Enjoyed Heeramandi? Read These 12 Books to Learn More About Courtesans!

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Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi is only one of the many depictions of courtesans in Indian cinema and art. And why wouldn’t they be a source of fascination and curiosity? Courtesans have played an important role in creating and prompting Indian art forms through decades and centuries. Often educated, they had a distinct social status and occupied a unique place in an otherwise patriarchal society.

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Our article today brings you the best of literature on and with courtesans across fiction and non-fiction, whether looking at a specific figure or describing a cultural phenomenon. Whether you’ve watched Heeramandi already or plan to, these books would be the perfect enriching companion. If you don’t find a book that should be a part of our list, comment below and we shall include it in our compilation. Let’s begin then!

Books to Read for Heeramandi Lovers

Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema

Title: Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema

Author: Ruth Vanita

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd

Price: 361

Pages: 272


Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema analyses the multifaceted world of courtesans in Indian cinema, particularly in early 20th-century Bombay. It helps you understand the cultural, social, and historical contexts around courtesans in Indian cinema.

Courtesans in Indian cinema were often depicted as embodying both the erotic and the national, a symbol of India’s cultural heritage as well as its erotic imagination. This dichotomy is central to the text’s exploration of the courtesans’ roles in Bombay cinema, often portrayed as both objects of desire and conveyors of cultural diversity.

You’ll find several films here, including classics like Mother India and Pyaasa, that show the evolving roles of courtesans through decades while showing different facets of their community. Using postcolonial, feminist, and queer theory amidst others, she presents an intricate understanding of how courtesans were represented and its impact on society.

These different perspectives give you a more comprehensive history of courtesans to better appreciate the setting and history of Heeramandi.

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Courting Hindustan: The Consuming Passions of Iconic Women Performers in India

Title: Courting Hindustan: The Consuming Passions of Iconic Women Performers in India

Author: Madhur Gupta

Publisher: Rupa Publications India

Price: 193

Pages: 208


Many critics have questioned the historical authenticity of the tawaifs in Heeramandi. Madhur Gupta’s Courting Hindustan presents a more realistic account of some of India’s most influential female performers who, despite the societal constraints of their times, created their unique paths and left their legacy on Indian arts and culture.

The book traces the stories of ten iconic women performers, including Roopmati, Begum Samru, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Gauhar Jaan, and Balasaraswati. Each woman comes from a different era, each with their own strengths and accomplishments.

Often reduced to mere footnotes, Gupta humanises these women and intertwines themes of feminism, individuality, morality, marriage, and resistance. It’s a corrective to the erasure of these women in contemporary discussions and the absence of women performers in Indian arts. The book provides a more nuanced understanding of the roles these women played in shaping Indian culture.

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The Last Courtesan: Writing My Mother's Memoir

Title: The Last Courtesan: Writing My Mother's Memoir

Author: Manish Gaekwad

Publisher: HarperCollins India

Price: 469

Pages: 192


The Last Courtesan is the story of Manish Gaekwad’s mother, Rekhabai’s, life as a tawaif in India. Manish writes his mother’s story, one deeply intertwined with his own experiences growing up in a kotha. The narrative is non-linear, jumping between different periods of Rekhabai’s life, from her childhood as a trafficked child to her years as a celebrated performer. It creates a deeper understanding of Rekhabai’s life and her world while also reflecting Gaekwad’s own emotional journey. 


She is a multifaceted character, full of contradictions. A strong-willed woman, she fought against the odds after being sold by the family she was married off to and built a life for herself. Gaekwad’s portrayal of his mother is intimate while maintaining an objective lens. It’s the choice to write the memoir from his mother’s perspective in the first person that enriches the reading experience incredibly. For a deeply personal story of a tawaif, that’s unlike any other mainstream portrayal (like Heeramandi).

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Bharatiya Ganika

Title: Bharatiya Ganika

Author: Dr. Suresh Deshpande

Publisher: Mehta Publishing House Pune

Price: 180

Pages: 176


The book looks at the lives of courtesans or women entertainers, known as ganikas, revered for their beauty, intelligence, and artistic talents. Bharatiya Ganika shows the unique stories, struggles, and achievements of these women who were often looked down upon by society. The first part presents the historical contexts and evolution of the ganika institution. You see the rise, development, and eventual decline of ganikas. Through their history, you get a comprehensive idea of their roles in royal courts and society at large. 

