Musharraf Ali Farooqi'sBetween Clay and Dust tells the story of a culture in decline. Through the inner turmoil of two protagonists—a wrestler and a courtesan—we witness the private tragedies of two once-revered artisans whose skills are no longer in demand and who no longer enjoy a privileged position in their society. Though the cataclysmic Partition of India and Pakistan in 1948 is the historical backdrop, these characters are above all casualties of time and change. In bringing these characters to life, Ali Farooqi draws on rich traditions that span the subcontinent but which will be unfamiliar to most readers in the West, and even many younger people in South Asia today.
Courtesans (we will explore traditional wrestling in another post) have existed in Indian culture since at least the Vedic times (1000 BC). Gohar Jan, one the novel's protagonists, is a tawa'if, an elite female entertainer who excels at music and dance, poetry, and social etiquette. Their homes, called kothas, were both brothels and salons.They embodied both courtly refinement and erotic allure. Ali Farooqi writes:
Gohar Jan was an accomplished singer whose raga recitals were renowned. Once a celebrated beauty, she was known for her haughty airs and capricious treatment of her lovers. Like other prominent tawa’ifs of her time, she maintained her own kotha where trainee girls or nayikas received instruction in the arts of musical entertainment. Gohar Jan’s kotha in the inner city was the largest and most famed.
A popular Indian film of the early 1970s, Pakeezah, captures the sounds of the kotha and the complex position of the tawa'if in a society that honors, fetishizes, and scorns them.
For a more authentic sound, the haunting recordings of Gauhar Jan are among the first recorded music from Far East. First captured in 1902 in a makeshift studio in a Kolkata hotel room by American and English engineers, the recordings were labeled "First Dancing Girl, Calcutta." Her real name was Angelina Yeoward. Her father was an Armenian Jew who married an Indian, and they trained their daughter in music and dance from an early age. Between 1902 and 1920, she recorded 600 records in ten different languages.
Though the tawa'if have mostly faded from fashion, their musical innovations and traditions have had an enduring effect on classical Indian culture. Kathak, a major form of dance from North India, has a strong connection to the courtesans. It is a form of narrative dance, of storytelling through movement. In the kothas, the once devotional form shifted to a kind of light popular entertainment.
In Between Clay and Dust, Ali Farooqi captures the mystique of the courtesan, their stewardship of tradition, as well as the harsh realities for the women who lived that life, despite the glamour and status. He writes:
The young men frequented the kothas to learn the bearings of polite society, the older men to socialize, or rekindle the memories of their lost youth. Whenever one of them fell in love with a tawaif or a nayika, his affairs provided a spectacle and entertainment to the rest of them, until he was cured of his passion. Those who could not survive it did not return. A tawaif who fell in love had only two choices: she could either put an end to the association, or leave the kotha to pursue a life outside—if one was offered her. Implicit in the latter choice was the understanding that she would never be readmitted to the kotha if the promise of the new life failed her. There was a universe of failed unions, dreams, and abandoned hopes that started in the kothas and trailed off into the anonymity of the city’s dark alleys. It was said—with some justification—that only the fickle survived in the kothas, and only the pitiless prospered.