The Movement to Place India’s Belittled Courtesans in a More Positive Light
Long a respected art combining dance and literature, Tawaif fell from favor. But a resurrection is under way
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An old and feeble classical singer, who in her prime held the status of a celebrity, lay motionless on her bed in a humid and searing hot room in a small village in Lucknow in northern India. Under a tin roof that made her one-room house unlivable, she faced the only window of her shanty and stared through it at the world where she once left thousands of fans spellbound with her poignant but melodious voice. Her lifetime fame, fandom and ferocity in her voice came to a halt in his shabby room where she was partially paralyzed after a stroke. All she had left was her voice.
And a wish “to wear Banarasi Sari and sing on the stage.” That was in September 2013, when prominent Sufi-Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi had gone to see Zareena Begum, one of India’s last surviving courtesans, or Tawaif.
The courtesans, called by different names in different regions of India, were an integral part of the subcontinent’s cultural heritage, highly revered for their art and command over vast Persian and Urdu literature and poetry. These performing artists catered to the nobility even before the Mughal era.
Danish Iqbal, a historian and academic, explained that the word Tawaif is the derivative of the Urdu word Taifi, meaning “a traveling troupe.” Some etymologists believe that Tawaif comes from the Arabic word “Tauf” or “Tawaf,” which means circling around, roaming or circumambulation. The word is also mentioned in the Quran in the context of heavenly rewards for believers, with youthful servants dedicated to “circling around” or “waiting on” them.
In the subcontinent, Tawaif referred to the courtesans who were proficient and highly skilled in both music and dance and were at the center of art and culture in India. They were the entertainers of the royal court and nobility, and only the wealthy and elite could afford to attend their concerts. The Tawaif were considered authorities on etiquette, so much so that noble families would send their sons to them to learn the art of conversation and etiquette.
These courtesans were at the top of the hierarchy in the artiste industry at a time when women found no space or role in the patriarchal Indian society, a time when women were mostly confined to the four walls of their home. In a male-dominated society, these women wielded influence, and individuals could increase their social status by associating with them. Historians have said the courtesans were not only repositories of art, but they also had agency and were not dependent on men. “They employed male musicians to teach them and paid them in return,” Iqbal said.
Then came 1857. At the time of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the Mughal Empire was already in decline, and the British were consolidating their control over the subcontinent. The prestige and social status of the Tawaif began to fade, and the institution of the courtesans in Delhi began to erode. The Tawaifs in Delhi and elsewhere migrated to Lucknow, where the nobles still held the fort of the Mughal Empire’s vestiges and continued to support and admire the art of courtesans.
Still, many Indians who had been influenced by Western education and Victorian mores belittled Tawaif art and culture. The British Empire, oblivious of Indian traditions and the cultural milieu, further diminished the Tawaif tradition by equating courtesans to prostitutes and Kothas — where courtesans sang, danced and practiced their art — to brothels. Thus, the highly skilled artists began to slide down the cultural ladder, their status reduced.
Begum was one of the few who continued this tradition. A once sought-after singer of the royal court, she spent her final years in abject poverty. But at least she revived her art one last time before she died, thanks to the devotion of Chaturvedi.
“When I returned to Delhi after meeting Zareena Begum, I told my staff that we should organize a grand Mehfil, or a congregation of people with the aim to entertain, for her. I cried when Zareena told me about her last wish. I wanted to do something for her,” Chaturvedi told New Lines, as her eyes welled up recalling Begum’s last wish.
In May 2014, Begum draped herself in a crisp maroon Banarasi sari. She was brought to the stage in a wheelchair. Despite the paralysis, her sparkling eyes and the smile on her face did not wane during her 90-minute performance. Chaturvedi translated every word of Begum’s rendition through her classical dance. The blend of Begum’s classic voice and Chaturvedi’s delicate and intricate steps resurrected a bygone era and captivated the audience in New Delhi’s prestigious Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
Chaturvedi recalls that the audience was so spellbound by Begum’s performance that some of them came near the stage to witness everything closely. At one time during the concert Begum sang “Cha Rahi hai kali ghata, jiya mora lehraye hain” (“Clouds are darkening the sky, enticing my heart”), reflecting the mood of the weather outside. Even in her final years, Begum knew how to intoxicate the audience with her soulful voice. “That is what I call art,” Chaturvedi said after helping Begum fulfill her last wish. Following the event, Chaturvedi described an emotional Begum, who exclaimed, “People still love me!”
