Filmed by Preetha Jayaraman
It’s night, and we’re in Paris at the turn of the 19th century. Electricity spreads across the world like fire. The cabarets in the Montmartre light up, and people are celebrating light, celebrating life. Girls dance in extravagant costumes, kicking high into the air to reveal a patch of knickers here, a luminous smile there, and artists, musicians and writers sit around them late into the night.
One artist stands out among all others during that outrageous era: the painter, printer, draughtsman, lithographer, illustrator and inventor of modern poster art, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He knocked about the cabarets in the Montmartre with pencil and paper, chronicling Parisian nightlife in his caricaturesque style and capturing the scandalous women of the Belle Epoque.
My home is crammed with his posters. Jane Avril smirks from my bedroom wall, La Goulue kicks into the air, May Milton lifts her dress up, and Cha-U-Kao spreads her legs above my sofa. And if that’s not enough, there are scores of other girls holding their skirts up, holding each other and posing for Lautrec in a coffee table book. But of all the courtesans Lautrec painted, it was the melancholic, orange-haired Jane Avril that he sought most often, sketching her with her frou-frou skirts and without. Demure and provocative at the same time, the fragile looking Avril fascinated Lautrec so much that he gave her many of his paintings that she passed on to her lovers over the years. Cha-U-Kao was another favourite. Nude dancer, clown and contortionist, she frequently appears in Elles, the brothel series, where Lautrec paints prostitutes in daily life. But by 1895, when he painted her the most, the slender contortionist had metamorphosed into a flabby, ageing clown who Lautrec fondly called the clown with tits. It’s as if Lautrec loved these women because they were flawed. Professional models are like stuffed owls; Lautrec once said; these girls are alive. And they, in turn, loved the odd little man who listened to their stories, made them laugh and brought them presents on their birthdays.
I look at Jane Avril’s desolate eyes, La Goulue’s gluttonous mouth, Cha-U-Kao’s clownishly fat legs, and I think how utterly beautiful they are in their vulgarity. And then I think about the inglorious bars girls of the Bombay dance bars in flamboyant lehenga cholis and red lipstick. There were over 75,000 bar girls before the city closed its doors on them in 2005. Where have all the bar girls gone?