A Courtesans Kitchen at Discostan

by BJ Panda Bear

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

The Courtesans of Lucknow, India -- their sumptuous and mannered aesthetics, their culture of refined discourse and rebellious living, their lifestyle of physical decadence and ascetic philosophy of love--have inspired A Courtesan’s Kitchen; a table of bites that Zehra Ahmed created and cooked up at this past Saturday’s Discostan. Discostan is a unique art space and dance party that focuses on the music and media of the SWANA  (Southwest Asian and North African) region, the first space of its kind in the United States; run by founder Arshia Fatima Haq and collaborator Jeremy Loudenback. 

A personal study by Zehra into the Courtesans, tawa'if, this became an opportunity to explore the ideas of feminism and resistance through the pleasures of food and aesthetics. Zehra believes that conversations are easier when conducted around food, in aesthetic surroundings that are a little fantastical. 

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

Though the Courtesans’ reputation was sullied by post-Imperial mores, theirs is a history of independent and noble means, possessed by women to whom life initially handed little. Prior to 1857 and the arrival of colonialism, the Courtesans of Lucknow, India, were the custodians of culture and trendsetters of fashion. They were proficient in music, dance and poetry, with which they charmed their clients and patrons. Through their earnings and connections, they enjoyed wealth, power, prestige, political access, and were considered both authorities on and gatekeepers of culture. Noble families would send their sons to the kothas, the houses of tawa'if (Courtesans) to learn tehzeeb, or etiquette, and the art of conversation.

During a period when women were given little freedom and identities were tied strictly to that of father or husband, Courtesans were a distinct counterpoint; an independent identity which preyed upon and subverted the men of a cultured  world. The life of a Courtesan both massaged and upended patriarchal values; they offered pleasures of the flesh as much as scintillating conversations of the mind, and used their enraptured clients to further their worldly material advancement. The records indicate enormous wealth, with gold and orchards in abundance, held outright by these women. 

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

The Courtesans were a sisterhood. Their business was not to exploit women, nor to transform the lot of womankind, but rather to liberate and empower those with whom they were associated. Camaraderie, wit, teasing and affectionate interaction; these are the hallmarks of their inner world. Those who dare to hold ‘moral’ objections to the life of a Courtesan should remember that these were human beings who had considered the thankless toil of an average housewife, including her obligation to satisfy a sometimes faithless or alcoholic or violent husband.

More recent history has taught us to look down upon Courtesans across the globe; to call them anti-feminist and immoral, but consideration of their lives shows that we have much to learn from the psychology of these women. They provide a fantasy, rooted in an historical reality, that many of us aspire to whether we choose to voice that desire or not. But the Courtesans bravely seized the luscious fruits of potential offered by their particular lives. 

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

Photographed by Douglas Fenton

Zehra Ahmed is a creative producer, curator and now cook. She is the founder of Women In Windows - a platform that curates video art and film by women of diverse backgrounds, which explores identity through the lens of culture, religion, spirituality and the everyday. Earlier in her career, Zehra worked in London and New York as an architect and designer on various large scale hospitality projects in the United States and across Asia.