In spite of the well-advertised pitara of Indian erotic heritage, the evidence of queer love, especially between women, while present, is scattered and elusive. There are a few sculptures, a limited number of miniature paintings and the odd Sanskrit poem. Tamil Sangam poetry, for all its smouldering wit, is quiet on the matter of women loving women.
But a full on khazana of lesbian love, is the late 18th-early 19th century Urdu genre of Rekthi poetry, born in the state of Awadh, in the city of Lucknow, known for its lavish dedication to the arts and the good life. Extensively discussed in Ruth Vanita’s book Same-sex Love In India: Readings in Indian Literature, Rekhti poems are bustling with women who clearly prefer women- sexually, romantically, emotionally- even as they had access to both, men and women.
Though all poems are written in a woman’s voice, most of the poets were men, something we also find in the tradition of Baramasi poetry. For this reason some critiques see it as poetry written for the pleasure of men. But, Rekhti for the first time, put women at the centre, in urban imaginations of Urdu culture. The women here not only fall in love with women, they sing, dance, quarrel, chat, opine, pray, curse, and are present in all kinds of spaces and speech. Rekhti is set in kitchens, bedrooms, rooftops, bathrooms, and all other parts of domestic dwellings, making poetry out of the material of everyday life.
Below are some examples of Rekhti that bring to life the be-jhijhak, naughty- haughty escapades of a past that celebrated love between women, which you will find in Vanita’s book.
The Daring-bazi of Jurrat’s Chapti- baazi
Shaikh Qalandar Bakhsh, pen name Jur’at or Jurrat, has been called Urdu’s first erotic poet. His style of narrative poems formed the subgenre within Rekhti, called Chaptinama – long form poems with unambiguous depictions of women having sex with each other. Chapti refers to the act of rubbling, clinging, or sticking together and the women indulging in ‘chapti’ (psst- Woman on woman SEX) were called chapatbaz. As frank and forthright as Jurrat’s erotic descriptions, are the bindaas characters in the Chaptinama below:
Second Chaptinama of Jur’at
The woman speaker here takes quite the delight in berating sex had with men, and noting the advantages of a dildo. Quite like the starting lines, it makes us consider ‘new ways of being intimate’.
Close Calls of Insha’s Poetry
In the following poems written by Insha Allah Khan “Insha”, women’s romance takes place under the pretext of the ritual of borrowing coal for the kitchen. Eliciting erotic relationships between neighbours is prominent feature of Rekhti romance.
In this prose romance,Silk-e-Gauhar, a helper called Gulru, has been delegated the task of talking a princess named Gauhar into marrying a Russian prince. She is in turn seduced by Gauhar herself! Gauhar tells Gulru to ‘chillax’ as she has travelled all the way for the persuasion.
Of course where there are secrets, there’s the danger – and thrill – of being found out, like in this poem of secret night-time visits and the danger of discovery.
Kabhi Sharmila- Kabhi Shocking Mizaaj of Rangin
In Saadat Yar Khan AKA Rangin’s very romantic poem below, the merest exchange of glances could be a giveaway of a secret relationship between women. Though fretful of fate, the women in the poem are confident, that had they lived in a society that accepted queer love, theirs would be the very ‘face of love’. It is Rangin alone, who is their cherished and observant confidante.
(Note: Du-gana refers to the female beloved of a female lover).
In the excerpts from a Chaptinama below, a woman, having witnessed some steamy sex between two women voyeuristically, reproaches her husband for not giving her the same pleasure in bed.
So, with this little tour of Rekhti, Agents, it’s pretty clear is it not, that whether through the words of courtesans, kings or mischievous poets, the queer worlds of yesteryear that ek ladki aur ek ladki dost and more ho sakte hain! Whether meant to please the masculine eye or not, these poems would surely have delighted the lesbian eye too, no?
Research of poetry and their translations sourced from–
Poems by Insha & First poem by Rangin: Gender, Sex and The City:Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India by Ruth Vanita, Published by Palgrave, 2012