The Asian Diva

Gauhar Jân Gauhar Jân

The diva is a nearly universal phenomenon. When Tosca sings in Giacomo Puccini’s opera of devoting her life to art and love, she speaks not just for herself but for a tradition of divas connecting Rome’s Teatro Argentina to Shiraz’s mystical soirées, to the pleasure pavilions of Delhi, to the entertainment quarter of Yangzhou.

Wherever poetry, music and mime are practiced with virtuosity, great female performers always take center stage. In ancient Greece, they performed with dances and flutes at boozy symposia. Imperial Rome offered singing and dancing intermezzos during public sporting events. One famous performer in the Hippodrome, Theodora, went on to become Empress of Byzantium.

On the other side of the world, Javanese dancers entertained Muslim sultans with the Hindu love story of Rama and Sita. In the Shogun’s Edo, the pleasure quarter hummed with oirans, the predecessors of the geishas, plucking on the shamisen.

Musicians, 19th-century copy of Safavid original (State Hermitage Museum)
Musicians, 19th-century copy of Safavid original (State Hermitage Museum)

Traditional Asian divas are less well known and understood among English language readers than the great sopranos who sang for Mozart and Puccini. Despite an endless variety in the forms of arts, music and even audience stretching across all the times and places in which the great divas have performed, there are a number of connecting threads that run through the distinct traditions of the diva in both Asia and Europe, weaving a backdrop of cultural understanding between East and West.

The first and foremost thread is artistic virtuosity. Before modern recording technology made its appearance, divas from East and West were reputed for their singing as well as, often, for their dancing and poetic composition. As Chinese tradition put it, their voices were wont to snake around the rafters of the house, leaving the audience in a state of enchantment. To achieve this effect, reaching the summit of their craft, required endless attention to technique, style and delivery.

Their musical mastery also made these divas trend setters of art and culture: they could make or break poets, dance masters or other musicians. Their privileged position among the rich and powerful transformed them into sought-after arbiters in the arts of polite conversation and gracious living. Their manner of dressing, of eating and drinking were emulated by aspiring new entrants into the elite, whether young aristocrats or newly enriched bourgeoisie.

A third thread is the ambiguous social position that resulted. Most divas came from thoroughly humble origins. Many started off as slaves. Their profession rewarded them so richly that the enslaved were able to buy their freedom and the previously humble flaunted their wealth in magnificent houses of pleasure which rivaled those of their patrons. For enthusiastic lovers of art, this status made the divas all the more irresistible. But sometimes the state or religious authorities found these powerful women too dangerously transgressive of societal norms, and sought to impose limits, such as where they could build their palaces or how they could dress, as in Venice where the wearing pearls were forbidden to them. Traditionally conservative societies drew a sharp distinction between women who performed in public and those who served as mothers and wives of the elite. Divas breached even this distinction, as their great beauty, culture and wealth allowed them to marry their patrons, if they so chose, and later to retire into quiet social conformity.

Divas, unlike most men and women in traditional society, enjoyed what today we call agency. Once they had reached the summit of their art, their fame allowed them choices. They were free to flout or to embrace social norms, freer than many of their patrons who were bound by feudal ties, religious restrictions or family obligations. This agency derived from their artistry, their fame, their sought-after rarity, and also their personal beauty and charisma. They charmed, schooled, advised and dominated princes and emperors. They were extraordinary women whose fame in many traditions lives on in poetry and opera, including some works penned by the divas themselves.

Portrait of Li Xiangjun (Frangrant Princess), immortalised in The Peach Blossom Fan; Cui He, 1817 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Portrait of Li Xiangjun (Frangrant Princess), immortalised in The Peach Blossom Fan; Cui He, 1817 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The traditional Asian divas—whether in Shiraz at the court of the Injuids, Delhi during the twilight of the Moghuls, or Yangzhou under the late Ming dynasty—were economically independent from men and could choose to love whom they wished. Indeed, in many ways, they presaged the emergence of the modern woman in Asian societies.

A final thread is the relationship of the traditional Asian divas to art. Some readers might assume an equivalence between the diva and the alluring seductress. The femmes fatales of Western culture, such as Galatea, Berenice and Salomé, are often the subject of art, but they are rarely artists themselves. Art requires too much discipline, too much personal purification, for the artist to waste her power and position on mere passions. On the contrary, like Puccini’s Floria Tosca, many famous divas epitomized such social virtues as unwavering ethics and courage, paying the ultimate price for their loyalty and patriotism.

In many ways, traditional Asian divas presaged the emergence of the modern woman in Asian societies.

The splendor of the divas of Iran, of India and of China is reflected in the prestigious traditions which took root in neighboring countries. The decline of their profession everywhere follows a similar arc of descent.


