Khanum Jan: Forgotten Story Of 18th-Century Courtesan | #IndianWomenInHistory

A troupe of singers of Sufi songs from Kashmir, amongst different such bands, carried out for the elite of Lucknow within the late 18th century. This explicit Nautch set (a distortion of the phrase Nach, that means dance) was led by the superstar courtesan Khanum Jan. The small print of her life are unknown. Her beginning and dying date, her age, and a report of essential occasions in her life can solely be speculated.

What we all know for sure is that she was extremely educated in Hindustani music, poetry, courtly etiquette and wit, and, because the scholar Katherine Butler Schofield playfully places it, the artwork of seduction. Performing for the Awadhi elite in addition to Europeans, Khanum Jan was cognisant of the distinct tastes of the Mughal elite who felt the nuances of the Ragas and the Europeans who took pleasure within the repetition of rhythms and metres. She artfully balanced the 2 in her music and appealed to each audiences. Consequently, she was famed among the many elite circles of Awadhi and British alike. 

The dancing woman 

Coincidentally, we all know an identical Khanum Jan from Sayyid Muhammad Hasan Shah’s autobiography (deemed fictionalised), Afsana-e-Rangin, which was written in 1790. This was rendered in Urdu in 1893. The title was modified to Nashtar—a Surgeon’s knife, which implied “the excruciating ache of affection and separation from one’s beloved.” The novel was translated into English—The Dancing Lady—by Qurratulain Hyder in 2003. Owing to the uncanny similarity between Shah’s account of Khanum Jan and people derived from European sources, most prominently Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, it’s doubtless they had been the identical particular person. 

Hasan Shah was a munshi (a scholar or a clerk) at “Ming Saheb’s,” cantonment in Kanpur. Ming Saheb’s unique identify is conjectured to be Charles Manningham. Shah’s tragic story relates the love story between the munshi and Khanum Jan who married secretly however had been separated when Ming Saheb determined to relocate elsewhere.

Supply: Web Archive

Khanum Jan and Hasan Shah made plans to go away collectively, nevertheless, he was delayed by Ming Saheb’s calls for and Khanum Jan left along with her Nautch set. Hasan Shah supposed to meet up with her however Khanum Jan acquired sick on the way in which, was taken to Lucknow, and died. 

One passage within the e-book describes how Shah felt when he perceived Khanum Jan for the primary time: 

She has a magnolia face and narcissus eyes. She should have ruined the piety of a thousand males. Wearing finery, she ambled in, and struck a pose which was totally devastating. Our eyes met and I used to be struck by the arrow of affection. I turned nonetheless like an image and was petrified like a statue. Then I felt a surge of blood in my veins and my coronary heart fluttered helplessly.

Additional within the novel, Hasan Shah’s account of Khanum Jan tells us that she was a particularly educated, delicate, and strong-willed particular person participating in a disagreement with the munshi by means of the ghazals of Hafiz. Nevertheless, his patriarchal male fantasies dictated his attraction towards her. He regarded down upon tawaifs and regarded them lowly:

To be exact, listed here are the factors why I am keen on you: God has bestowed on you the next qualities:

Sense of honour and self-respect. Additionally modesty to a correct diploma. 


Politeness. Candy Speech. Brilliance.


The flexibility to grasp human nature, good judgement, and loyalty are qualities I’ve not but examined in you, however an individual with all these traits should be extraordinary. It’s a pity that you’re trapped amongst individuals who don’t have anything to do with these qualities.”

Khanum Jan, and the Hindustani airs

Sophia Plowden’s interplay with Khanum Jan, uncovered by Katherine Schofield within the British Library, offers a fuller image of Khanum Jan’s creative skills. Sophia Plowden, alongside along with her husband—an East India Firm officer—was a resident of Calcutta and Lucknow from 1777 to 1790. Lucknow on the time was underneath the rule of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula. 

Plowden, amongst different Englishwomen, was deeply thinking about Nautch performances and enthusiastically documented Khanum Jan’s performances in her tune e-book. Normally, these tunes had been tailored for European tastes and harmonised in keyboard notations with English lyrics that bore no resemblance with the unique Hindustani or Persian lyrics. These got here to be referred to as Hindustani airs. Schofield’s essay, Words without songs,”: the social history of Hindustani song collections in India’s Muslim courts c.1770–1830 defines Hindustani air as “something that Europeans might readily distinguish as a hard and fast music composition, largely as a result of it emphasised textual content over rāg.”

Supply: Scroll. in

They gained immense recognition in British colonial society in North India and Bengal within the 1780s and ‘90s. Nevertheless, Plowden was not distinctive in documenting these tunes (for example, William Chicken and Colonel Polier). What set her aside from different collectors was that together with the melodies, she additionally collected the lyrics of the songs, transcribing them from languages of North Indian courtly songs. Furthermore, she carried out the songs herself in entrance of European circles and Schofield suggests that Plowden might have regarded Khanum Jan the way in which an Englishwoman would regard a celeb opera singer in London.

Plowden typically carried out these songs in soirees and donned Indian apparel attribute of a complicated courtesan to lend higher ‘authenticity,’ to her performances. She carried out even in entrance of Asaf-ud-Daula and was awarded the title of Begum by Shah Alam II Emperor Shah Alam II for her “distinctive devotedness, and uncommon constancy, excessive titles and honourable handle.” Plowden was instrumental within the promotion of Hindustani airs.

Supply: British Library

Ghazals, extensively carried out by Khanum Jan, had been extra acceptable for European-style notations “as a result of that they had clear lyrics, common meters, and repeated tunes.” Ghazal is a type of Persian and Urdu poetry primarily based on rhyming metrical couplets which had been set to Indian melodic codes known as Ragas. Ghazals had been additionally extra understandable to European ears. 

We don’t know Khanum Jan by means of her personal voice, as is the case with most courtesans and Englishwomen on the time. They’ve largely been written by males, making it extraordinarily troublesome to get to the person as she was. 


  1. The podcast by Katherine Butler Schofield:
  2. A weblog put up by Katherine Butler Schofield:
  3. The Courtesan Story: Feminine Musicians and Dancers in Mughal Historic Chronicles, c.1556–1748:
  4. From Tawaif to Nautch Lady: the Transition of the Lucknow Courtesan:
  5. The Dancing Lady by Hasan Shah, translated by Qurratulain Hyder:
  6. Principle and Observe within the Music of the Islamic World: Essays in Honour of Owen Wright:
  7. Nautch Ladies of India by Pran Nevile:
  8. The ‘Hindostannie Air’: English Makes an attempt to Perceive Indian Music within the Late Eighteenth Century by Ian Woodfield: