dilruba | دلربا | meaning, a woman who steals hearts.

In this 10-part series, Dastaan-e-Dilrubai, Shreya Ila Anasuya narrates the histories of Indian women who delighted and moved people with their skills in singing, dancing, acting, and writing — bearing witness to their power.

With art by Satwik Gade.

Read more from the series here.


A halo of illuminated clouds surrounded the enormous full moon this week, foretelling the storm that came, heavy and windy, in the eastern Indian city I live in. The sun was exactly opposite the moon, lighting it up so that it was impossible to look away.

It brought to mind oft-repeated Urdu couplets — remembered so often as snatches of song — that use the moon as metaphor. It also specifically brought to mind a poet born just over 250 years ago, named for the moon herself. She was born Chanda, to a courtesan and a soldier, named after her maternal grandmother, who had fled house arrest and found community with a group of traditional performers, who encouraged her to train her own daughters in the performing arts. It is from this legacy of reinvention and artistic talent that Chanda came, and blazed a ferocious trail in the literary and political sphere of 18th century Hyderabad.

Tawaifs such as Chanda were intimately associated with poetry.

Not only did they perform other poets’ works to music and dance, those who were trained also read poetry themselves. There is a chronicle of many tawaifs who themselves wrote poetry — it is said that Jahanara Kajjan wrote under the takhallus (pen name) ‘Ada’, just like the fictional courtesan Umrao Jaan, heroine of the novel by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Badi Malka Jaan published a diwan (collection) and her daughter, the gramophone sensation Gauhar Jaan, also wrote poetry, and presented her own diwan to the poet Akbar Ilahabadi. Ruth Vanita writes that several of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s wives, who had been courtesans, also wrote poetry.

But before them all, there was Chanda. She was a contemporary of Mir, Dard and Sauda. Scholars agree that she was among the first, if not the first woman to have published her own diwan of Urdu poetry. Unlike the work of many of the courtesan poets, which, as historian Saleem Kidwai has pointed out, has been “censored out of the literary canon”, Chanda’s poetry is intact, in two volumes that would have been among the many copied by the calligraphers in her employ.

Scholars Scott Kugle and Shweta Sachdeva Jha have written about the extraordinary amount of power she amassed — earning for her performances from several courts and establishments, and being given gifts of land by the Nizam.


Nizam Sikandar Asaf Jah III conferred upon her the title Mah Laqa Bai (‘Face Like the Moon’), and with this, she herself became part of nobility. Once she was elevated to this position, a number of honours followed — she was accompanied by a hundred soldiers, drums were sounded to announce her arrival. From the wealth and influence she amassed, she fashioned a life that has managed to stay in public memory until today. She also gave of her wealth generously — and after her death, her riches are said to have been distributed among homeless women.

Read on Firstpost: Once Hyderabad's famed courtesan and patron of the arts, Mah Laqa Bai has been forgotten by history

Jha has written of her acts of writing poetry, commissioning a historical chronicle of her time, and of commissioning architecture (from an ashurkhana to a palace for herself, to a mausoleum for her mother) as “significant acts of authorship and autobiographical articulation”.

The moon this week was in the sign of Libra, represented symbolically using a pair of scales — signifying balance, reciprocity, justice. The history of Urdu poetry is riddled with as much erasure as it is exalted with the names of women who wrote it and continue to write it — Parveen Shakir, Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed. But before them are the diwans that didn’t get recorded for posterity, the ghazals that were not remembered, the verses that remain untranslated.

In this context, it is remarkable that we have Chanda’s poetry at all.

Many of her ghazals are addressed to her patrons, the Nizam, but also Aristu Jah, the two-time Prime Minister of Hyderabad in whose establishment she first performed at age 15. Many of them lovingly address Hazrat Ali, to whom she was devoted as a Shi’a Muslim. But what Jha and Kugle note is that her poetic voice uses many of the tropes associated with rekhta (the traditional form of Urdu poetry, in the masculine voice) as opposed to rekhti (written in the feminine voice, but by men, popularised by poets such as Insha and Rangin).

Jha writes of a time that Chanda offered her diwan as a gift to a British East India Company Official called John Malcolm, at a time when it was politically advantageous for nobles at the court of Hyderabad to make political alliances with the British. In dedicating her verses to her patrons, she was also ensuring continued patronage – and in writing in the traditional register, she gave herself the chance to perform her poetry in gatherings, as many members of the nobility did. In doing so she became part of a poetic tradition that continues to move and touch us today. Political and literary context aside, the verses she left behind are also utterly beautiful. Consider, for example, the following couplet, translated by Syed Sirajuddin:

tishna-lab kyuuñ rahe ai sāqī-e-kausar 'chandā'

ye tire jām-e-mohabbat ko piye baiThī hai


How can Chanda be dry lipped, O saqi of the heavenly wine!

She has drained the cup of thy love.

May we remember Chanda as we remember Ghalib, as we remember Mir, as we remember Dagh, and Jigar, and even Faiz. If only to consider what the poet Adrienne Rich meant when she wrote “...and we still have to stare into absence/of men who would not, women who could not, speak/to our life — this still unexcavated hole/called civilisation, this act of translation, this half-world.”