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)

Excerpted from Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture In Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou.


Persian poetry and dance enlivened Istanbul, notably following the Ottoman seizure of Baghdad from Iran in the 17th century. The multi-ethnic Ottomans, however, often recruited songstresses from further afield: Greece, Colchis, Armenia or Albania. Partly as a result, the Ottoman songstress may have contributed to more popular music. Associated with the meyhane or tavern, she left her mark on Istanbul cafe music like the Turkish şarkı or the Greek rebetica songs.

Voyaging merchants and princes introduced the Indian songstress tradition into the Indonesian archipelago where it fused with Javanese culture. Even as the Javanese courts embraced Islam, they continued to patronize the Wayang Wong dancers who re-enacted romantic passages from the Hindu epics, especially the Ramayana. The sultan of Yogyakarta maintains his court dancers to this day.

Yoshiwara in today’s Tokyo was designated by the shogun as the pleasure quarter like that of Yangzhou. As in China, women were excluded from public performances, so only the happy few invited to private soirées could appreciate the Japanese divas, known as oiran. In the 20th century, potential patrons switched their affections from the tradition-bound and high maintenance oirans to the prim young geishas, who originally were mere tea-ladies for the great performers. Although the geisha today is imagined as representing a lost world of elegance, culture and seduction, she represents the rejection of the once legendary divas of Yoshiwara.

Korean Gisaeng performers mirrored their Chinese counterparts in many respects, including their martial virtues. For example, many took part in patriotic resistance against foreign invaders. Extinction threatened them during the Japanese colonial occupation. The Republic of Korea undertook to recruit, train and patronize them as national treasures. In North Korea there are rumors that a program exists to entertain high ranking cadres in a more traditional patronage relationship.

In the 20th century, mass media undermined the diva commercially and eliminated her role as the principal transmitter of culture. A successful tawaif like Gauhar Jân lent her glamour and prestige to nascent Indian recording industry, which initially transmitted faithfully  the classic traditions of music and dance. As the 20th century progressed, however, Hollywood films and American jazz exercised a fatal attraction on Asian show business. Begum Akhtar, the legendary Urdu singer of the 50s and 60s, shut herself up in her dressing room in tears when a director urged her to sing a pop song. She was fighting a rear-guard action. Bollywood was irresistibly pulled in the direction of Saturday Night Fever.

Yet the cultural legacy of the songstress outlives the live performance. That is a measure of the impact she made on her listeners. The audience sensed that they had just witnessed the birth of a once and future classic. When Iranians recite Hafez, when young girls in India learn the intricate Khatak dancing, and when theatregoers in Hong Kong flock to the Peach Blossom Fan, they are all bending to the shock wave which is still echoing from the original performances.

In another important aspect, the diva’s legacy is very much alive. In the twilight of the influential songstress of the pleasure quarters and the debut of famous singer actresses on radio and in film, there emerged the role model of an independent, responsible and resourceful woman. As we have seen, the diva represented a compelling combination of beauty, talent, virtuosity, cultivation and charisma. This allowed her reign over her society, to observe or to transgress social norms as she liked, to live freely in an age where most people, including both men and women, hewed humbly to their birth destinies. This was a lasting legacy for emerging modern women. Already in Qing dynasty China the mingji encouraged married women’s participation in intellectual life. Begum Akhtar convinced her well-bred husband to let her perform in public, showing women could be both divas and spouses.

Women in the public eye, unlike men, have always have to walk a tight rope. Even today they are expected to play a role which combines nigh impossible elements of female grace and virtuosity. The diva was the first to demonstrate how to do this. Her model is followed by women pop stars, entrepreneurs and politicians. Many divas played all three of these roles, centuries ago.

Many will have encountered the songstress whose story is told here in (Western) opera or ballet. Tosca is joined on stage by the devadasi Leila from Les Pêcheurs des Perles, La Bayadère, even the geisha Cio-Cio-san. The original Asian models are easily accessible: The loves of the Fragrant Princess can be re-experienced in Jiangsu Province Kunqu Theatre’s performance of The Peach Blossom Fan, which have been filmed. The Indian songstress is brought beautifully to life in Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 film Umrao Jân, with the unforgettable Rekha in the title role. Lost, and difficult to reimagine is the songstress of Shiraz. Her voice can only be heard in the suggestive recitation of the poem “Zulf”, which remains as a palimpsest of her existence.

Where the roles of women and men are unrecognizably changed, where culture is consumed via Youtube or WeChat and not in the opera house, where access to the language of ghazals or Chinese GuWen requires diligent self-teaching, the fact that the diva’s voice in our imagination still wraps like smoke around the rafters is evidence of the lasting resonance of a great performance.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.