Kutni- historical value
Another very important character that played an important role amongst the elite of late 19th, early 20th century Lucknow.
Kutni: Noun – A woman who transfers secrets from one person to another, a trickster woman.
It is generally believed that these women were those born through a secret liaison between a well to do gentleman and a woman from the lower income group of society; they were also comprised of servants from the Zenana, who moved between the domestic quarters and the public bazaar, gained importance in the eyes of the Lady of the House, became their confidante, and thus mainly deployed to keep track of the ‘other women’, favoured by their men.
They played upon superstitious beliefs and rituals, of gossip in the Zen'an Khana to gain importance, and sometimes power; thus, playing the perfect role of a deceptive ‘mole’, planted inside the Zenana for whom-so-ever willing to pay the highest price for ‘inside’ information. They kept track of all goings on inside and outside the house and had every information, particularly concerning various ‘interests’ of the Man In-charge, and his ‘extra-curricular’ activities that included many off-springs unknown to the world outside.
The anonymous productions of various gentlemen were known to the Kutnis at the back of their hand and were always available on their finger tips as a ready-reckoner. This information was particularly very useful for the fact that, firstly, it brought them money and wealth, and secondly, allowed them manipulations in fixing marriages between these categories, especially of the girls, since it was difficult getting them suitable suitors. The Kutnis extracted huge amount for fixing such marriages.
An interesting anecdote told by my grand-father, on the subject of Kutnis, was of a marriage that was broken by the ‘kutnapa’ of a Kutni, who whispered the following words in the ear of the girl’s mother:
“Ay bibi kahan rishta ker rahi ho, ay hai ghazub khuda ka, Allah say daro - yeh dono toh bhai-bahen hain”!
(Dear Lady, where are you betrothing your girl, have the fear of God! They have a brother-sister relationship!)
Just like the ‘Chaudhra'en’ of a kotha, Ph’aph’a Kutni had a gang of 20 to 25 Kutnis working under her, as paid workers. She also had a couple of ‘Bankas’, and satisfactory number of ‘shohdas’ under her command – the requisite ‘muscle-power’ to get things fixed and keeping the naughty ones under control. This ‘Phapha’ title was hereditary, with the only difference being that instead of going to the eldest of the eldest daughter, it was given to the best of the lot.
Water colour: 19th century Lucknow.
A “Ph’aph’a” Kutni being felicitated in the Zenana.
Ibrahim A.Khan Asif.