In this extended essay, David Chaffetz, a scholar of Persian and related literary traditions who has lived for years in China and Southeast Asia, zeroes in on erasures in the history of these traditions: the brilliant and highly trained women virtuosos—poets, singers, and dancers—who cut a swath through the opulent courts of Iran, India, and China.

Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture In Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou, David Chaffetz (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)
Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture In Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou, David Chaffetz (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)

The diva is a nearly universal phenomenon. Wherever poetry, music and mime have been practised with virtuosity, great women performers always take centre stage. Traditional Asian divas are however less well known and understood among English language readers than the great 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, these Asian divas constitute the first identifiably modern women.

In 1415, the English forces under Henry V inflicted a terrible defeat on the French army. After the battle, under a heap of dead soldiers, they found and captured a young man who turned out to be Charles, duc d’Orléans (1394-1465). He was taken to England and placed in honorable captivity, but Henry V ordered that he not be ransomed, so he remained in England until his release in 1440. During his 25 years in England, he learned English and wrote a great deal of well-regarded poetry in that language, and when he finally returned home it was remarked that his English was better than his French.

A little before John Donne and George Herbert penned their devotional poetry in the sixteenth century, a couple of bhakti (devotional) or sant (saint) poets in India began to write about the glory of God and the sentiment of devotion. Surdas, Tulsidas, Mirabai and Kabir are among the medieval saint poets becoming increasingly well-known outside their native India. However, with the exception of Tulsidas whose Ramcharitmanas is known to the West as the Bible of North India and has been translated several times in English, it can be difficult to separate the historical, authorial personalities from the interpolations by later poets who continued to compose in a similar vein.