A short cultural history of the item song
- This piece was first published in Motherland
“I know you want it but you never gonna get it, tere haath kabhi naa aani.”
And so begins what is arguably one of the most popular item songs in recent history, Sheila Ki Jawani. The video opens with Katrina Kaif writhing on a rotating pink bed as a scrum of rather ripped men circle her, giving visual expression to Sheila’s boast that the whole world is head over heels for her. Apart from the catchy music and the gorgeous Katrina Kaif, what is remarkable about Sheila Ki Jawani is just how comfortable Sheila is with her sexuality. She knows that “nobody got body like” her, and so Sheila, supremely in control, announces that she really doesn’t need anyone else—she can love herself just fine.
Lead female characters in Indian cinema rarely exhibit this sort of unapologetic raunch, and in fact filmi heroines are fairly demure little things. Sexuality isn’t part of their coquettish repertoire, and when it does make an appearance in a Hindi film, it comes via the male lead, who steers it. Yes, Sheila Ki Jawani does seem to break the mould, but on closer examination, things aren’t really all that different.
Kaif’s sexy posturing is only given a platform via the cinematic device of the item song. And as anyone who’s had the misfortune of watching Tees Maar Khan would know, the person expressing her sexuality in Sheila Ki Jawani isn’t the female lead—Anya Khan—at all. Sheila Ki Jawani is a film within a film, and it isn’t Anya who sings of her erotic charms, it’s a fictional character, Sheila. A textbook example of the utility of the item song in Bollywood today, Sheila Ki Jawani provides a sheltered alcove, a safe, impermeable bubble in which women can freely express their sexuality, speak of their desires, seduce people—in short, act like men—without upsetting the set order of society, something that the heroine, playing her conventional role, must never do. Anya would never flaunt her body to a bunch of random men, crouched down on all fours, but Item Girl Sheila can.
Bollywood is probably the single greatest display of what, in psychoanalytic literature, is referred to as the Madonna-Whore Complex. Coined by Freud, the term refers to the idea that men silo women into two mutually exclusive categories: saintly “Madonnas” (the Mother of Jesus, not the Queen of Pop) and debased “whores”. Madonnas are “good girls”: virtuous, pure, innocent and, like their namesake, virginal, almost to the point of being asexual. Given their almost childlike nature, “Madonnas” almost always are subservient to men, who protect and care for them. “Whores”, on the other hand, are independent, sexual beings not afraid to aggressively express their desires and, curiously, have a temperament very similar to that expected of men.
Even though the term was coined a mere century ago, the notion has existed since time immemorial, and is such a common cultural trope that oftentimes it goes entirely unnoticed. But cultural tropes aren’t born in a vacuum, and to understand the item song, we must locate the source from which Bollywood borrows this paradigm.
The language of Bollywood is Hindi-Urdu, and so the industry takes a large part of its cultural heritage from North India, where, coincidentally, in the decades just before the Indian film inddustry was born, a Madonna-Whore complex was at play in salons—kothas—in which courtesans—tawaifs—plied their trade. It is in this incongruous, crumbling Indo-Islamic milieu that that we find what might be the roots of today’s item song.
As the Mughal Empire went into terminal decline in the 18th and 19th century, it heralded the rise of a class of elite North Indian entertainers who might, depending on a range of factors, also sometimes provide sexual services. These courtesans were given the name “tawaif”, a word with Arabic roots that refers to bands of itinerant musicians. Its root word, taif, ironically, also refers to someone who performs the circumambulation of the Kaaba at Mecca. In the twilight of the Mughals, these tawaifs were patronised by courts across the length and breadth of a rapidly crumbling empire.