Contrary to the often negative perception of courtesans, ganikas were celebrated figures, patronized by kings and were cultural icons of their times. Deshpande fascinatingly covers various aspects of ganikas’ lives, from their rigorous training to the beauty accessories they used. The detailed descriptions and historical anecdotes help you better understand the complex world of ganikas.

The latter half of the book shifts to storytelling with 13 stories. Through these tales, you see the multifaceted nature of these women who were more than entertainers. Heeramandi lovers will enjoy this comprehensive take on Indian courtesans.

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Title: Sewasadan

Author: Premchand

Publisher: Lokbharti Prakashan

Price: 125

Pages: 236


Our next recommendation for Heeramandi lovers is a classic. The novel shows the ill-treatment of women, particularly in the context of dowry and child marriage. Also, it brings out the hypocrisy of the societal pillars of religion and morality and how they fail to uphold the same values they preach. The novel’s depiction of the lives of courtesans and their struggles is a great commentary on the norms of the time.

The novel’s title, Sevasadan, translating to “House of Service,” fittingly represents the themes and motifs explored in the novel. The house, a shelter for the children of former courtesans, represents the hope for a better future and the possibility of redemption for the marginalized. The story is of Suman, a Brahmin woman trapped in a miserable marriage due to her family’s social and financial commitments. She goes from being a housewife to becoming a courtesan in the city’s “kothas.” However, her life changes when the municipal corporation orders the “kothas” to be shifted outside the city, forcing Suman to re-evaluate her choices and find a new purpose in life.

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Title: Phoolsunghi

Author: Pandey Kapil (Author), Gautam Choubey (Translator)

Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton

Price: 295

Pages: 192


Set in colonial India, Phoolsunghi is a major part of the Bhojpuri literary movement, following three characters: Dhelabai, Babu Haliwant Sahay, and Mahendra Misir. One is a courtesan from Muzaffarpur, one a powerful zamindar belonging to Chhapra, and another a Bhojpuri poet and singer. Dhelabai is captured by Sahay and trapped in his golden cage. Slowly adjusting to her new life, she falls in love with Misir and his voice and thus begins a forbidden romance that can destroy everything.

Phoolsunghi, or a flowerpecker, is a lively species that can’t be held captive. If it is, it loses its liveliness and perishes. The essence of this word is at the core of this book and repetitively presents itself in the schemings of the story. Each character symbolises specific elements, like Dhelabai personifying beauty and music, while Sahay represents power and the constraints of societal expectations. From the rich setting to the historical elements, it’s the perfect story for fans of Heeramandi.

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Umrao Jaan Ada

Title: Umrao Jaan Ada

Author: Mirza Hadi 'ruswa'

Publisher: Rajpal

Price: 199

Pages: 226


Considered by many to be the first modern Urdu novel, Umrao Jaan Ada is the story of Umrao Jaan, a courtesan, who narrated the story of her life to the author during a mushaira. Written from a first-person perspective, Ruswa gives Umrao Jaan a distinct voice. Born to a modest Faizabad family, she’s kidnapped and sold to a courtesan.

A strong-willed and perceptive character, she bravely faces the challenges life throws at her. The book chronicles the different phases of her life, from her various relationships to her complex relationship with her family. Coinciding with the many armed struggles against British rule (particularly the 1857 mutiny), the book has numerous historical elements, too. With the lyrical language, you experience 19th-century Lucknow with all its hustle-bustle. Moreover, there are multiple Indian and Pakistani adaptations of the novel, perfect for fans of Heeramandi.

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Title: Tawaifnama

Author: Saba Dewan

Publisher: Context

Price: 667

Pages: 640


Whether you’ve watched Heeramandi or not, this is a must-read. One of the most exhaustive books ever written on courtesans, Tawaifnama (or the story of Tawaifs) is the tale of a family of renowned tawaifs. Using this family as an embodiment of the entirety of Tawaif history and culture, Saba Dewan shows the various facets of this community through decades and centuries. Ignored or vilified, tawaifs have been stigmatised over the years. After all, free-spirited women under the public gaze of a patriarchal society can hardly be expected to be treated with dignity, eh?

