Tawaifnama: A brief history of Tawaif culture in India

Tracing the impact of colonialism and the nationalist discourse on the marginalization and erasure of Tawaifs.

Imagine beautifully decorated barges floating down the Ganga; the sound of music filling the air, as you stand mesmerized, watching women dancing on the barges that are floating by. Imaging you’re showering rose petals on those women, that you’re one among a crowd of thousands, that the river is filled with rose petals, music, and merry making.

Welcome to the Holi celebrations in the Banaras of yore, before colonial law making and nationalist zealots cast their puritanical gaze on tawaifs (courtesans).

A century of sustained campaigns by social reformers and nationalists, the flurry of anti-prostitution laws and their boycott by the urban elite had led to the stripping away of the cultural role that tawaifs once performed.

SABA DIWAN, TAWAIFNAMA

Like the majority of us, my exposure to tawaifs and their way of life has mainly been through the lens of Hindi cinema. Iconic movies like Umrao Jaan, Pakheeza, and Mughal-E-Azam portrayed the tawaif as the fallen woman, wrapping up their stories with cautionary diktats on morality. These characters were doomed to remain unmarried, achieving redemption only through death or the complete erasure of their identity as tawaifs.

But there’s much more to real-life tawaifs – little hints of which we find in the character of Umrao Jaan, who is an accomplished poet, and in the refined dance forms and female poetry on display in both Umrao Jaan and Pakheeza.

Growing up, I had tried to read about nautch girls, as they were called by the British, but books on the subject were hard to come by. I also quickly learnt that book store owners tended to frown on young girls with an interest in tawaifs – “good girls” weren’t supposed to be interested in such subjects. Needless to say, my curiosity eventually fizzled out. But Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama rekindled that interest, and cast a bright light on the history and culture of these elite courtesans, and their eventual erasure from public spaces and Indian culture.

The role of the tawaif in pre-colonial India

Much as I had suspected when I was younger, tawaifs were – expectedly – much more nuanced than their Bollywood avatar. Traditionally, tawaifs were the custodians of elite art and culture, and enjoyed a relatively autonomous lifestyle with a respected place in public society. They owned property and controlled their own wealth; were fluent in reading and writing; and were well versed with literature and politics; unlike the more “respectable” purdah-bound women of the time, who had to their name neither property nor literacy.

Unsurprisingly then, their training in music and dance started at a very young age, under the guidance and tutelage of renowned ustaads (masters). Young girls regularly spent hours in riyaz, learning songs and dance to the exacting standards set by their teachers.

The term riyaz, from Arabic, connotes abstinence, devotion, discipline and hard labour. At a mundane level,  regular riyaz is necessary for a flawless performance before an audience. True riyaz, however, Bhure Khan  would tell his students, is a never-ending quest, beyond the goals of worldly success, towards unattainable  perfection.

SABA DIWAN, TAWAIFNAMA

Tawaifs in training were taught raga-based versions of hori, chaitri, and kajari; as well as the traditional tawaif musical repertoire of dadra, thumri, tappa, and ghazals; along with dance forms like kathak. Many renowned tawaifs continued to practice and learn music throughout their career, seeking out masters from different musical houses (gharanas) to add to their repertoire of singing styles.

As custodians of art and culture, the kothas (homes cum performance spaces) of elite tawaifs were open only to the city’s elite and wealthy patrons. She was also regularly invited to mehfils (gatherings) organized by kings and other royalty, where she would entertain guests with her repertoire of songs and dances. What becomes eminently apparent while reading Tawaifnama is that tawaifs were accorded a place of honor and respect in society. And while sex was a part of their way of life, they held themselves apart from sex workers.

…Bedia that had traditionally moved and lived in the beehad, ravines, unlike our clans of khandani tawaifs who  moved in deras and put down base in populated areas. Where could they have learnt music and dance in forests?  So, their daughters became prostitutes.