Invested in the institution of a kotha or nishatkhana (literally, ‘pleasure houses’), tawaifs were no ordinary prostitutes, with many being highly skilled practitioners of the arts, which included singing, dancing, poetry and literature. Umrao Jan Ada, the celebrated Urdu novel which purports to tell the story of a real-life courtesan, describes in great detail the cultural grounding that a tawaif would receive. The courtesans started their training as children, with instruction in classical Persian and Arabic—the novel mentions works such as Gulistan of the 13th century poet, Sadi. The finest training in Hindustani classical music and dance would be imparted to them by the best teachers in the city. Umrao Jan herself is portrayed as being an accomplished poet, far more talented thant any of her patrons.
All this meant that kothas were the throbbing nerve centre of social life in the city. In Muraqqa-e-Dehli (Album of Delhi), a description of the city set in the 1730s, a Muslim nobleman from the Deccan, Dargah Quli Khan, gives us a fascinating account of the city in which tawaifs were clearly the superstars of the day. Of these, Nur Bai was the most famous, her popularity causing an elephant “traffic jam” every night outside her house as Delhi’s glitterati queued up, desperate for an audience with her. Ms Chamani, Khan writes, met regularly with the emperor and her voice was as sharp as a pair of scissors. Even courtesans much past their prime such as Asa Pura and Chak-Mak Dahni, were sought after for their singing, underscoring the cultural role tawaifs played.
Their proximity to the state’s elite meant that, in some cases, tawaifs went beyond even the arts and into the world of politics, a remarkable feat for a woman at the time. In 1803, Begum Samru, a tawaif of Kashmiri descent, became the ruler of Sardhana, a small principality near Meerut, inheriting the title from her European mercenary husband. Abdul Halim Sharar also wrote of the political influence that the tawaifs held, in Guzishta Lakhnau, his description of pre-1857 Lucknow. The book gave the account of a prime minster of Awadh, Hakim Mahdi, who owed his success to the financial backing of a courtesan named Piyaro. Commenting on the influence that tawaifs had, Sharar wrote, “it is said that until a person had association with courtesans he was not a polished man.”
The tawaif’s talents meant that the sharif (upper class) man found the amorous and cerebral pleasures of the kotha far more interesting than his home, where his wife was usually illiterate and lead a cloistered life, rarely stepping out of her zenana (or women’s apartments). At mushairas, for example, one segment was often devoted to humorous poetry which used the unpolished speech of the zenana for comic effect, showcasing the gulf between the intellectual world of the sharif men and women. Indeed, this gave the tawaif a unique position. Veena Talwar Oldenberg in her celebrated essay, Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, has argued that the life of a tawaif, her independence and power, her ability to parley on equal terms with men (unlike the woman of the zenana) meant that the kotha acted in conflict to patriarchal values. The essay argues, convincingly, that tawaifs are “independent and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male dominated world; they celebrate womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender of the larger society of which they are part.” Liberated from husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, tawaifs are masters of their own fate and, unlike sharif women, “their way of life is not complicitous with male authority”.
But, and here’s the rub: in spite of being in every which way, more accomplished than the zenana woman, the tawaif actually occupied a social status that was inferior to them. The deal here was that the tawaif, with her individuality and lack of male dependence, had now been slotted as the archetypal “whore”. Men would rather spend time with them than their chaste and pure “Madonna” wives, but given that tawaifs were now “debased”, men would, in a breath-taking display of doublethink, also treat the kotha as inferior to the zenana. For example, in the Urdu novel Umrao Jan Ada, Khurshid, a tawaif who has a “face like a fairy”, made the mistake of falling in love with a certain Pyare Sahib. When she insisted that Pyare take her home so that she could make the transition from tawaif to wife, he refused, fearing social opprobrium. For marriage, only a sharif lady would do.
Tawaifs could be smart and urbane; they could provide men with intellectual company but as “whores” they would always remain distinct from the “Madonnas” of the zenana. Even a system as highly developed as the nishatkhana, when all was said and done, ended up being just a sophisticated showcase for the Madonna-Whore complex.
