Though a figure so monumental in her time, Chanda Bai's life heartbreakingly never broke free from the pages of the past. But to let the name of a powerhouse woman who transformed the future for women and courtesans of the era with her feminine charm and courageous spirit wither away would be somewhat of a crime. So, the bustling city of Hyderabad is where Chandra headed, where she stumbled upon the path of a Mr Ali.
98 years old, and as you can imagine with many a story to tell, the forgotten chapters of Chanda Bai's life fortunately rested amongst his anthology of wisdom, which he was happy to crack open for a sum of 5000 rupees. The two spoke at great length, undeterred by the fact that Mr Ali was hard of hearing and something of an audience had gathered outside, mistaking Chandra with a video camera in her hand and the undeniable curiosity she held for a journalist. Little would Chandra know that these hurdles would be mild and far more welcoming than what was shortly to come…
The shadows of late afternoon had befallen Mr Ali's humble abode, and the time for Chandra to depart had come. Heading to her car with a new inheritance of Chanda Bai's life stories and her video camera that immortalised hours of precious conversation, in a blink of an eye, it would all be stolen just moments thereafter.
Though a tragically dreary outcome, you may take some consolidation in knowing that one thing that could not be taken was Chandra's fighting spirit and determination to uncover this legendary courtesan's story, and come the 24th of May 2023, she brings Chanda Bai's story back to dazzling life in her enchanting production Music of Courtesans.
In the meantime, to welcome you into the exhilarating life of Chanda Bai, here are 3 fascinating facts about her legacy to give you a glimpse into why Chandra Chakraborty is fighting for her story to be told far and wide.
Breaking the mould of possibility for women and courtesans in 18th century Hyderabad
Using her grand training in Urdu poetry, classical dance, music, javelin and archery that she was immersed into during her formative years of court life, Chanda would summon the beginning of many firsts for women and courtesans of Hyderabad.
So entranced by her witty disposition, her command over the arts, and warrior ways, Chanda was showered with the highest of honours. This included, 500 foot soldiers to herald her entrance, the formal court title Mah Laqa Bai, and wealth and land that catapulted her into the realm of the wealthiest and most powerful women of the century. In the midst of a patriarchal society, to hold such a powerful position that permitted independence and financial freedom would indeed be a rare sight to behold for a woman. But in her ascent to the peak of the social and economic mountain, Chanda would take courtesans from across the city with her on the climb, so much so that they too would indulge in the special privileges that came with a new, elevated status.
No stranger to the affections of an infinite train of suitors, each one cast deeply into a loves trance upon gazing at the beautiful Chanda Bai, her heart called only for Captain Sir John Malcolm, the British Resident at Hyderabad.
But as fate would have it, Chanda's quest to find her true love and passion in the companionship of the Captain would go horribly astray as much to her dismay, she found herself knocking upon heartache's door.
Her vivacious portrait of the future as the wife of Captain Sir John Malcolm would be stained with the murky shades of reality as the painful truth that her love was already promised to another was revealed.
Though betrayed and forlorn as she was, drowning in that tsunami of sadness could never be her fate, for her warrior disposition refused to allow it, so to remedy her broken heart, she turned to revenge…
You may be wondering, why a woman so extraordinary resides in the land of the forgotten. Could it be that unchallenged misconceptions about the role that courtesans played in ancient Indian society continue to ignore the women's rich contribution to the culture and art of the subcontinent? Or is history repeating itself, with women, though giants in their time rendered, time and time again traceless in literature and texts with patriarchal attitudes still running wild in the cosm of the arts. Whatever the reason, Chandra Chakraborty refuses to let the luminous flame of Chanda Bai's legacy die out, and her new production Music of Courtesans: Ode to Chanda Bai welcomes you to explore the extraordinary world of an even more extraordinary woman.