[REVIEW] “Subversive Truths: A Review of David Chaffetz’s Three Asian Divas” by Fathima M

{Written by Fathima M, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

David Chaffetz, Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou, Abbreviated Press, 2019. 88 pgs.

Culture and cultural experiences are constantly in a flux. And, over time, depending on the social and cultural milieu of a particular society, multiple meanings are rendered unto such experiences. The role of women in cultural history is often an entangled issue, as it is contingent upon the position of women at a given time and space. David Chaffetz, in his book Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou, attempts to recreate the opulent musical cultures in three main cultural centres of times past.

The position of courtesans in these once culturally vibrant spaces has changed drastically over the centuries. There are many sociopolitical factors responsible for this fall: colonisaton in various forms being to the forefront.

Chaffetz’s book, which reads more like a long essay due to its short length, takes us to the soirées of Shiraz, the musical courts of Delhi during the Mughal era, and the ‘entertainment quarters’ of Yangzhou. The performances are presented with great precision and immediacy, taking the readers back into time when such renditions were part and parcel of everyday musical scenes and entertainment in those societies. In Shiraz, it is the performance of a moghanni, someone who is not only well versed in arts and music but is enterprising and self-sufficient in her own way. Her audiences are the wealthy, who enjoy fine music and good wine. Her singing has the power to evoke pleasure and transcendence at the same time as she sings the ghazal form of poetry by Hafiz. This performance bridges the gap between high culture and popular culture, a rarity in contemporary times.

Next, we are transported to the cultural life of Delhi under the Mughal reign. During this time, the courtesans, colloquially known as tawaifs, entertained their wealthy patrons through musical performances. Just like the moghanni in Shiraz, tawaifs were highly regarded and enjoyed an elevated position in society. As Chaffetz writes,

The tawaif has freedom and agency, and she uses them. She has no obligations to her admirers except the politeness of good breeding. Her very ability to deny her pretenders is what makes her so desirable.

—David Chaffetz, Three Asian Divas.

The poems of the great poet Mirza Assadullah, better known today as Ghalib, were sung by a well-known tawaif by the name of Nawab Jan. There are legends about the affair between the poet and the tawaif. Aristocrats from Delhi frequented these gatherings where tawaifs sang ghazals and performed kathak dances. It is interesting to note that unlike the present-day connotation of the word tawaif—a prostitute—the tawaifs of those days enjoyed freedom and dignity. Another important aspect of these gatherings and society in general was religious harmony, which has become a far-fetched dream in India today. Chaffetz depicts this harmony as following:

The wider audience was likewise free of religious prejudice in this long era of harmonious Muslim and Hindu coexistence. Respect for the arts of Persian poetry and enthusiasm for Indian music, dance and spirituality was shared by both communities. Elite Muslims and Hindus enjoyed together the same literary and musical performances. Hindu Pundits composed Persian poetry and sought the great Ghalib’s help to improve their verses.

—David Chaffetz, Three Asian Divas.

In the final section, we are taken to the Ming Dynasty mingji of China. These were highly talented, artistically gifted courtesans who were well versed in fine arts. They were even more empowered than their counterparts in Shiraz and Delhi. The mingji performs an aria from The Peach Blossom Fan in which a diva rejects an emperor’s proposal of love. The performance is full of rich classical references and it makes it hard to grasp at first. She performs music lessons of the fragrant princess and as Chaffetz writes:

Fragrant Princess’s music lessons have much in common with tawaifs of Delhi. As she perfects her rendition of The Peony Pavilion, she learns the importance of diction, of rigidly codified gestures, of the dance steps that constitute a whole dictionary of emotions. She accompanies herself on the pipa, the Chinese version of the Persian lute. Little of this training would surprise a visitor from Delhi or earlier Shiraz.

—David Chaffetz, Three Asian Divas.

The tragedy of losing love or lovers is beautifully articulated in each performance. In fact, the underlying tone of melancholia and loss is deeply embedded in all the performances. These cultural similarities also draw attention to the fact that historically, these divas, or Asian women, have always contributed to the richness of arts and culture, and their presence is rarely acknowledged and conveniently erased from history. The oblivion of these divas in contemporary history is one instance of how history can easily be erased and the ease with which the contributions of women have been deliberately taken for granted. In these extremely patriarchal societies, the contributions of women artists and singers have not only been neglected, there is also sheer indifference to retrieve any of their contributions. Chaffetz, in this context, delves into lost history to unearth the artistic contributions of women in 14th-century Shiraz, 19th-century Delhi and the China of the Ming dynasty.

But though Chaffetz successfully transports us to these eras, he fails to articulate the reasons behind the decline of diva culture in this part of the world. A brief commentary on this aspect would have added to a nuanced understanding of the artistic fervour of those times and its erosion in the present. In all three countries, Iran, India and China, regressive politics and tyrannical regimes have inculcated a monopoly that eroded their cultural fabric, and the status of courtesans was reduced to merely that of prostitute. In the case of India, as Chaffetz also observes, the rise and prominence of Bollywood adapted some of the elements—as seen in the movies Umrao Jaan and Devdas, among others. But it is, again, popular culture—nowhere close to the actual musical rendering by the tawaifs of Mughal Delhi. It was under the British colonial rule and its masculine Christianity that tawaif culture began to decline, and even in independent India, the meaning of a tawaif broadly translates as prostitute. This downfall is a politically motivated and strategic move to silence women per se and deprive them of any agency or acknowledgement.

In any patriarchal society, history is never just a documentation of facts. It is perceived, formulated and articulated through the dominating masculine agency, and it often reduces any contributions by women to mere rubble. As also seen here, women’s independence and agency are not to be taken for granted in any society since it does not take long before the freedom is curtailed and the agency vanishes in a flash. Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, China’s dictatorial regime and hyper-nationalist Hindu supremacy in India have each contributed to the decline of cultural capital and the position of women in general. This is partly an attempt to silence women and speak for them—a colonial model to silence the oppressed, and partly to keep alive the masculine version of history by erasing the voice of women altogether. The power equation is clearly evident and the downfall of legacy is explicitly seen in such cases.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that fascism is averse to both culture and women where the hyper-masculine imagination excludes women and their contributions in the making of history. And, to preserve history, it is crucial to go beyond the mainstream narrative. Chaffetz alludes to films and novels to comprehend the contributions of these divas, and to fill the void in factual history that often overlooks many crucial aspects. In contemporary times, where female sex workers have no freedom, agency or even dignity to themselves, these divas stand in stark contrast with their empowered selves and agency. Moving away from the narrative of merely being objects of desire, these divas stood up for themselves and earned not only a living but their emancipation.

Despite some obvious flaws, Chaffetz who has read Persian and Arabic at Harvard and spent years travelling and living in Asia, recuperates forgotten shreds of history in this book. While reviving a glorious past, the book shows how the fall of empires also results in gender discrimination or more specifically, the fall of women. And in so doing, Chaffetz also sheds light on the role of arts and literature in refurbishing the lost history. It is through novels, cinema, and other forms of popular culture that he retrieves the lost past, again reiterating how mainstream history is very often far away from truth that arts and literature unravel to us. An important document on culture and history, this book offers scope to further question and reconstruct history, and to find out subversive truths that otherwise remain suppressed and buried.

How to cite: M, Fathima. “Subversive Truths: A Review of David Chaffetz’s Three Asian Divas.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 9 Oct. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/10/09/divas/.

Fathima M is a PhD candidate in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her reviews have appeared in Wasafiri, The Kathmandu Post, World Literature Today, among other publications. She was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, USA in 2017-18. She is fond of small cafés, bookstores, and old buildings.

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