The Rebellion of 1857 dealt a body blow to the entire culture of North India, including the institution of the kotha. Not only were their clients ruined but tawaifs were penalised for their assistance to the rebels. Additionally, as India came under direct British rule, Victorian notions of morality gained ascendance. The British, who had actively patronised the kotha before 1857, now derided it as a decadent oriental institution. In 1875, a tawaif entertained the Prince of Wales to a dance recital during his visit to India. In just 15 years, however, the growing “anti-nautch” movement ensured that when, in 1890, Prince Albert Victor partook of similar entertainment there were indignant protests against the poor man for this “immoral” act. The post-1857 Indian petit bourgeois class, influenced by English education, had also imbibed these Victorian ideas of morality, leaving the tawaif in rather dire straits.
While modern notions of ethics ruined the tawaif, modern technology came to her rescue. At a time when the institution of the kotha was on its last legs, the recording/radio industry and, then a few decades down the line, the film industry acted to absorb tawaifs. The first singers to be recorded in India were tawaifs (who had now started calling themselves ganewalis or singers), the pioneer there being Gauhar Jan of Calcutta. Later on, it is said, inspired by her, a certain tawaif, Akhtaribai Faizabadi also took to recording her songs under the screen name, Begum Akhtar. Large numbers also made it to the new film industry, the best example being one of Gauhar Jan’s students, Jaddan Bai, who, remarkably, was a music composer, singer, actress as well as a director. She is today, though, better known as the mother of Nargis, and via her grandson, Sanjay Dutt, ensured that the tawaif “blood line” continued in Bollywood till 2013, cut short only by the Arms Act.
This influx of tawaifs as well as the preponderance of people from the heartland in the film industry meant that Bollywood naturally took the ethos of the kotha system, the Madonna-Whore complex, the purity of the zenana, the debased “masculinity” of the nautch girl and included them in its films, using, of course, the device of the item song.
The phrase “item song” might be of recent origin (from local Bombay slang, “item”, meaning an “attractive woman”) but the phenomenon is as old as the talkies themselves. India’s first item girl was a half-German, half-Indian lady, Anna Marie Gueizelor, better known by her somewhat inexplicable screen name, Azurie. Making her debut in 1934, Azurie was the dancing star of the time, acting in over 50 films, right up to Bahana in 1960. Her only starring role, though, was in in the movie Maya (1936), where she plays a spoilt, rich socialite who pursues the hero. The hero, wisely, avoids this sort of forward woman and falls in love with the pure Maya, instead, much to the chagrin of Azurie who uses every trick in the book to get them to break-up, unsuccessfully of course.
As can be seen from Maya, the tropes of the bold tawaif and the demure zenana woman, were born fully-formed in Hindi Cinema. Dishonour and being sexually provocative, goodness and being reserved, it’s all there and the newly formed film industry, catering to the tastes of its audience, faithfully reproduces them.
The conventions set by Azurie—the nautch girl cum vamp—would be carried on by Cuckoo Moray. Making her debut in 1944, Cuckoo was really the first superstar item girl of B-town. With Shamshad Begum as her playback voice (to be mirrored by the Helen-Asha pair in some time) Cuckoo’s lithe frame was ubiquitous throughout the 40s and early 50s. In most movies, her role was limited to that of the item song, suitably sexualised, as in Awara (1951) where she sings “ek do teen, aaja mausam hai rangeen” in a bar, paying special attention to a sullen Raj Kapoor, who after a while, tired of this nonsense, literally pushes her to the ground. The paying public, though, were far more receptive to her charms and, consequently, distributers made sure that movies at the time did carry Cuckoo’s item song, an anecdote to be remembered the next time someone drones on about how the Sheilas and the Munnis have “trashed” Bollywood nowadays.
Cuckoo also popularised Cabaret in films, a form of risqué entertainment popular in the more elite hotels and restaurants of the time, the acts being performed by European troupes. Interestingly, the fact that Indians vamp-ised the exotic Western Cabaret dancer bears interesting parallels to the treatment of the tawaifs by the British. In both cases, a strong display of sexuality by the Other Woman was given a moral colour. The anti-nautch movement held up the tawaif as symbol of Eastern decadence compared to the upright British woman and 50 years later, Cabaret dancers, symbols of Western licentiousness, were contrasted with pavitra Indian girls, the suitable wife, with whom the hero would live happily ever after.