But the concert for Begum was not easy to organize.
When Chaturvedi went around asking for sponsorships for the concert, she felt the disdain people showed toward Tawaifs. She described two of the potential sponsors she had approached as “very elite, educated and people with money” who asked her why she was not “doing her Sufi programs.”
“‘Now has it come to this that we would sponsor Tawaifs and put our logo next to them?’ they told me,” Chaturvedi recalled.
In that moment, Chaturvedi witnessed the stigma attached to the word Tawaif and anything related to the female artiste of that era.
“Suddenly, I felt he thinks the same for me also, but the only difference was that he could not say this to me. Because I would fight back,” Chaturvedi said.
She said she felt surprised because, as a classical dancer, she is respected for her art, while similar artists, who were famous in the past, are snickered upon and stigmatized.
Chaturvedi was determined to change people’s perceptions of courtesans and restore the artiste of the royal courts to their revered position. She made her endeavor official and called it The Courtesan Project.
“My efforts are to remove the social stigmas associated with the courtesan and give them their respectful place as artists,” Chaturvedi said.
For The Courtesan Project, Chaturvedi said she works solo, but people join her as research associates or interns for a brief period. It is with the support of like-minded people that Chaturvedi is able to keep her project going.
The project is not only a performance project. It also brings to the fore contributions of Tawaifs through dance performances and seminars. The project involves documentation and academic research. Chaturvedi said she is also working on a book that aims to change the narrative about female artists of the past.
It has been almost a decade since Chaturvedi began her project and she has started to see a change in people’s attitudes. “Many books are being written about the courtesans. Journalists are writing stories about them. … People are taking the names of the Tawaifs who were once forgotten. That is what I call success,” Chaturvedi said.
“It is like bulldozing the narrative spun around the Tawaifs,” Chaturvedi continued. New narratives are emerging in their wake, resurrecting and reintroducing artists from the past and returning them to their exalted position. It’s a cultural renaissance.
One challenge is to change the perception of words associated with the courtesans: Tawaif, Mujra and Kotha.
But the larger question is how did their profession become conflated with prostitution.
Historian and academic Iqbal, who teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, indicated there were several factors that lowered courtesans’ social and economic standing in India.
“One of the reasons was many noble and royal men would spend most of their time in Kothas, entertaining themselves by the courtesans’ performances and singing and they would come home either only to sleep or rarely. The reason was they were not happy in their marriages. It was these women, who felt abandoned and ignored by their husbands, who began spreading canards against the courtesans and called them mistresses, concubines, thus relegating their status from highly skilled dancers and singers to the ‘other woman,’” Iqbal explained.
Other historians cite more reasons for their downfall. And these reasons seem concerted, systematic and endorsed by the East India Company.
Tawaifs played a significant role in India’s Independence Movement. In Awadh, after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the British soldiers would barge into the Kothas on the pretext of hunting freedom fighters, and in the process, they would ransack and damage the furniture and everything that else that stood in their way.
The British brought the courtesans under the purview of the Contagious Disease Act of 1864, a law that aimed to curb the spread of venereal disease among the British troops. Under this law, the British controlled and stifled the earnings of the courtesans and labeled them prostitutes.
There is no research or evidence to prove that Tawaifs were purveyors of sex. Instead, Iqbal said, these women starred in concerts that, at the time, only the wealthy could afford. “Why would they [the female artists] need to indulge in prostitution when they were among the wealthiest and influential segment of the society?” he asked.
