[REVIEW] “At the Centre of the Arts: A Review of David Chaffetz’s Three Asian Divas” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, 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 YangzhouAbbreviated Press, 2019. 88 pgs.

When one thinks of the term diva, one might picture Maria Callas, but also pop music starlets and difficult women (the latter of which seems quite sexist). In his new book, Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture, David Chaffetz brings a deeper meaning to the term. He shows how ancient Persia, India and China were hubs of high culture and that women were at the centre of the arts.

The divas Chaffetz portrays lived at a time one would not normally associate with women’s empowerment. Their roles as divas gave them more opportunities than most women of their era because they earned money and gained the utmost respect from their societies. They also had greater choices than typical women had when it came to marriage and living according to their own terms and not those of a mother-in-law or a husband or even society.

In Persia, the moghanni wasn’t just a singer. She would also be trained from an early age in dance, poetry, and musical and poetic composition.

She learned how to select music for different poetry, how to emphasise rhythm or meter, how to collaborate with reeds, drums, harp or lute. Only the few with talent and tenacity completed the cursus and joined this exclusive sisterhood. The sisterhood might stand in contradiction to the laws of religion and the customary place of women, but it inspired its members and allowed them to walk proudly into the palaces of lords and connoisseurs.

—David Chaffetz, Three Asian Divas.

It was this access to the court that defined them as divas as opposed to other singers and entertainers. But as Persian rulers became more prudish, women singers lost their status and their ability to move about as freely as they once had under more lenient times. Many moghanni moved to India where they could enjoy more freedom and respect.

And that’s where Chaffetz next takes the reader: Moghul India. Literary works were written in Persian in India until the 18th century when Urdu became the lingua franca of Indian literature and music. A tawaif was a female performer much like a moghanni.

As with so many professions in India, the trade of a tawaif was a hereditary one. They were part of a long tradition of songstresses from before the arrival of Islam in Northern India, perhaps originating with temple and court entertainers—the devadasis, bayaderes and ganikas. Tawaifs wore a tight-fitting bodice with lavish skirts, adorning their arms with ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold bangles. They came from different faiths and were admired by men of other religions. This was a time when Hindus and Muslims enjoyed Persian poetry and music. But the downfall of Indian and Persian arts in India occurred as the British imposed Christianity and Victorian morals on its subjects. Soon Indian arts were all but banished to the princely states of Bhopal and Hyderabad. Sadly, the remaining tawaifs didn’t fare any better after independence. Bollywood movies, however, have kept their memories alive.

Thanks to the Silk Road, Persians and Indians mixed together, but they also mixed with Chinese. In his last section, Chaffetz writes about the Chinese divas, or minji, in the Ming Dynasty, starting in the 14th century. The minji were educated in more than music and poetry, and unlike her Persian and Indian counterparts, a minji would also be trained in arts reserved for male scholars, like painting.

At ease in the polite arts such as exchanging poems and painted scrolls as gifts, entertaining pleasure parties on her boat, or simply sharing tea in her garden, she ensured that her cultural status was equal to that of her patrons. However, where she exceeded the gentlemen-scholars was in her virtuosity. 

—David Chaffetz, Three Asian Divas.

The city of Yangzhou was home to a pleasure quarter where minji performed. This was different from other parts of China where women were seen as subversive and unfit to play female roles in the performing arts. The heyday of the minji took place in the Ming dynasty, but also carried over to the Qing. Modernity would be the downfall of the minji as the most talented female performers would instead be lured to movies, radio and the music industry. Chaffetz writes that this modern generation didn’t enjoy the admiration of society as the general population no longer admired poetry and traditional music.

Chaffetz concludes by showing how these traditions influenced other countries. The Persian moghannis influenced Turkish entertainers; Indian tawaifs influenced Javanese culture; and the Yangzhou minji influenced the Yoshiwara district in Tokyo and Korean gisaeng performers.

Three Asian Divas is a fascinating look at women performers going back 700 years. Chaffetz gives the reader much to think about as he explores cultures in Persia, India, and China that respected female singers. One can appreciate how far women have come since the time of the moghannis, tawaifs, and minji, but we can also appreciate their special status so many centuries ago.

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “At the Centre of the Arts: A Review of David Chaffetz’s Three Asian Divas.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 10 Nov. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/11/10/three-divas/.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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