To this date there is a controversy on whether Umrao Jan, a courtesan, existed in the 19th century, here’s a look at the mysterious woman behind the fiction
Words by Apernah Dubey
To the ones who believe that she was real, they remember the unforgettably unfortunate Umrao Jan Ada as the most famous and affluent courtesan and poet of her time in Lucknow, however, we seem to have no paintings of her and there is only one memoir written on her by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, published in 1899 to get to know the real Amiran. But there are evidences and an overlooked legacy of an astounding life lived, that seems to hint at the possibility of Umrao being a fictional character inspired by a phenomenal woman, no history book seem to mention of.
To many well researched intellectual conspiracy theorists, it’s no debate that the first notable work of Urdu literature published in 1899 by Mirza Hadi Ruswa was genius; where he changed Aurangabad to Faizabad and morphed one of the most inspiring female characters from India that I’ve ever come across called Mah Laqa Bai into a more bite sized, poetic version of her actual larger than life personality in order for it to be published by the British East India company with the purpose of training British officers in Indian languages, customs and laws.
Mah Laqa Bai or Chanda Bai (1768-1824) wielded the sort of power that was unimaginable for a courtesan of her times — she was an advisor at the Nizam's court, the holder of a jagir and the first woman to compile a full diwan of Urdu poetry. She was born in a blessed family and lived an affluent exemplary life throughout. She was taught and trained by the best to be a courtesan, poet, warrior, political player, patron of the arts and promoter of girl child education.
What I find the most fascinating is that she was as big as a movie star today but loved to accompany the Nizam into battle in male attire. She was also an excellent archer and tent pegger. In the words of Qadrat Ullah Qasim, a Hyderabadi sage, she was “a unique combination of body and soul”. Many theatre musicals still remember her locally, however the mainstream history narrative seems to have covered her incredible life story and legacy under a thick layer of comfortable dust.
Mah Laqa was deeply enamoured with the traditional religious elements and was a dedicated philanthropist who worked towards empowering young girls and training women.
She ultimately left all her buildings and great wealth worth crores to homeless girls. It seems very believable that the character was dimmed down and sexed up to sell the novel and to keep the society shaming and feeling bad for the tawaifs, the category of badass women who made their own rules and lived under no man’s shadow and were known to put their career and art first.
They served their society and helped other artists get jobs and recognition but never won the acceptance by the society that forces women to be live a tamed, married life as soon as they reach their prime and many never realise their true potential. Her work has shaped and changed the course of Urdu literature and writing, she truly was an original Indian icon of feminism and deserves to be remembered by the world for the grandeur of her mind, body and soul that we can access through the memoirs and the ghazals that she’s left behind so generously, to be remembered fondly and I for one am sure in awe of her, and deeply humbled by her sincere philanthropic deeds.
Her original shayari:
Roshan Rakhon jahan mein Maula, misaal mehr Chanda ke munh se noor ko tum door mut karo
(Maula Ali, who is like the sun illuminating the world Keep the light shining forever on Chanda’s face).