Why is a woman’s worth relative to the vows of marriage? What makes a woman who has either transgressed or bypassed these vows for her own happiness so threatening to the status quo? Samhita Arni refers back to legendary figures — mythological and actual — and studies how history is being both repeated and revised in modern culture
The internet is angry with Malaika Arora. Evidence, this choice (now-deleted) tweet:
Such loose morals these actors hav for relationships and pity they r being idolised #MalaikaAroraKhan
– ~ अruन ~ (@ramtaxjogi) March 28, 2016
It’s not just men who are angry with her. Women are too. Why? Because in her mid-forties, she’s done something that turns on its head the ideas we carry about a woman’s place and power.
After her divorce with Arbaaz Khan almost two years ago, Arora exited one ruling Bollywood dynasty (the Khans) and embarked on a relationship with a significantly younger man — the 34-year-old Arjun Kapoor — who is also the scion of another important film family. This has led to newspapers and clickbait sites repeating one question, like a chorus on loop: when are they going to get married?
Let’s go back in time to 1998 and the song Chaiyya Chaiyya, when Arora first burst onto the big screen. She was already a familiar face on television as a fashion-forward MTV VJ and star of popular advertisements. But here she was, playing the part of one of the unprivileged and straitened, travelling ticketless across the country by rail and evading the collectors by sitting atop the train. The character didn’t even have a name and was only credited as ‘Dancer on train’. Yet, this ‘dancer’ was a woman whose freedom and sexuality was something to be aspired to. She was like the earthly child of the apsaras of myths and yore, uninhibited in her sexuality and so much freer than what she would have been if she sat below, cloistered within the train. Dressed in a black lehnga and red choli, she stretched out her body and our entire understanding of her changed as the music began. It was a luxuriant, full-bodied stretch, and, with it, both the dancer and Arora took up and claimed their space.
This ‘item girl’, as we characterise her, of Bollywood that Arora represents has always been an unsavoury figure. Many are still uncomfortable with the exhibitionism, the sexual body language, the scanty outfits, and the male gaze that she attracts. For some, a ‘good’ woman is synonymous with modesty and virtue — interpreted with low-cast eyes, restrained physicality and a body covered by modest clothing. The item girl represents a destructive shadow-figure in our cultural consciousness: a woman who wrecks homes and invites the lust of men, a Machiavellian character who wields her sexuality to gain power and displace other women. This is a woman we are terrified of, a woman we don’t want to be. This is a ‘bad’ woman. She is the contemporary descendant of the nautch girl, one who danced and offered up her body. And, through that image, the item girl also follows the heritage of the devadasis, of the temple dancers who we still condemn as prostitutes — women whose bodies and sexuality are sold for profit, catering to a demand from men.
But the antecedents of the item girl go even further back and are embedded in myths and divine genealogies. A Tamilian legend has it that the famous dancer Madhavi — a character in two major Tamil epics, the Silappatikaram and the Manimekelai — was the earthly descendant of Urvashi, the apsara known to ‘control the hearts of others’, who was foremost among divine dancers at the court of Indra, the King of Gods. Legend has it that the temperamental sage Agastya, exhausted after creating the Tamil language, came to Indra’s court to be entertained by Urvashi. But as she began to dance, her eyes strayed and instead caught sight of the handsome Jayanta, Indra’s son. At that moment, Agastya angrily cursed her and Jayanta with separation. The lovers were full of remorse and could not bear the pain of being parted, which pacified Agastya. But, he could not take his curse back, only modify it so that Jayanta would be reborn as a bamboo plant and Urvashi a dancing girl. The stalk of the bamboo plant, which was also used in Indra’s ceremonial chatra (umbrella), would now be placed onstage whenever Urvashi would perform in a king’s court on earth. Her eyes would not leave the bamboo stalk, and in this way, the lovers would come together in the human realm. So, Urvashi, in her mortal form, is the matriarch of a lineage of dancers that included the heroines of the aforementioned Tamil epics.
This is the myth that connects the court of the gods to the court of mortal kings, divine power to imperial power — and apsaras to earthly dancers. A process of transference occurs between women as they embody this power through their sexuality, and over time, it manifests through the female form. Dancers were therefore not just descendants of celestial beings; they were women who also fell in love and got married and often expressed themselves sexually outside the institution of marriage. But now, instead of acknowledging that agency, we label them as ‘prostitutes’ and, sometimes, as ‘courtesans’ if we attempt respect. As a result, the prostitute and the courtesan have become synonymous with each other, which wasn’t always so.
The courtesan was essentially a female courtier; a woman who moved in high circles, wielded social and economic power and could either afford or choose to remain undefined by her marital status. In many instances, using her sexuality through a marriage or liaison was the way up for her. See the example of the beautiful Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Di’s ancestress, whose political activism for the Whigs (which over time became the now-extinct Liberal Party in the UK) brought them into ascendance. She even had an affair and illegitimate daughter with Prime Minister Charles Grey (incidentally, he of Earl Grey tea fame). Or the historical case of Madame de Pompadour, who became the mistress of Louis XV. The story of how she brought herself to notice and gained the title of Marquise de Pompadour is fascinating. She drove herself into the King’s path twice while he was hunting; first, wearing a blue dress while riding in a pink phaeton (a carriage which was the 18th-century equivalent of a sports car), and the second time in a pink dress and blue phaeton. Pompadour’s relationship with the King commenced after their next encounter at a masked ball — she was dressed as Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt. The costume was no coincidence and the metaphor obvious; with her sports-carriages and fashion ensembles, Madame de Pompadour had, in fact, chased the King and hunted him down. A sexual relationship began and continued for many years, eventually waning. But Pompadour remained Louis XV’s most intimate confidante and became officially known as the ‘friend of the King’. Amongst her remarkable historical legacy is the fact that the men Pompadour brought to the king’s attention made France the richest nation in the world in her time.
