Performance and Realism: Reading Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada (1899)

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Umrao Jan Ada is a seminal nineteenth-century (published in 1899) Urdu novel by Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa. Ruswa’s novel tells the story of a courtesan and poet from 19th-century Lucknow, named Umrao Jan Ada. Born as Ameeran, the protagonist is kidnapped and sold into prostitution where she eventually grows into Umrao Jan Ada. Umrao Jan Ada: Umrao, a signifier for the girl young Ameeran was forced to become; Jan, a signifier for her deflowering and entry into the profession of prostitution; and Ada, the pseudonym under which she writes her poems, and the only name she chooses for herself. In this paper, I seek to investigate this title ‘Ada’, Umrao’s poetry, and the work it does in Ruswa’s novel as a socio-economic currency. I then explore the ways through which these couplets shape the form of the novel. Ultimately, I argue that the couplets in Umrao Jan Ada fundamentally delineate Umrao as an individual, hence, constituting as a principal technique through which Ruswa achieves realism in this novel. 

In her essay “Women of ‘Ill Repute’: Ethics and Urdu literature in colonial India,” Sarah Waheed provides an etymology of the word ‘Adā’: 

Adā in Urdu has two meanings. One is from the Arabic, and has to do with exchange, execution, and transaction, that is, to fulfil a contractual obligation; the second meaning is of Persian etymology, and refers to the manner, style or ways specific to one’s personality; it is also closely tied to coquetry, alluding to emotive gestures, though not exclusively, and the sensual and sexual space of one’s body.” (1001)

Poetry is repeatedly posited as a currency of exchange in this novel. In their first meeting itself, a mere verbal, in-absentia appreciation of Ruswa’s ghazal is deemed as an unsatisfactory display of admiration; it can only be through her presence that Umrao adequately “honours” (Ruswa v) his poetry. This form of transaction occurs recurrently through the text: “in exchange for the pleasure of his company, Ruswa procures Umrā’o Jān’s story” (Waheed 1011); and in exchange for his presence, Ruswa is able to ‘buy’ Umrao’s story. For Umrao is seeking a willing audience; someone who will listen to her story and indulge her performance. In this first meeting itself, Umrao wonders aloud: “Who will listen to the tale of my woeful heart…I have much to impart” (Ruswa vi); and this incites Ruswa to ask Umrao to narrate her life story. “Impart” [Latin impartire, from in-‘in’ + pars, part- ‘part’] (Online Etymology Dictionary) literally means to give in part i.e., in pieces; a share of something (away). The use of this word here reveals that Umrao wishes to not only tell her story, but give it away. Here, then, in their first conversation itself, her tale is “commodified” (Waheed 1001), and posited by Umrao herself as an object which she wishes to give away. Also, the use of the article ‘the’ instead of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ while talking about this tale is also revealing — Umrao is already distancing herself from the story, treating it more as a commodity which she can sell and less as a narrative story-telling experience which she will choose to share with Ruswa, but will ultimately belong to herself. The authorship i.e., the ownership of Umrao’s story passes (is sold) from Umrao to Ruswa in this first meeting; in exchange for the indulgence of her poetic performance through Ruswa’s willing presence. 

The recitation of poetry is showcased as a performance from the preface itself: the performing poet is described as spotlighted by the “candle flickering in a glass shade” (Ruswa vi). This ties in with the second meaning of ‘Ada’, evoking an investment with the “emotive gestures…and the sensual and sexual space of one’s body” (Waheed 1001). It is notable, then, that the first—and only—instance when Umrao performs a poem which incorporates her “poetic name” (Ruswa 81) ‘Ada’ is outside of Khanum Jan’s kotha; in the Raja Sahib’s mansion. Umrao sings of her freedom: “Like a pet singing bird let out of its cage / My bonds are loosened when I love my bondage…‘Ada’ from love’s prison there can no freedom be / Prisoner in love with captor can enjoy no liberty” (Ruswa 81). This verse reveals Umrao’s anxieties about freedom: while on one hand she refers to Khanum’s kotha as a “Prison-house” (Ruswa 100), on the other she also declares that she “loves her bondage” (Ruswa 81). Plus, it is the first—and only—instance in the novel when it can be ascertained that the perspective Umrao is borrowing for her performance is her own — through the claim she stakes on its expression through her usage of her pseudonym ‘Ada’. This, then, is also the only moment in the novel when Umrao’s performance is not simply intended to entertain her audience but also to express herself. The fact—and, perhaps, ability—of her desire to ‘express’ outside of the kotha is telling of her relationship with her performance — outside the “Prison-house” (Ruswa 100) ‘Ada’ can express herself; inside it, she will only entertain, wielding her poems as a socio-economic currency. 

