Courtesan Photographs (1860s-c1900)

Inspired by an album of 168 cartes-de-visite of courtesans from various North Indian locations, mostly Lucknow, currently in the Royal Ontario Museum collection, this project examines the history of representation of the courtesan, from the dancing girl (nautch) in 18th-century Mughal and Company School painting to the playback singer and female film starlet in the early 20th century. It focuses on the period of the album: 1860s-1880s when the photos were taken and c.1900 when the album was compiled. In this way, it seeks to understand the role that photography played in visualizing elite courtesan women at a time of profound transition, that is, when they still held status and power in the courts of India and while that status was being eroded by Victorian morality and colonial/nationalist policy that questioned their legitimacy in a “new” India. Research consists of a close examination of the ROM’s album (including translation of inscriptions and identification of photo studios), comparison with similar images in other collections, and analysis of secondary sources on the topic of courtesan history. The project is being conducted with Ethnomusicology graduate student Ameera Nimjee.

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