Contrast this with one of her Indian counterparts, the legendary Anarkali. The belief is that Anarkali was the dancing girl that Prince Salim (later, Emperor Jahangir) fell in love with. This did not meet the approval of his father Akbar, and Anarkali then suffered the distressing fate of being entombed alive inside the palace walls. While this tragic romance has captured our imagination, the truth may be somewhat different. It’s possible that Anarkali may not have been a doomed dancing girl but one of Akbar’s wives or concubines and the mother of Prince Daniyal. And that the conflict over Anarkali may have actually been a father-son rivalry.
The mythical tale of Anarkali, even if historically inaccurate, is a metaphor that captures the way we regard female sexual agency. It has been represented in films such as Mughal-e-Azam in 1960 to the 2012 item number Anarkali Disco Chali — which, interestingly, also features Arora — in Housefull 2. In the legend and film portrayal, Anarkali martyrs herself for her lover’s life, but in Anarkali Disco Chali, this self-sacrifice is subverted. The song opens with Arora in a transparent kurta, sexual yet demure. While the lyrics talk of an alternate life in which the courtesan leaves behind the lane of her lover Salim, this new Anarkali ‘goes to the disco’. And as Arora transforms — she’s now in a short silver dress that she wears like armour — we see an empowered Anarkali, who knows how to use her sexuality but does not destroy herself, yearning for freedom instead. “Mujhko pyari azaadi/ Qaid mein ab nahi rehna/ Zulm zalim vaishi ka/ Ab na mujhko hai sehna.” (Freedom is dear to me. I don’t want to be imprisoned anymore. Injustice is something I no longer want to bear.)
Who are today’s courtesans? Global celebrity Kim Kardashian West and her brood of siblings spring to mind. Keeping Up With The Kardashians has spawned a modern dynasty, and Kardashian West’s strategic marriages have added to her own and her family’s mythology. Her second wedding to basketball player Kris Humphries was a multi-million dollar extravaganza. But the relationship lasted all of 72 days, leading many to speculate whether its primary purpose had been to increase her fame and status. (It’s also worth remembering that a leaked sex tape helped propel Kardashian to stardom, much like her reality star predecessor and former client and best friend, Paris Hilton.) Kardashian West’s third marriage to rapper Kanye West helped catapult her and her bloodline to super-stardom. The controversies surrounding Kardashian West’s multiple nuptials and her subsequent omnipresence have even opened the doors to the White House (she leveraged her power for two tête-à-têtes with Trump to secure the release of a female prisoner, unfairly incarcerated for life).
But take the case of another item-girl-actor, like the now-obscure Mallika Sherawat, for whom the reverse has been true. While Kardashian West’s celebrity status — or notoriety — has skyrocketed in spite of her multiple (mis)alliances, Sherawat’s spiralled downwards. The disclosure of the latter’s short-lived marriage to a Delhi-based pilot at 19, before she sought Bollywood fame, was met with censure at the start of her career. And the more-recent rumours linking her with Antonio Banderas, implicating her for his split with Melanie Griffith, are an extension of the same moral judgement. Would the mass Indian opinion have been placated if she had sought another spouse, a kind of ‘fig-leaf’ to conceal her sexual appeal and contain her desire? It might have been easier for either Sherawat or Arora if they had won prestigious awards, worked in art films, transitioned into directing — maybe like the also recently-divorced and now-pregnant Kalki Koechlin. However, she bears another cross: an evident sexual relationship outside of wedlock.
It makes society uncomfortable to think of marriage as such a strategic alliance, orchestrated by a woman who calculates the benefits and disadvantages of relationships and how she uses her sexuality. Yet, does the 46-year-old Arora, confidently sexy, financially independent and mother of a teenage son really need a husband anymore? It’s telling that after ‘Khan’ disappeared from Arora’s name, she, too, faced public defamation for following her heart, much like another one of her onscreen item-girl avatars, Munni of Munni Badnaam Hui (Munni was defamed) notoriety. But it’s time to perceive her awareness of sexual power as the source of her liberation rather than her shame. It has long been the custom for a woman to employ her sexuality for pleasure and entertainment, to choose where to place that power to propel herself upwards, to broker relationships, to fight for social causes, or to indulge in activism (as the Duchess of Devonshire or Kardashian West have done).
Arora’s situation may be an opportunity to question why she is being sentenced without a trial for simply moving on with her life. Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing to be like the free dancer in Chaiyya Chaiyya — laying claim to her body and owning it in all its inherent power.
Known for her adaptations of Indian epics, Bengaluru-based writer and columnist Samhita Arni published her first book The Mahabharata – A Child’s View at the age of eight. She has subsequently authored two books based on the Ramayana — the graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana and the mythological thriller The Missing Queen. Her latest work The Prince explores the contemporary relevance of the Sangam era epic Silappadikaram,
particularly of its narrative of Goddess Kannagi.