Tawaifnama reclaims that rich history and culture and presents it here in all its vividness and complexity. She shows their critical societal and cultural roles in Northern India. She writes about the tawaif culture, including the struggle for identity, the power dynamics between men and women, and the footprint of colonialism and nationalism on Indian society. If you want to know more about the tawaif culture after watching Heeramandi, this is the place to check out.

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The Indian Portrait - XIV : Dancing in the Shadows: Tawaifs - Courtesans

Title: The Indian Portrait - XIV : Dancing in the Shadows: Tawaifs - Courtesans

Author: Anil Relia

Publisher: Archer Art Gallery

Price: 320

Pages: 160


Want to watch how the real-life courtesans looked like after fawning over the gorgeous sets of Heeramandi? We’ve got you covered with this recommendation! The 14th instalment of The Indian Portrait series, this book has a collection of artworks depicting the beauty, elegance, and sophistication of these women. The displayed portraits give a glimpse into the lives and experiences of the tawaifs with visually stunning pieces.

The selection challenges the common perception of tawaifs as mere sex workers; instead, presenting them as highly skilled and admired performers, musicians, and dancers. It also highlights their contributions to the preservation and evolution of traditional Indian music, dance, and theatre. Beyond artworks, the book includes letters, diaries, and other personal items offering a glimpse into the daily lives of these women, from their relationships to their struggles.

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The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History

Title: The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History

Author: Manu S. Pillai

Publisher: Context

Price: 399

Pages: 400


Pillai’s choice of characters, from courtesans to rulers, soldiers, and saints, all go against traditional stereotypes. By focusing on these figures, Pillai brings a refreshing perspective to Indian history. He situates each event within its historical framework, letting you better understand the motivations, beliefs, and societal norms shaping the actions of these historical characters.

The book also explores gender and power dynamics through characters like Jodhabai and Muddupalani and how women’s contributions to shaping history were overlooked. Fans of Heeramandi who want to read unique stories of real-life courtesans would find much to enjoy here! Pillai’s storytelling and comprehensive research create an enthralling reading experience, one you won’t forget.

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Dhwaniyon Ke Aalok Mein Stri

Title: Dhwaniyon Ke Aalok Mein Stri

Author: Mrinal Pandey

Publisher: Radhakrishna Prakashan

Price: 120

Pages: 124


With her characteristically sharp observations and captivating storytelling, Mrinal Pande pens the stories of courtesans whose art remains with us but not the dark challenges they faced in their lives. From Gauhar Khan to Begum Akhtar, she tells the stories of numerous courtesans who were ousted from the “elite” class despite their cultural and literary talents.

Her informal writing style makes it accessible to a wider audience, one not academically inclined. The stories in this collection fascinate while letting you experience a bygone era. If you loved watching Heeramandi and want more stories of courtesans, Dhwaniyon Ke Aalok Mein Stri is the perfect read for you.

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My Name Is Gauhar Jaan

Title: My Name Is Gauhar Jaan

Author: Vikram Sampath

Publisher: Rupa Publcations India

Price: 562

Pages: 318


My Name is Gauhar Jaan. Some of the oldest Indian musical records begin with that proclamation. At a time when the courtesan culture was at a decline, thanks to the imposition of British morality on the Indian subcontinent, Gauhar Khan was a standout and helped in a resurgence of women musicians in her era.

She was also one of the first performers to record music on 78 rpm records in India, later released by the Gramophone Company of India, leading to the tag “the first recording superstar of India.” The book traces her ancestry and family history to understand the contexts and experiences behind her artistry. Besides Heeramandi, the book is also a treat for classical music lovers as Vikram Sampath also takes you through the universe of this traditional art form.

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Amritesh Mukherjee

Amritesh Mukherjee

Amritesh doesn't know what to do with his life, so he writes. He also doesn't know what to write, so he reads. Gift him a book if you chance upon him and he'll love you forever.

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