SABA DIWAN, TAWAIFNAMA

As elite courtesans, tawaifs traditionally served as long-term, loyal mistresses to wealthy patrons. Only once a relationship was terminated, either due to the death of their patron or a mutual decision to part ways, would a tawaif look to enter into another relationship.

Tawaifs were also well-versed in the art of seduction, and knew how to get their lovers or patrons to give them substantial gifts. This was a necessary aspect of their life, as they were expected to sustain their extended families, and as their training required significant investment. Young girls who didn’t have the talent to sing or dance were trained to become purdah-bound wives – their dowry came from the earning members of the family, i.e. tawaifs. As for the men, they would get ‘pocket money’ for their personal expenses from their mothers, sisters and daughters, and even adult men were often treated as children – illiterate and usually good for nothing.

The tawaif’s way of life, it was stressed, needed a certain temperament, or tabiyat, which included a love and talent for music and dance, but equally, assertiveness, fearlessness and independence of mind and spirit.

SABA DIWAN, TAWAIFNAMA

Tawaifs also regularly performed at temples and during festivals, their music and dance offered as devotion to the Gods. Far from being on the margins or looked down upon, tawaifs were very much a part of everyday society, their position one of influence and respect.

The impact of colonialism on tawaif culture

The intertwining of moral judgements with the role of the tawaif in Indian society stems directly from the influence of the British colonizers. To them, the tawaif was “a figure charged with sexuality, and proclaiming with flamboyant confidence not only pride in  her identity as a public woman but also her power to access and use at will the public space, a privilege reserved  for men from the feudal aristocracy and Europeans.

Unable to reconcile tawaifs with their Victorian morals, British colonizers brought in regulations to deal with prostitution. Among the first of these was the Contagious Diseases Act, which the British enacted both at home and in their colonies in 1864. In subsequent years, the British went on to translate various Brahmanical scriptures and Quranic injunctions to aid them in lawmaking in India. Helped by Brahmin priests and maulavis, they codified numerous laws that represented the worldview of the elite classes, ignoring the traditions of a wide range of less privileged castes and communities.

Patriarchal norms of rigid control over female sexuality and emphasis on marriage as indispensable for all women got codified as law under Company rule [and] colonial writers and commentators became enthusiastic votaries of this reformulated, codified, Brahminical  patriarchy.

SABA DIWAN, TAWAIFNAMA

Colonialism also brought numerous far-reaching changes to Indian society, including improved communication and the spread of English education and print media. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, by the early 19th century, the sustained campaign against the way of the tawaif became internalized by nationalist leaders, including Gandhi, who had studied in English schools and internalized colonial moral codes.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Hindu nationalist discourse, the tawaif was categorised with the ‘other’ that included Muslims, lower castes and lower-class goondas, or bad characters. Her presence in public spaces was projected as a threat to the  moral and physical health and well-being of Hindu society. This was matched with demands in various north  Indian cities, including Banaras, for changes in municipality by-laws so as to restrict the tawaifs’ quarters to specified areas of the city.

SABA DIWAN, TAWAIFNAMA

The reinvention of the tawaif: forays into Bollywood and radio

For their part, the tawaifs sought to reinvent themselves with the changing times. Significantly, in the early 1920s, they started shifting their identity from tawaif to ‘gayika’, centering their musical talents as singers and recording artists. Dreading being pushed into prostitution, tawaifs moved towards the gramophone industry and Parsi theatre, while some of the most highly regarded tawaifs moved to Bombay and the nascent film industry.

Fatma Begum’s daughter Zubeida starred in numerous silent movies, and eventually acted in India’s first talkie Alam Ara (1931). Jaddanbai, mother of filmstar Nargis, set up her own production house and directed and composed music for films. Banaras’ elite tawaif Husna Bai was a highly respected participant, and the only woman, to take part in the many literary and  philosophical gatherings in Banaras, where men gathered informally to discuss literature, spirituality, philosophy and religious texts.

But once more “respectable” women started entering cinema, tawaifs were squeezed out of the space.