Cabaret hit its peak, as is well known, under Helen. Of Anglo-Burmese descent, Helen was initiated into Bollywood as a backup dancer by Cuckoo herself. In 1958, Helen and Cuckoo starred together in what is possibly Bollywood’s greatest mujra number, Hum Tumhare Hain, as part of the “super-hit” Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. This song was when, if you’ll allow me to be a bit filmi, pupil became master. Dancing alongside Cuckoo, Helen outshone her guru and with the success of Mera naam chin chin choo (Howrah Bridge), later in the same year, Bollywood had a new dancing queen.
Hum Tumhare Hain also tells us that Bollywood, at the time, saw the mujra as unmitigated evil. To use Jerry Pinto’s phrase, the kotha (as well as the nightclub) provided the filmmaker with “instant debauchery”. Hum Tumhare Hain is a dance performed for the villain of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, played deliciously by KN Singh. Shots of Singh reclining on a settee, a thin lecherous smile across his face, are interspersed during the song, firmly reminding the viewer that this is a place of sin and depravity. This Victorian demonisation of the mujra would continue for a few more years till the ’70s, after which Bollywood yoked the tawaif to the stock character of the “hooker with a heart of gold” with movies such as Ek Nazar, Muqqaddar ka Sikandar, Pakeezah, Umrao Jan and Tawaif. This, of course, did not mean that Bollywood had erased the anti-nautch movement. Those Victorian values still remained but were now more patronising than directly hostile. For example, the character of Umrao Jan in the movie is significantly different from the novel. The original Umrao was fairly cavalier about romance, famously declaring, “I have never really been in love with anyone, nor anyone with me”. Decades of accumulated guilt about the kotha probably made this frankness disconcerting for the filmmakers, who changed the character to make her fall in love with one of her patrons and pine for him faithfully till the very end, like a “good” woman should.
The 70s saw another significant trend and one that continues till today: the fading out of stock item girls, like Helen and lesser performers such as Bindu, Aruna Irani and Padma Khanna. Breaking many taboos, mainstream heroines took their place, dancing and, to use that utilitarian Bollywood term, “exposing” in order to provide the titillation that the audience demanded. That said, this was hardly a jettisoning of the Madonna-Whore complex, more a reworking of it. Mostly, the heroine could perform erotically only for the hero, a good example being Sridevi’s wet sari act in Mr India. Allowances were also made when singing or dancing was a result of some pressing compulsion, such as Madhuri singing Choli ke Peeche Kya Hai? to trap the film’s villain. The “Madonna” could become the “whore”, temporarily, but only if the circumstances absolutely demanded it; never willingly.
For all that progress, therefore, the spirit of the Madonna-Whore complex was still maintained. Recently, in both Fevicol se and Beedi Jalayile, mainstream actors Kareena Kapoor and Bipasha Basu perform in item songs, not as the female lead but playing dancing girls only for the duration of the song. On the other hand, Aishwarya and Kareena sing Crazy Kiya Re and Chhamak Chhalo as lead characters, but only in the presence of their heroes.
And another change seen in the past decade or so is that the mujra has been stripped of its moral baggage. Songs like Kajra Re and Jhalla Wallah (Ishaqzade) have tawaif performances which are neither markers of evil nor drowned in pity. Of course, this change is largely superficial because modern audiences, cut off by a century from anything resembling a real kotha, have no cultural resonance with the tawaif any longer. The kotha’s deeper, more enduring contribution to Bollywood—the restrictions on the sexuality of the pure Madonna-like heroine and the propping up of a bold, independent “whore” as a counter—remains alive and kicking and so does its principle vehicle: the item song.