The Learned Courtesan | The Artisans and Entertainers of the Ancient and Medieval World

Man is only half. He is forever seeking to actualise the full capacity of his being. Deep within him arises the sense that he is incomplete. In his quest for wholeness, he seeks to unite with his other half. When he feels alone in the world, he finds no pleasure.

His desire is awakened. His desire is for a companion.

It seems, however, that she is nowhere to be found.

The Folly of Fortuna

Our efforts feel fruitless. Neither religious rituals nor regular work allow us to experience the companionship that we deeply desire.

Fortuna comes to us by chance, without any basis in logic. It is dependent on destiny. Since the ways of Fortuna do not follow the path of logic, our efforts seem to serve no purpose.

Fortuna’s arrival is whimsical and unexpected.

Alas! The success of any enterprise and endeavour is deemed to be the fruit of hard work. It is thus understood that the means we employed are the basis of our success.

Yet, the same means do not work for others.

This leads some to believe that success is dependently solely on the whimsical threads of destiny. Others say it is a blend of both: good luck and considerable effort.

For those who never find success, it is concluded that the wrong path is chosen.

In either case, once Fortune is either found or earned, it forms the basis for either continued success or ruin.

At the heart of this tale, then, is the Courtesan.

The Courtesan

Courtesans played a vital role in ancient and medieval urban societies. They were the refined artists of the city. It was through them that the cultured techniques of music, dance and literary canons were created and transmitted.

Professional female dancers, musicians and storytellers belonged to the social class of courtesans. An array of gifted, talented and skilled dancers and musicians emanated from this profession. They were the learned entertainers of their day.

Theatre troupes of male dancers also existed, for the staging of religious stories and historical legends legends. These troupes were exclusively male and male actors played the roles of the female characters. Women rarely performed in public the way that men did.

Courtesans thus commanded a large sum for their services. Its ties to the theatrical profession is not peculiar to places like India and Japan. In the West, dancers and actresses were patronised by wealthy clients. Through their income, the courtesan class made generous contributions to social and religious institutions, including the construction of buildings and so on.

The purpose of their work was not only to entertain, but also to encourage in their patrons a curiosity regarding the true meaning of life.

It was believed that when people were only attached to the pursuit of money and pleasure, the decay of society as a whole began to loom large. However, when the pursuit of both profit and pleasure are codified by an ethical code of conduct, art can become instrumental in the spiritual progress of a people.

Human sexuality and the resulting birth of children is the foundation upon which civilisation stands. Desire was viewed as a powerful, but unstable force. The power of desire was seen as proportional to the development of human emotion and experience. These emotional states can be favourable or unfavourable.

In every age of mankind, society has sought to control, restrict or demean the desires that arise within the heart. Through sanctions, society can establish a sense of control over the physical world, but the rebellion of the mind against the dictates of desire remains powerful. In prohibiting the passions of desire to surface, they can be kept in check, but they cannot be eradicated.

To circumvent this tendency, artists entertained audiences while at the same time encouraged them to look deep within themselves.

Vyjayanthimala as the Courtesan Chandramukhi in Devdas

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