Among the many curious and fantastic characters encountered in the world of classical Urdu literature, the kutni stands out as an accomplished villain, no adversary dominating the causal chain quite like her.
Often described in qissas as an old, devious and resourceful woman, the kutni arranges illicit rendezvous between men and women, often leading to the latter’s ruin. A kutni seldom returns without fulfilling her mission.
Qissa Maqtool-i-Jafa [The Victim of Malice], in which a kutni’s doings bring about the ruin of an innocent woman, is a rare text in which the kutni initially suffers some reverses and has to scale down the original plan to succeed. The qissa introduces the kutni as a veritable Swiss Army knife of talents noble and ignoble in these words:
“One day an old kutni presented herself before the vizier. She was the very aunt of the devil (may God blacken his face!), and the preceptor of all kutnis. She was one who could leave the greatest disguisers and artists in the dust.
Qissa Maqtool-i-Jafa [The Victim of Malice], introduces the kutni as a veritable Swiss Army knife of talents noble and ignoble.
“She was a past master in all kinds of trickeries, and well-versed in reading and writing. She was a brazen creature; a great deceiver and beguiler, from whom the devil himself sought refuge. She was so adept in portraiture that she needed only to look at someone once in order to draw that person’s perfect likeness, and make it so lifelike that the only thing that distinguished between the original and the portrait would be the power of speech.
“She was a woman so accomplished in the art of disguise that she could at once take on the appearance of another person, with the effect so remarkable that it would call into doubt the original. All the disguisers who ever lived were her disciples in the art; she outperformed all in trickery. She could even pierce the sky and bring news from there. May God save us all from her guile!”
In the fantastic world of Tilism-i-Hoshruba, the Emperor of Sorcerers Afrasiyab summons five kutnis to capture a renegade sorceress from Amir Hamza’s camp.
“They arrived in the emperor’s service, attired in the livery of deceitfulness. All five of them were the preceptor of the devil himself in deceit and deception, and enlarged the bounds of imagination and fancy in the realms of wile, artfulness, and guile.” [Hoshruba, The Land and the Tilism]
Asked by Afrasiyab to describe their talents, the kutnis elaborated on the nature of their work in suitably superlative and exaggerated terms:
“To learn an account of our talents, know that hundreds of households lie in ruin because of us. We inveigled and sold off lakhs [of women]; we brought about thousands of engagements and troths, and hundreds of divorces were effected because of us.
“We turned ardent lovers into mortal enemies, and we set up numerous pious women of whom none had ever seen a glimpse, with countless paramours. We discovered the secrets of many a mighty money-lenders’ households to assist thieves and brigands, and even discovered the secrets of the hermetically sealed vaults.
“There’s no fraud and chicanery in the world in which we are unschooled. We set things afire and then pretend to douse the flames; we profess friendship, but act adversarially. There is no cure to be found for our doings.
“If you order us, we can sink into Earth and steal scales from the back of the great fish holding Earth on its back; or if you so desire, we can climb to the fourth heaven and pull out the gold foil from the face of the sun. To tear open the sky and patch it up is the least of our tricks. We break hearts so monstrously that even the highest heavens shake from the victims’ cries.”
The kutni did not always appear in literature as a foe to women. One of the earliest depictions of the kutni is found in the Indian poet Damodaragupta’s eighth century CE Sanskrit text, Kuttanimata [The Lessons of a Bawd], in which she is the experienced bawd Vikarala:
“[Vikarala’s] thin-sown teeth rose up within her mouth, and her chin had fallen away; her pug nose was flattened broadly, and her belly with its soft and bloated flesh … her sunken eyes, under their fallen lids, were blear and red, and the lobes of her ears hung down unjewelled; her rare white hair dropped on to too long a neck, ploughed with a knot of veins.” [Translation by E. Powys Mathers]
In the Kuttanimata, Vikarala instructs a courtesan from Varanasi in attracting lovers. She also instructs the courtesan how to keep herself safe from the fallout of her alliances.
In Khwaja Abdul Majeed’s dictionary Jame al Lughat, “Phapa Kutni” is described as a woman who dupes, kidnaps and sells women. It is one of the talents the kutnis allude to in the above quoted passage from the Tilism-i-Hoshruba.
Today, however, the term “Phapa Kutni” is used for someone — man or woman — who likes to stir up trouble. The contemporary television anchor, whose livelihood depends on constant stirring up of feuds, is a good representative of this category.
In popular media, the last manifestation of an old woman who fomented trouble wherever she went was in the PTV play Bi Jamalo, in which the eponymous character was played by Badar Khalil. The characteristics of a Bi Jamalo are traced to the proverb “Bhus mein chungi daal, Jamalo duur kharri” [Jamalo stands at a safe distance after setting things afire].
It is unlikely for an archetypal character, with a long history in literature, to simply disappear from a society’s midst. We may not be able to come upon a five-star kutni today, but evidence from both language and popular culture suggests that the diluted and depreciated form of the kutni still thrives, and its esprit de corps has crossed the borders of gender.
- All unattributed translations are by the columnist
The columnist is a novelist, author and translator.
He tweets @microMAF
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 4th, 2022