‘Umrao & Me’ is an innovative lecture performance in which the artist shares the personal letters she wrote to Umrao Jaan Ada - the legendary 19th century ‘tawaif’ performer (courtesan) from India.

Negotiating between fragility and strength, power and playfulness, fierceness and hopelessness; the performance reflects on the shifting identity of the female performer and tackles the questions of agency, obsession, male & female gaze, morality, body shaming and politics of art.


“Saint Lucia, the patron of the blind - can be seen in hundreds of paintings smiling subserviently with her eyes gouged out, served on a plate.
They did that because they didn’t see eye to eye to the way she viewed herself.”

Concept, Script & Performance: Nikita Maheshwary
Dramaturg: Paul de Bruyne

Duration: 40 minutes

Performed at: 
Korzo Theatre, The Hague, NL | 21 October 2018
Ashoka University,
India | 13 November 2018
Shiv Nadar University, India | 15 November 2018
Moving Futures Festival, Tilburg, NL | 11 May 2019
CC Amstel, Amsterdam, NL | 14 - 15 June 2019

With this lecture performance I wanted to locate the multiple voices & meanings around female agency, identity and sexuality. And also, delve deeper into the discourse of the ‘body of the female performer’ that is persistently contested as a site of entertainment, a site of work, pleasure and abuse.

During my research, I poured over texts on geishas, kabukis, cabaret dancers & their marginalized identity, studied female characters in western nude paintings, read interviews of current day courtesans. Parallel to this, I am also interested in connecting how socioeconomic incidents such as industrialization, the emergence of female voting rights, introduction of the contraceptive pill, institutionalization of dance, the four waves of feminism, independence of colonies, notions of nationalism, the recent #metoo phenomenon and the advent of extreme right-wing governments across the world, have on a female body and especially on the body of a female performer.

These impressions led me to craft a self-reflective voice in the form of letters exchanged between the contemporary female performer (me) and the past custodian of dance - 
the courtesan (Umrao). I do hope, this work highlights feminine resilience and invites the audience to reconstruct the viewership of a female performer’s body.