palsetia, JesseSmith, Norman
Abstract: British representations of courtesans, or nautch-girls, is an emerging area of study in relation to the impact of British imperialism on constructions of Indian womanhood. The nautch was a form of dance and entertainment, performed by courtesans, that originated in early Indian civilizations and was connected to various Hindu temples. Nautch performances and courtesans were a feature of early British experiences of India and, therefore, influenced British gendered representations of Indian women. My research explores the shifts in British perceptions of Indian women, and the impact this had on imperial discourses, from the mid-eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries. Over the course of the colonial period examined in this research, the British increasingly imported their own social values and beliefs into India. British constructions of gender, ethnicity, and class in India altered ideas and ideals concerning appropriate behaviour, sexuality, sexual availability, and sex-specific gender roles in the subcontinent. This thesis explores the production of British lifestyles and imperial culture in India and the ways in which this influenced their representation of courtesans. During the nabob period of the eighteenth century, nautch parties worked as a form of cultural interaction between Indian elites and British East India Company officials. However, over the course of the nineteenth century the nautch and nautch-girls became symbolic to the British of India’s ‘despotism’ and ‘backwardness,’ as well as representative of the supposed dangers of miscegenation and Eastern sensuality. By the mid-nineteenth century, nautch-girls were represented as commercial sex-workers and were subject to the increasing surveillance and medical intervention of the British colonial state. In addition, this representation perpetuated the belief of the British ‘saving’ Indian women as a way to justify the continuation of colonialism in India. My research explores how British conceptualizations of courtesans were fundamental to the justification of the imperial project in India, as well as representative of changing British perceptions of their own political and territorial power in the subcontinent.
Date: 2019-05
Rights: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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