A Quick History of Prostitution in Bengal

From “Introducing Phulmoni and Her Sisters”, Dangerous Outcast, the Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal, Sumanta Banerjee, Seagull Books, Calcutta: 2000.
In his 4th century B.C. treatise on governance, the Arthashastra, Kautilya laid down rules and guidelines for the interaction between prostitutes, customers, and the state. Prostitutes were recommended to deal with customers is specific ways, and punitive measures were defined for defaulting or aggressive customers. Prostitutes paid taxes (worth two days’ earnings) like other skilled professionals. Their work was not a crime, nor a sin. Indeed, in Chandragupta Maurya’s time, their skill at making people relax and converse was recognised and used by the spy/intelligence system.

Centuries down,in the 1200s, we find anonymous Bengali poets extolling the beauty and grace of ‘the courtesans of Bengal’, concluding rhetorically, “who would not be bereft of his mind, to behold [such beauties] as the Bengali baranganas?”

NOTE: Some Hindu lawmakers, such as Manu, decreed that prostitutes belonged with thieves and blackmailers, and any Brahmin consorting with such criminals should be punished. However, as A. L. Basham points out, in medieval India at least, this stricture remained largely theoretical because brahmans – guardians and promulgators of Manu’s sacred laws – had their identity and very real economic existence tied to various temples, and temples had hundreds of prostitutes on their staff.

From rhyming record-keeping traditions, we find that prostitutes continued to be major partners in social and cultural festivities and royal expeditions in Bengal in the 17th century, as evident from the following description of the entourage accompanying a prince embarking on a journey:

Alim, pandit aar jyotish, ganak
Nana jantra, raj-beshya, gahon, nartak

(‘Learned Muslims, Hindu pandits, astrologers, astronomers; various musical instruments, royal courtesans, singers and dancers’. Please note that ‘dancer’ here is a male person.)

Such laudatory reference to prostitutes and eulogistic descriptions about their life style – which continued in Bengali literature from the medieval period till the early 18th century – indicate a continuity of certain societal values as well as of state patronage which allowed the prostitutes to enjoy a [relatively] privileged space in society. Their task as the cultivator of the arts, especially, provided them with avenues for participating in the wider society through cultural and religious events. For example, Vaishnavis, depsite their non-normative sexual behaviour, were welcomed to religious gatherings at caste Hindu houses, especially rich ones that could afford their musical/spiritual services.

In the prevailing anarchy of the early years of 18th century Bengal [the British were making inroads, the Portugese and French were establishing control at port-towns, local administration was in turmoil, attacking each other], faint silhouettes of the courtesan of yore were to be found among the free women living on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society – the singers and dancers from the lower castes; the Hindu widows who joined Vaishnavaite ‘akhras’ or clubs and were free to choose their male partners; and the so-called fallen women (those deserted by their husbands, or seduced by lovers to be abandoned later) forced to eke out a living after having been discarded by their families. Not all of them could be strictly called professional prostitutes, since they made their living by being flower-sellers, milk-maids, barbers and so on, but their economic freedom gave them greater social flexibility than the average ‘mainstream’ woman in contemporary society.

Around mid-18th century, the depradations of the Marhatta raiders (known as bargis), created widespread anarchy in the countryside with the abduction and raping of women. In accordance with the conservative norms of Hindu society, families seldom took back these unfortunate victims, since they were considered ‘polluted’.

Then the disastrous famine of 1770 hit. It wiped out a third of the population of Bengal and forced the survivors to sell their children to survive. One could see boats filled with children coming down the river for open sale at Calcutta, stolen from their parents, or bought perhaps for a measure of rice. Many of these women and children ended up at brothels, or as personal slaves in rich households.

NOTE: Female Domestic Slavery: Indeed, a boom in slave traffic happened all through the 17th and 18th centuries, carried out mainly by the Portugese pirates from Arab settlements in Africa and South-west Asia, leading to the importation of large numbers of black women slaves (known variously as habshis or kafris in local Bengali) to serve in Muslim aristocratic households in cities like Dhaka, Murshidabad and eventually, Calcutta.

Rich Hindu families, too, had maintained dasis or female slaves from medieval times in Bengal, as evident from contemporary Hindu rules and regulations formulated by the 12th century Bengali lawmaker, Jeemutabahana, who laid down meticulous rules in his Dayabhaga as to the distribution of these dasis, along with immovable property, amongst male heirs of a family. According to Maheshwara, a later commentator on, and interpreter of, the Dayabhaga, the female slaves were used to satiate the lust of the household’s men, and whoever they loaned or gifted the women to.

Throughout the late 17th and 18th century, however, ‘kept’ women or mistresses had a social acceptability they later lost. Officers and lawyers of the courts of this period, when introducing themselves and their colleagues to some newly arrived bhadralok, used to describe them in these terms: “This gentleman has built a pucca house for his mistress”. Building a pucca house for a mistress was considered a sign of honour and prestige.

The restrictive and punitive attitude adopted by the British administration in the 19th century was in sharp contrast to the permissive and accommodating policies pursued by generations of rulers in pre-colonial India, although the latter subscribed to the same patriarchal values that compelled the British to accept prostitution for their soldiers as essential. The British, however, introduced a moral dimension by attaching a stigma to prostitutes, and banishing them from society.

Sophisticated official measures like the repressive Act XIV of 1868 accompanied aggressive campaigns by the English-educated Bengali bhadralok against prostitutes’ participation in socio-cultural activities. These were accompanied by systematic psychological assault through verbal violence – abuse that were aimed at reinforcing their inferior and degrading position in society. Over the years, these abuses and sayings became a part of popular culture in Bengal – building up the stereotype of a blood-sucking vampire, out to fleece ‘unwary’ and ‘innocent’ men.
NOTE: Some English settlers – particularly senior officials who did not want their underlings ‘distracted’ or sympathetic to the local culture via local women – concurred. “The climate is undoubtedly one of the chief causes of this great propensity to sexual intercourse, the results of which prove generally so unfortunate to my countrymen”, one of them wrote. “The Hindoostanee women (under this denomination I class both Hindoos and Moslems)… form a cluster of delights, to the temptation of which it is not surprising if we see men, in other respects prudent, fall the victims.”
Capt. Thomas Williamson claimed in his East Indian Guide and Vade Mecum that prostitutes were part of a ‘debash and crafty’ Indian mechanism to trap and devour young officers: “Nothing can be more dangerous than this irregular indulgence; it never failing first to drain the purse, and, in a few days or weeks, the constitution also.”

In conclusion, Sumanta Banerjee sums up the situation thus:

Even in the state of comparative freedom enjoyed by the courtesan, she had to cultivate skills mainly for the entertainment of the male. But significantly enough, the cultivation did not remain confined to skills of sexual entertainment alone. It embraced the fine arts-music, dancing, painting.

In contrast, in capitalist society, like other wage workers in a system that thrives on intensification of the division of labour and specialisation of skills, the prostitute, also, is pushed into a strictly defined narrow space. She is condemned to the exclusive role of a specialist in sexual entertainment. Stripped of all emotional and intellectual attributes, she becomes the female body – an input required at one level in the long line of the production process in a capitalist society. Reduced to a source of purely utilitarian needs, her body is expected to produce the regular nocturnal fantasy of pleasure that deceptively fills up the vacuity of the soul of the alienated worker who comes to her as a client. She represents the ultimate in alienation in a capitalist society. The alienation of one section of the exploited feeds upon the alienation of another.

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