Even after the British had consolidated their control over India, many courtesans wielded power and influence in Lucknow, where the nobility continued to admire art and music. Veena Talwar Oldenburg, in her essay, reveals that Tawaifs “were in the highest tax bracket, with the largest individual incomes of many in the city.”
Chaturvedi draws an analogy: “They were celebrities of their era. Like you have Bollywood actresses and singers today who are wealthy and influential, and only [the] wealthy can afford to watch their concerts, same was the case with the courtesans whose concerts only the rich would attend,” she said.
Chaturvedi is both emphatic and perplexed about the status the courtesans acquired. On the one hand, she said, “They were artists par excellence, and they should be viewed through that prism only.” Yet there is no denying that the female artists were stigmatized, their cultural contribution diminished in the history books. With discernible frustration she asked, “Why does sex have to be part of their history?”
In the late 19th century, at the same time that a new, Western-educated class emerged on the sociocultural scene and denounced the institution of courtesans, Christian missionaries also decried their art and religious practices. They were further joined by several Indian social reformers who had lost pride in their cultural and social practices.
The Tawaif were demonized through attacks, such as that by 19th century social reformer Keshab Chandra Sen, who, in a booklet, accused Tawaifs of moral decadence: “Hell is in her eyes; in her breast is a vast ocean of poison. Round her comely waist dwells the furies of hell, her hands are brandishing unseen daggers ever ready to strike unwary or willful victims. Her blandishments are India’s ruin. Alas! Her smile is India’s death.”
The irony, Chaturvedi said, is that few people know who the Tawaif are, and no one bothers to learn their history. “What we know about Tawaif is through the fantasy of Bollywood that assigns the status of an ‘other woman’ to them,” she argues.
“To have a climax in their stories, Bollywood used a representation of Tawaif as an ‘other woman’ set against the lead female protagonist. This ‘other woman’ was objectified as a vamp who would seduce and lure the hero of the film through her dance. That is all a Tawaif is for Bollywood,” she said.
This conveniently fits Bollywood’s entertainment narrative, but Chaturvedi was reflective: “Do we study our history from Bollywood? Then how can we know the history of Tawaifs from it? If we have to study the Indian freedom movement, do we watch films for that? No, we study books. Then how can Bollywood be a chapter of Tawaifs’ history?”
Chaturvedi says art should be seen without the prism of gender. And in that scenario, she questions the stigmatization of female artists and the false narrative that has been woven around them. She says there has been a bias against the female performers of India. “We have made the men the Ustaad (maestro) but women the nautch (dance) girls, when they were performing the same art,” she said, describing the gender disparity among artists. Even in the documentation of art history, female performers are missing.
The history, Chaturvedi says, is written by men who obliterate women from its pages. But the female artists in Indian art history have been not only wiped out but also demonized. “We never considered Tawaifs important enough to document. We only have the oral narratives of their history.”
Begum, one of the last royal singers, died in 2018 at the age of 88. In her heyday, she regularly performed at Lucknow’s Sultanat Manzil and Sheesh Mehal, the abodes of the nobles of the Mughal Empire. She spent her final days in the company of her harmonium and some worn-out pages that contained lyrics and some of her compositions.
But Chaturvedi continues to resurrect the courtesans and tell their tales. On Aug. 26, Chaturvedi put on the costume to play Rana Dil, a dancer from the Mughal era. Her colleague, Ekant Kaul, wore the Mughal attire to represent Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
With a limited audience, the duo took to the stage at the Indian International Centre in New Delhi. This was Chaturvedi’s first concert in nearly two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a theatrical dance production, as part of The Courtesan Project, Chaturvedi narrated the poignant and tragic love story of Dara Shikoh and Rana Dil, a Tawaif.
On stage, Chaturvedi interpreted the words she had narrated through her delicate and intricate dance performance, reliving the story that, she says, has been lost in turbulent times.
Tawaifs are an integral part of our history, Chaturvedi says. “Mirza Ghalib wouldn’t have been known if a Tawaif (Nawab Jan) had not sung his poetry. It was a Tawaif who brought Ghalib into the limelight.”
This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.
All photos taken by Haziq Qadri
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