David Chaffetz, author of A Journey through Afghanistan, is an independent researcher of Asian arts and literature. He has read Persian and Turkish at Harvard, and Arabic at Columbia, and has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. His new book, Three Asian Divas, has just been published.
The diva is a nearly universal phenomenon. Chinese opera, especially in the Ming period, had famous singers who were also courtesans, similar to the early Venetian and Roman entertainers. Similar institutions existed in India, the tawaifs, and in Iran. Traditional Asian divas are however less well known and understood among English-language readers than the divas of Mozart and Puccini. Whether from Shiraz at the court of the Injuids, from Delhi during the twilight of the Moghuls, or from Yangzhou under the last Ming emperors, Asian divas were identifiably modern women. Though practicing classical and tradition-bound arts, they were economically independent, and were free to give or withhold love. Indeed, in many ways, they paved the way for the emergence of the modern woman in Asian societies.
Three Asian Divas brings to life an Iranian, an Indian and a Chinese diva, and in so doing highlights the diva’s social role and the significance of her contributions to art.
David here explains how he came to write Three Asian Divas.
I spotted her first in the Teatro Argentina, as Floria Tosca. She is an entertainer, renowned for her artistry, her social grace, sought after by the elite for the sake of her art, her wit and the prestige of associating with her. She is the diva, often misunderstood as a courtesan.
La Tosca is an emblematic diva. An orphan raised by Benedictines, her singing is discovered by composer Cimarosa who convinces the Pope himself to release her from the orders for the sake of the Roman opera. There she memorably justifies her life, “I lived for art, I lived for love”. Through her artistry, her charity to the poor and her patriotism, for which she ultimately sacrifices her life, she redeems her passionate, unconventional love life. Though fictional, much of Tosca’s life is based on the real-life diva of Italian opera, Angelica Catalani.
My interest in art and music led me to wonder whether divas like Tosca or Catalani have their counterparts in Asia. In fact, her voice echoes as the Fragrant Princess in Kun opera, and as the nautch girl of Bollywood’s Pakizah. Her palimpsest emerges from a Persian ghazal. It looks like the diva is a universal phenomenon.
Like the Italians, the semi-historical Fragrant Princess Li rises from humble birth to fame as a diva of Chinese opera. Like Tosca, she sacrifices herself for love and patriotism in the midst of political turmoil, spurning an emperor’s command performance. There is a fully historical Indian Tosca, too, Aziz an-Nissan, a heroine of the first Indian war for independence, who leaves her luxurious life as a diva to lead troops against the British and is subsequently executed.
It’s worth emphasising the heroic behaviour of these women because that is an essential part of their legacy. They share many other important features: the diva comes from an obscure background, orphan, slave or love child. She then survives a rigorous training in singing, dancing, playing an instrument, composing, and often in other arts like calligraphy or painting. It’s surprising that several divas also master martial arts like kung fu or mounted archery. Their virtuosity and charisma make them arbiters of taste, polite conversation and even politics. Kings and courtiers seek them as performers, advisers and sometime consorts. These women are free to give or withhold love, but occasionally they wind up marrying their patrons. Others withdraw from the world to become Buddhist nuns or pilgrims to Mecca.
It is hard for us to imagine as either wives or ascetics these women we confuse with sex-workers. Confusion arises here because in English courtesans often refers to grandes horizontales like the fictional La Traviata or larger-than-life La Paiva, and not great artists like Catalani. We live in #metoo times, projecting into the past our present concerns about the role of women and imagine we’re dealing with sex work instead of unequalled virtuosity in music, dance and other arts. We need to recognise the real significance of the diva, and set aside our prejudices about courtesans.
The diva is critically important to our appreciation of culture, politics and society in Asia. We see the cachet of her performances in so many places, including the Oiran of Japan, the Wayang Wong of Java, the Kaesheng of Korea. I am particularly interested in the three cultural centres that are three mother lodes for Asia - China, India and Iran. In the case of China there is extensive documentation of the role and importance of the divas in first-person narratives, contemporary histories and romantic literature (novels and operas), especially under the Ming Dynasty (1366-1644). Indian divas survived into the 20th century. One of them, Gawhar Jan became the first star of the Indian recording industry whilst another, Malka Pukhraj, resigned as the court diva of the last Maharaja of Kashmir to become a legend of Pakistan’s radio and film. From Iran, though, there is almost no trace of the diva, which surprised me given that country’s rich and original musical tradition.
Whilst many Persian scholars told me, “They must have existed, but no one knows anything about them”, the absence of evidence didn’t provide me conclusive proof of non-existence. One ghazal, or song, of the 14th century poet Hafez particularly tantalised me in this connection:
Tresses mussed, sweat dripping, laughing lips and smashed,
Chemise ripped, ghazals intoned, with brimming wine her flask.
Jonquil-eyed and peevishly her lips full with reproach,
Came, sat down next to my bed upon the midnight last.
Drooping down besides my ear she sadly spoke,
“Once you loved me, how can you now sleep so fast?”
This is so lyric it begs to be sung. Scholars argue that this is a Sufi poem and the tresses of the beloved are the unknowability of God, but that seems an awkward stretch. The sweat and torn clothes drip with carnality. It seems pretty clear that this is sung by a woman, and the entire song only makes sense as a pantomime acted out in front of an audience. We can comfortably conclude that the greatest of Persian poets, Hafez, wrote songs to be sung by a diva. But as yet I had no direct evidence for her existence.
Then I came across a first-person account, a confession, really, by the 17th century Safavid court poet Mohtashem, about his love affair with a diva. Mohtashem’s mistress is much like her sisters in China and India. She lives in great luxury, entertaining courtiers. She is haughty, resisting the poet’s advances for a long time. In the end, as the poet is forced to abandon her long sought-after love, she rides out on her gorgeously caparisoned camel to see the poet off from the gates of her city. One can imagine her singing “I lived for art, I lived for love”.
So, in this book I try to bring to life three Asian divas, Iranian, Indian and Chinese, each masters of a legacy that bequeathed to us great art. That art empowered these women with agency in an age where even men rarely enjoyed freedom in a modern sense. The force of their personalities enabled them to perform significant political acts. In this sense these women are precursors for modern women, in Asia and in the world at large.
Details: Three Asian Divas is published in paperback by Abbreviated Press (Hong Kong). Priced in local currencies.