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KHANUM JAN (c. 1790)


Khanum Jan is the heroine of the autobiographical novel Nashtar by Hasan Shah of Kanpur, written in 1790 when Shah was twenty. The original text, which was in Indianised Farsi, is no longer extant, but the Urdu translation survives, haivng been unearthed from Patna Library by Qurratulain Haidar(q.v). Haider translated the book into English in 2003, and regards it as the first modern Urdu novel. Khanum Jan is a tawaif, a singing courtesan. Hasan Shah, having fallen in love with her, marries her in secret, but they cannot avow their love and Khanum Jan, having failed to escape from the kothi, dies heartbroken. Khanum Jan seems to have influenced the characterization of Shaib Jan in the film Pakeezah.

It seems from the text that Khanum Jan was a real woman, a member of a troupe of tawaifs including accomplished singers of Sufi songs from Kashmir. They were ‘deredar’ tawaifs, tawifs of the camp or dera, travelling the land and camping wherever a rich man might take a fancy to one of them, and entertaining the nobles and notables of the area. They were patronised mostly by the army, including the European mercenaries, and the new imperial armies, or by rich merchants and traders of all communities. In the book, Khanum Jan travels over what is today the Ganga valley of Uttar Pradesh. The girls spoke Persian and Kashmiri, and were very well educated and highly trained actors, dancers and singers.
 
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