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Political players: Courtesans of Hyderabad


Important recent works on the Mughal state and women in the Indo-Muslim world have not considered courtesans or tawa’ifs, the singing and dancing women employed by Indo-Muslim states and nobles, to be significant participants in politics and society. Drawing on detailed archival data from late nineteenth century Hyderabad state and other historical materials, I argue that courtesans were often elite women, cultural standard-setters and wielders of political power. Women whose art and learning gained them properties and alliances with powerful men, they were political players in precolonial India and in the princely states. They successfully negotiated administrative reforms in princely states like Hyderabad, continuing to secure protection and patronage while in British India they began to be classified as prostitutes. Colonial and modern India have been less than kind to courtesans and their artistic traditions, and more research needs to be done on the history of courtesans and their communities.

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