The presence of these couplets queers the form of Ruswa’s novel. It repeatedly shatters binaries; collapsing time, spaces and perspectives. The appearance of the couplets through the novel repeatedly interrupts the prosaic narrative, and enables the form of the novel to flit between the spaces of the interview (the multiple sittings across which Umrao recounted her story to Ruswa) (Ruswa vi), the mushaira, and the courtesan’s stage. In these moments when the novel-form is framed within the space of the interview, the mushaira or the stage, the narrative of the novel which, as the translators describe it, is “one long looking back” (Ruswa xi) is interrupted, and the movement is anchored in the here-and-now: the couplets, spoken and performed perpetually in the present, are not (can not) looking back but looking towards. They repeatedly demand, invoke, and create an audience—an ‘other’—for themselves. In Umrao Jan Ada, the role of this ‘other’ is fulfilled by the character Ruswa who recurrently provokes, interrogates and applauds Umrao’s performance. Multiple times, he also performs couplets himself; throwing the narrative back into the preface’s space of the mushaira wherein it is through the repartee of poetry that the conversational bridge is built and traversed. All these instances, however, unfailingly queer the line between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, throwing the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ into flux.

In this regard, Ruswa’s choice to create the character Ruswa who converses with Umrao through the novel can be understood as an effect of his investment in the project of realism and realistic writing. Ruswa “did not believe in creating characters that did not exist” (Ruswa vii). He believed that “the most paying and interesting subject of study in this world is what happens to human beings…[which] can be depicted through a novel provided an effort is made to present the picture truthfully” (Ruswa vii). The success of a realistic novel is contingent on a “truthful” (Ruswa vii) and believable depiction of individuals for realism, “the dominant mode of the British Victorian novel—the model immediately available to the Indian writer” (Mukherjee 76), was constituted through “the ideal of individualism” (Mukherjee 76). This was extremely difficult in 19th century India. Meenakshi Mukherjee, in her essay “Reality and Realism: Indian Women as Protagonists in Four Nineteenth Century Novels” points towards this challenge, and elucidates that the Indian writer’s “primary challenge was the achievement of realism while remaining faithful to the reality of his social order which generally inhibited individual choice” (Mukherjee 76). How, then, could the Indian writer write an individual? I contend that in Umrao Jan Ada, Ruswa delineates his individual i.e., the protagonist Umrao through distinction. Formally, Ruswa constitutes Umrao’s ‘self’ in the Hegelian dialectic — Umrao is posited in contrast with the character Ruswa himself. It is through conversations with Ruswa that Umrao’s character is delineated and her perspective as the individual protagonist is clarified and cemented. It is also through these conversations that the structure of the novel is fundamentally twisted; effecting a temporal, spatial, and perceptual movement which allows Ruswa to lay claims to the authenticity of Umrao’s life, declaring her as a woman whom he “had known well many years before” (Ruswa vi). Ruswa is able to, hence, assert that his novel is realistic, and his account of Umrao’s life “truthful” (Ruswa vii). The character Ruswa is the first listener of Umrao’s tale; and Umrao is the first reader of Ruswa’s recounting of her story. This enables the framework through the novel which posits Umrao Jan Ada as a realistic narration. 

Ruswa also distinguishes Umrao from within her social milieu. Mukherjee, in her essay “Reality and Realism: Indian Women as Protagonists in Four Nineteenth Century Novels,” comments on the social world of Umrao Jan Ada: “Umrao Jan Ada hardly mentions a character that is not Muslim…This homogeneity of the fictional world was not very conducive to the development of the novel as a genre which in the West had in its early stages thrived on the clash between moral and social values of different classes” (82). Umrao is not unlike the other courtesans. However, the craft of her performance sets her apart. She recounts to Ruswa that “I was famous for my songs of lamentation as no one knew as many arrangements as I did. The most celebrated professionals did not dare to open their mouths in my presence” (Ruswa 48). Without her craft, Umrao would have also blended into “this homogeneity of the fictional world” (Mukherjee 82), dissolving into the masses. However, it is precisely this ‘setting apart’ which enables Ruswa to achieve realism while “remaining faithful to the reality of his social order” (Mukherjee 76). By showcasing Umrao as an accomplished poet, Ruswa creates a believable fictional world in which through education, an individual can steal pockets of free will. 

The novel often turns towards these linkages between education and free will. In one conversation between Ruswa and Umrao, Umrao says: “I find it very hard to talk about the subject you have in mind. Women of my calling are usually immodest, but that is only during the time they are engaged in the profession…with the years one learns to curb these instincts to keep a proper sense of proportion” (Ruswa 25). Ruswa replies: “If you were not a woman of culture, these excuses would be acceptable and I would not be so insistent. Educated people should not be unnecessarily prudish” (Ruswa 25). “Modesty” [French modestie] literally means “freedom from exaggeration”(Online Etymology Dictionary). Here, Umrao draws a link between her profession and modesty. She contends that courtesan-women are “usually immodest” (Ruswa 25) i.e., prone to amplification and attempts to stand out — but only until they are “engaged in the profession” (Ruswa 25). Once they are not employed as courtesans anymore, they attempt to blend into the social milieu, “curbing their instincts” (Ruswa 25). Ruswa, however, draws a different line of link: one between education and modesty. Instead of agreeing with Umrao that it is the profession of courtesans which makes these women immodest, he argues that it is “education [which] destroys one’s sense of modesty” (Ruswa 25). He also does not limit his linkage to women; he seeks to make a claim about all “educated people” (Ruswa 25, emphasis mine). Character Ruswa’s, who can be seen as a stand-in for the author Ruswa, opinion about education and modesty is revealing about the project of this novel, and the cluster of anxieties vis-a-vis modernity that Ruswa is seeking to unravel and interrogate through the character Umrao. Since these conversational interruptions in the novel frame the primary narrative, they render a peculiar protagonist; one performing at the intersections of a myriad of tensions. This peculiarity is reflected in the title of the novel itself in which the names ‘Jan’ and ‘Ada’ are linked in a consecutive chain of last names; drawing ‘Umrao’ into a lineage of both prostitutes and poets. Umrao, the educated courtesan, becomes a curious figure: disgraced, disruptive; but ultimately, the master of her will.

