Manish Gaekwad

Arts Research

Grant Period: One year and six months

Manish Gaekwad is a freelance reporter for The Hindu in Mumbai. Previously, he has worked with Midday and, reporting on arts, culture and entertainment. His first book, a travel-fiction novel Lean Days was published in April 2018.

This grant will enable Manish to look into the lives of Indian courtesans and their families, tracing their roots in history to the current times. Drawing from his mother’s life as a courtesan, his own experience of growing up in a Kotha and the personal stories of the other courtesans and their children across the country, Manish will record accounts of people from various communities, highlighting their struggles, aspirations, survival and the gradual erosion of Kotha culture in the country.

The journey of his mother as a denotified Kanjar tribal woman from Pune, to the child-bride in the Bedia community in Agra, and ultimately her life in Kolkata being trafficked there as a courtesan charts some unexplored questions. These include trading of children among the Kanjar tribe and the Bedia community thriving through proliferation of Kothas and raising daughters to serve as courtesans to perform mujra. Enquiries into the role of men, women and families in this age-old custom, tracing it back to the roots to explore its impact on generations, as well as to understand their contribution to the musical arts and its eventual decline, forms the key focus areas of this project.

Concentrating on the decline of Kotha culture in the last two decades, Manish aims to inquire into the lives of young women and men who worked in Kothas in different capacities and their lives afterwards. In doing so, he will also delve into his own life and the lives of other children who grew up with him in Kothas and ventured into different professions. Away from the romanticised and clichéd images of courtesans portrayed by Bollywood, Manish will provide a critical view of Kothas comprising the social impediments, unsanitary living conditions, musical arts, language, and hierarchies. He will interview the courtesans in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and some other cities and small towns. His explorations will delve into their dreams, desire, aspirations, failures and accomplishments. He will study the world they lived in then and their present circumstances within a society in which they are seen as the quintessential ‘others’. Their worldview, beliefs, love life, and heartbreaks, as well as their music, songs, and the politics within the Kothas will form the various aspects of this project.   

The written literature on Kothas and courtesans in Indian languages is often a singular rueful narrative, which according to Manish, forms the perfect recipe for cinema to cook-up a musical melodrama and clichéd plots. The illicit woman, who blames her kismet and does not wish for change once men and the society have wronged her, forms the only story we hear. He wants to present a completely opposite picture of women in Kothas rearing and educating their children to break the cycle of oppression and give them lives with dignity which have been denied to them. The outcome of this project will be the manuscript of a book, and the conversations with erstwhile courtesans, their children and the story of his mother and his own experience will form its narrative.

The evaluation panel strongly recommended this project for a grant for its potential and the deep personal investment through which Manish delves into this complex subject. From a programmatic perspective, the decision to support this project is embedded in our mandate of supporting projects that investigate marginalised or relatively unexplored areas, offer new readings of artistic practices and break new conceptual grounds.  While the outcome of this project will be the manuscript for a book, the Grantee's deliverables to IFA with the final reports will be the manuscript and audiovisual documentation from the field. The budget is commensurate with the proposal.

This grant is made possible with support from Titan Company Limited.