A Review of Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 10, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:03 AM, April 10, 2021

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A Review of Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women

Nabendu Ghosh. ISBN-10 : 8194490863. Speaking Tigers, 2020

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007), an eminent author in Bengali literature pursued many passions. A dancer, an actor, a writer, a screenwriter and a film director,  his opus of writing includes thirty novels and fifteen short story collections, that are being translated and continue relevant. In cinema, as a scriptwriter, he captured classics such as Abhimaan, Bandini, Devdas, Majhli Didi, Parineeta, and Sujata. He worked closely with big names in the Indian film industry like Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. He received numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film in direction for Trishagni.

Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted women is edited by Ratnottama Sengupta, daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, herself a film journalist, an author, a translator and a film festival and art exhibition curator. The book is an anthology of six stories by Nabendu Ghosh, resurrecting the world of courtesans and prostituted women. Here, the first three pieces, "Market price," "Dregs'' and "Song of Sarangi" are translated by Ratnottama Sengupta; the fourth "It Happed One Night" by Katha award winning writer, Padmaja Punde; the fifth "Anchor" by writer and editor, Mitali Chakravarty. The last story, "Mistress of Melodies," is the first draft of a screenplay written in English by the author himself.

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Ghosh's portrayal of women across generations not only evokes a bygone era but also reflects the plight of women in general, and particularly those caught in the wrap of the flesh trade. In the foreword, filmmaker Muzaffir Ali accurately praises Ghosh as "the pride of cinema of Bengal, the cinema of realism and the romance of culture." Ali ponders on the institution of courtesans, where the rise and fall of human lives and human helplessness make a fine fabric for aesthetics, where amidst the heights of fame and the fading away of lives, 'love' provides the zone of purity, bliss and solace. These values are strongly reflected in the stories that make up this anthology.

Ratnottama Sengupta notes how the world of literature and cinema have gained much from the narratives of the loves and lives of women who engage in prostitution. Also, there is no denying that the courtesans have long been custodians and conveyors of India's classical arts. Sengupta quotes the iconic film-maker Mrinal Sen's praise for Nabendu Ghosh as a creative individual who "never believed evil is man's natural state. Along with his characters he has confronted, fought and survived on hope." She agrees with Sen as Ghosh's works and the stories in this collection resonate the flaws and the pangs of the reveries of life of the characters, yet hope shines bright amidst the inescapable grimness of their lives and of their worlds.               

A sprinkle of Bengal's historical conditions of the time and the social impact of famine, riot and Partition add authenticity to the narratives. Additionally, Ghosh's remarkable choice of words in his storytelling leaves undeletable impressions of the characters he sketches, the drama he designs and the stories he tells. Born in Dhaka in pre-independent India and having made Calcutta and Bombay his home most of his life, Ghosh's works reflect the pulse and the spirit of these metropolitan cities.

In "Market Price," Calcutta is romantically sandwiched between the moving of the story back and forth from Gorajapur in Jessore district in pre-partition India and the narrow lanes of Kashi with the mention of the Jatra group, discussions on vegetables and Rohu fish or Santipuri saris. In "Dregs," the characters getting in the tram and alighting in places like Elgin Road, Theatre Road, Purna Cinema, Esplanade, Shyam Bazaar, Tollygunge, Curzon Park, Wellington-Gariahat route, Chowringhee, Kalighat to Dalhousie, and Bhowanipore, takes the reader through the city with a sense of nostalgia and magic, amidst the realism.

The synchrony of song, dance and music particularly in "Song of a Sarangi," the music circles in Calcutta in "Mistress of Melodies" enlivens one to the complicated world of courtesans that blends thumris, sufi music and devotional songs. More of Calcutta's ambience is brought to life in "It Happened One Night" with a glimpse of nightlife, Maa Kali, baul songs and incessant rains.

The stories portray the complicated lives of courtesans and women compelled into the trade by the force of circumstances. Classical Hindustani music instruments -- sitar, tanpura, sarangi, harmonium, and table – playing soulful music to blend baijis and nautch girls of heavenly beauty, singing and dancing to thumris of love and longing like that of Radha-Krishna evoke emotions ranging from profane to romantic and erotic in a world of seths, babus, alcohol, ornaments, sindoor and flower.

They are perceived  as belonging to a community that entertains. The narratives reveal how though "honour" is forced to a point of compromise, faith, fidelity and respect matter in the lives of these women. Also, it is interesting to note that the stories show the word "sin" is defined differently by the visitors entertained by nautch girls and the residents of the world of courtesans.

Dhaka is melancholically catered in "Anchor" by the mention of River Padma, the ghats, idyllic beauty, jute, ghazals, sweet shop and pice hotels, paan, bidi, and cigarettes, Goalundo, flickering lamp fed by redi oil, call of crickets and the port of Mirpur.   

Touching upon gender and social issues, the predicaments of women, men and children, particularly women associated with the flesh trade are closely examined. Widowhood and vulnerability is reflected in the story of Chhaya, a young widow who falls in love, elopes and remarries but ends up being a victim of Balram's double entendre and heartlessness and also in the unrequited love of Rabiya.

Adolescence and prostitution is mirrored in the tragic rise to the zenith of beauty and wealth to a low fall of abandonment, disease and death of Basana. The humanness in the muses echoes in the stories of the attractive mother-daughter courtesans, Hasina Baiji and Gulab Banu, that revolves around the "nath-utara ceremony." By this tradition, the mother auctions her adolescent daughter's virginity to the highest bidder but tragedy befalls them as it does in the love, longing and acceptance of Gauhar Jaan.

The sad demise of Radha sends a message on health issues faced in flesh trade and on motherhood and prostitution through the fates of Fatima and Tagar. There is the solace of love that transcends social barriers and religion just as Binno Bai in "Song of a Sarangi" expresses, "In our world, there is no conflict between Hindus and Muslims." However, those born to prostitutes or courtesans, including male children, cannot escape being condemned as the dregs of society.   

How in prostitution, women play the hunter and the hunted in the dealings of match-making and love-making; youth and age; birth and death; loneliness and emptiness; heartbreak and healing; sadness and happiness; union and separation; love and betrayal are sensitively and intricately woven in the stories. Ghosh stunningly yarns time, beauty, memories and transience into a fabric that arouses emotions with the stories that are universal, and long-lasting, and alongside, ironically tells of the ever-changing times of people and places in the timelessness.

The beauty of Ghosh's use of language  -- iconic short and crisp opening lines that subtly and perfectly set the tone for the story -- are well captured in the translations. The climaxes are at times happy and at times melancholic but the impact of the narratives is such that the characters and their stories linger on in the mind of the reader even after the story has ended.

What places Ghosh's writings at a higher pedestal and as a resource for further study is that at the centre of the stories are human elements that are delicately raw and real. This is fodder for exploration in a world that tends to regard women as a means of entertainment or commodities. Their tragedy lies in the humaneness and their raw feelings that scream out loud that they are like all of us – except birth and fate forced them to be caught in the world of flesh trade.

The translation of Nabendu Ghosh's stories in this new anthology, Mistress of Melodies, is a reminder of the enthralling potential of storytelling made accessible to all of us in lucid, simple English. Touching and haunting at the same time, the narratives are original and gripping. The book brought to us by Speaking Tiger has a beautiful cover illustration by Mistunee Chowdhury that fittingly reflects the stories told. 

 

Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is a Research Scholar at Manipal Institute of Communication and also a freelance writer and copy editor.  

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