Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Ruth Vanita — Syncretic Erotics: Poetry, Sex and the City in Pre-Colonial Lucknow

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

3 p.m.

McKinney Conference Room

Non-mystical Urdu poetry in women's and men's voices, composed in pre-colonial Lucknow, reveals an indigenous modernity that delights in hybridity, mobility, eccentric individuality, and hedonism. Male poets advertise courtesans by praising their intelligence and skills; courtesans in turn advertise male poets by singing and dancing to their poems. As distinct from devotional and mystical poetry oriented towards transcendence and from colonial-era poetry oriented towards social and moral goals, this poetry explores ambiguous relationships thriving in the city and envisions life as play rather than as an earnest Victorian endeavor. Later declared obscene and frivolous, non-mystical Urdu poetry is a window into the complex erotic and familial arrangements that were fatally disrupted by the cataclysmic events of 1857.

Center for Contemporary South Asia

Ruth Vanita, Professor, University of Montana, former Reader in English at Delhi University, is founding co-editor of Manushi, India’s first nationwide feminist journal, from 1978 to1990. A leading thinker for the South Asian LGBTQ movement, Vanita is the author of many books, including Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination; Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West; Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Culture and Sexuality. With Saleem Kidwai, she edited Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History (2000; updated edition, 2008). Her latest book, Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870, appeared in 2012. She has translated many works from Hindi and Urdu to English, most notably the autobiography and controversial fiction of Pandey Bechan Sharma “Ugra.” She has also published widely on Shakespeare.