Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry, 1780-1870
Ruth Vanita
140 x 216 mm
Year of Publishing
Territorial Rights
Orient BlackSwan

Gender, Sex and the City explores the cosmopolitan sensibilities of Urdu poetry written in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in the city of Lucknow, which was the centre of a flourishing Indo-Persian culture. Through its ground-breaking analysis, it demonstrates how re??ti (a type of Urdu poetry whose distinguishing features are a female speaker and a focus on women’s lives) and to some degree, non-mystical re??ta (mainstream Urdu poetry with a male speaker), for the first time in Urdu represent women (both of conventional families and courtesan households) as important shapers of urban culture, especially urban speech.

Vanita analyses how re??ti  becomes a catalyst for the transformation of the g_?azal, first, by focusing it not on love alone but on the practices, spaces and rituals of everyday life; second, by bringing subordinated figures, such as women as well as servants centre-stage; and, third, by challenging the g_?azal’s ideal of perfect love as framed by separation and suffering.

Women characters in re??ti  fall in love, but they also work, shop, dress, sing, dance, eat, fast, chat, quarrel, pray, invoke spirits, and voice opinions on many matters. The author explores the way re??ti reconfigures the city from women’s perspective, depicting a parallel world of urban women’s meeting places, networks and rituals. 

The first book-length study in English of re??ti and also of non-mystical re??ta, it demonstrates the interplay between the twoin language, form and content. Including many first-time translations and also analyses of neglected poems, such as Rangin’s Mas?nawi Dilpazir and Jur’ at’s ???aja ?asan-o  Ba??shi  T?wa’ if,  (a romance with a courtesan heroine), it also studies in detail the works of Insha and Nisbat, among others.

With several more transcribed poems than in its US edition, this book is a must-read for students and scholars of literature, history, sociology, gender and sexuality studies, South Asian studies and culture studies.

Ruth Vanita is Professor in the Department of Liberal Studies at the University of Montana, USA. She was formerly Reader at the University of Delhi, India, and was founding co-editor of India’s first nationwide feminist magazine, Manushi.

A Note on the Texts
Note on Transliteration
A Note on Translation

List of Abbreviations


Chapter One Women in the City: Fashioning the Self
Chapter Two Eloquent Parrots: Gender and Language
Chapter Three Servants, Vendors, Artisans: The City’s Many Voices
Chapter Four Neither Straight Nor Crooked: Love and Friendship in the City
Chapter Five Playfully Speaking: Transforming Literary Convention
Chapter Six ‘I’m a Real Sweetheart’: Masculinity and Male-Male Desire
Chapter Seven Styling Urban Glamour: Courtesan and Poet
Chapter Eight Camping it Up: Jan Sahib and His School
Chapter Nine A Poetics of Play: Hybridity, Difference, Modernity

The Eternal City: Pasts and Futures


1. Gender,Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry, 1780-1870 By Ruth Vanita
2. The Sunday Guardian New Delhi 17 Nov 2013

‘This book invites us into an urban modernity—the world of eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry in Urdu—that colonialism destroyed. Such a lucid and worldly containment of reproductive heteronormativity is hard to imagine in today's polarised society.… [T]he translations, excellent as they are, push the reader toward tasting the “original”.’

- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University

‘Professor Vanita's seminal work on rek_h_ti opens up a parallel world of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Indo-Islamic culture … without which our knowledge of that society, and the significance of its representative literature, would remain wholly inadequate.’

- Musharraf Ali Farooqi, novelist and translator

‘Vanita summons an era of extraordinary playfulness with consummate playfulness herself…. She brings LGBTQ Studies into deeper and more direct conversation with colonial/postcolonial studies; also troubling the implicit eurocentrism of the former’s theoretical categories through a dazzling new lexicon compiled from a different world.… [H]ighly original for its emphasis on rek_h_ti as a source not of “grand” or “monumental” history but rather of material culture and everyday life … this [book] is likely to be one of those books with a very long shelf life: for the rich material it showcases, historical and poetic, and, not, least of all, its own expert and adroit translations.’

- Leela Gandhi, Professor in English and South Asian Studies, University of Chicago

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