Repeatedly through the novel, Umrao’s poetry grants her power beyond the influence of a courtesan. In the preface, her poem arrives before, and without herself: her presence is first indicated to Ruswa, his party, and the readers through her singing; “the only indication that someone lived in the apartment” (Ruswa v). Like all texts, Umrao’s poetry effectively extends the reach of her fame and influence; allowing Umrao to be present even in her absence. Hence, even while restricted to the “Prison-house” (Ruswa 100), Umrao can send rousing couplets to Nawab Sultan and “rekindle the dying embers of the fire in my heart” (Ruswa 45). Ruswa, hence, outlines an individual who, while being subject “to the reality of his social order which generally inhibited individual choice” (Mukherjee 76) is able to embody “the ideal of individualism” (Mukherjee 76) and free will. Umrao is an obedient subject of the demands of Khanum’s khota; but through her poems is able to gain measures of monetary and social power. During one of their conversations, Ruswa highlights Umrao’s poetic prowess even more starkly: on the recitation of one of his couplets, Umrao responds with an alternate way to rhyme the same couplet, and suggests, “Why not make them rhyme like this” (Ruswa 24). The act of her suggestion and Ruswa’s unhesitant acceptance depicts the power of her couplets to create a level field for both poet Ruswa and courtesan-poet Umrao. Furthermore in the novel, Umrao is “invited to the court of Queen. His Majesty the King praised me and rewarded me handsomely every year at Mohurram. I was appointed as one of the court singers” (Ruswa 48). Near the end of her life, when her admirers began to “drop out of her life” (Ruswa 150), Umrao “acquires a taste for reading” (Ruswa 150) without which, she contends, that she “would not have been able to live very long” (Ruswa 150). Her educational accomplishments, hence, are posited by Ruswa as Umrao’s saving grace, and the currency which she spends in different ways through the course of her years to make her life more convenient. 

Through Umrao, Ruswa articulates and interrogates these tensions and new strains of ideologies which are emerging in nineteenth-century India like individualism, fate vs free will, religion vs science etc. His project of writing is invested in realism and reality; and hence, inevitably, is a social and moral project. Waheed writes in her essay “Women of ‘Ill Repute’: Ethics and Urdu literature in colonial India” that “Ruswa’s novel is praised for being acceptable reading material for the zenāna (women’s quarters)” (1000); and it is not difficult to gather why. Through Umrao Jan Ada, Ruswa delineates an accomplished courtesan-poet. However, he also provides moral commentary on her virtue; ascertaining that his readers will not regard Umrao as an ideal. Through Umrao’s perspective herself, he has the entire tale deemed “shameful” (Ruswa 141), and the purpose of her telling and his recounting as a “hope that this tale of my life will do some good to some people” (Ruswa 151).

Umrao’s poetic prowess is a distinguishing feature of her character, facilitating Ruswa to outline and set her apart from her social milieu. Through her performances, Umrao effects power and influence in multiple ways; utilising her couplets as a currency to ease her movement through the world. Ruswa’s concern with realism and realistic writing is reflected in his choice of the figure of the courtesan as the protagonist of his novel — a disgraced figure who is able to carry the tensions Ruswa seeks to interrogate, and bear the burden of free will. Through this figure and the queer, hybrid form of the novel, Ruswa is able to utilise his performative narration as a technique to achieve realism in Umrao Jan Ada.


“Impart.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed on 20 December 2022.

“Modesty.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed on 20 December 2022. 

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. “Reality and Realism: Indian Women as Protagonists in Four Nineteenth Century Novels.” Economic and Political Weekly. Economic and Political Weekly, Jan. 14, 1984, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jan. 14, 1984), pp. 76-85.

Ruswa, Mirza Mohammad Hadi. Umrao Jan Ada: Courtesan of Lucknow. Translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh & M.A. Husaini. Orient Blackswan Private Limited, 2009. 

Waheed, Sarah. “Women of ‘Ill Repute’: Ethics and Urdu literature in colonial India.” Modern Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press, JULY 2014, Vol. 48, No. 4 (JULY 2014), pp. 986-1023.