A number of tawaifs also started singing for All India Radio. Here, too, they were met with discrimination, asked to use the back entrance when they came in to perform, so they wouldn’t “pollute” the few “respectable” women who had also started working as news presenters.

The nationalist discourse, reimagining Hindu culture and the erasure of tawaifs from public spaces

Nationalism played a further role in stigmatizing tawaifs. As nationalists looked for music that was morally and spiritually uplifting and reflective of India’s ancient Hindu heritage, they found that the Hindustani music practice of the time didn’t conform to those ideals. The major genres of khayal and thumri had close links with court-based patronage, and the bawdy associations and an unacceptable morality based on pleasure seeking was rejected by nationalist leaders. Accordingly, 20th century cultural nationalists “focused their attack on the corrupting influence of its past patrons, i.e. Muslim rulers, and its  practitioners—tawaif singers and Muslim ustads—seen as interlopers in a sacred tradition.

Moreover, as public spaces started to be sanitized for ‘respectable’ purdah-bound women to step out of the home without being  mistaken for tawaifs, the spaces occupied by tawaifs were squeezed further. Unmarried tawaifs were denied airtime on the radio, and this lineage of female elite artists was eventually stigmatized as prostitutes.

Hooper and Western, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During this period, tawaif’s patronage also underwent a change. From entertaining royalty and wealthy landowners who had a love for and appreciation of music and dance, tawaifs started courting contractors and smaller zamindars who became rich under colonial rule. Accordingly, their art changed – from raga based “serious” music to more bawdy thumris and film music, which their new patrons enjoyed.

Accordingly, over the years, a lot of their traditional music and songs were lost to time — or appropriated by male film makers and middle class singers. In recent times, though, classical singers like Shubha Mudgal have tried to revive and accord tawaif music the respect they deserve.

Sadly, the impact of colonial morality is such that tawaifs continue to be misunderstood, reduced to being viewed as prostitutes. Yet, in Hyderabad, they rest alongside the tombs of their royal patrons. And history shows that they were among the highest tax payers during the British Raj; the first women performers in Hindi cinema; the first recording gramophone artists; and among the first playback singers on radio.

Their contributions to Indian art and culture continue to reverberate down the ages, while they themselves have been relegated to the margins of society. And yet, according to Saba Diwan, tawaifs don’t need to be “saved” by us – they’ve managed to navigate the changing times on their own terms.

Still, I wonder, while feminists and performing artists are actively looking to understand and center the role of tawaifs in India’s history and culture, how many of them have actually reached out to tawaif families to see if they can center them in performances?

After all, our views on tawaifs – and by extension on women and on sex – are still colored by Victorian sensibilities of morality and purity. Women may no longer be purdah bound, but scratch the surface, and the moral code by which women are judged still hark back to antiquated, patriarchal notions of chastity.

We may be more much more willing to talk about tawaifs today, but we still don’t seem to be ready to allow them to come in from the margins. And I wonder if we ever will.

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12 comments

  1. Very interesting. It is said that they wielded a lot of influence with rulers and were quite wealthy at one time. In Hyderabad too, there were famous courtesans like Mah Laq Bai or Chand Bibi and Taramati. Not sure they found their way into the book you mentioned though.

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    • Yes – they were among the highest tax payers! This particular book is more on the tawaifs in UP, told through the stories of one particular tawaif family. Apparently the author knows this family since 15 years!

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  2. This was a delight to read. It’s amazing how one-sided morality has become. While it’s okay to perpetuate marginalization against the “others,” no one bats an eye at the act of marginalization that is being performed.

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  3. Kathak is regarded as the most prominent dynamic theatre art. The word Kathak has been derived from the word ‘katha’, which means ‘the storytelling art’. It has theatrical representation of themes from Urdu and Persian poetry along with some taken from the Hindu mythology. With dance, music and mime these storytellers of ancient India would bring to life the great scriptures and epic of ancient times, especially the great Indian epics, like, the Mahabharata, Ramayanaand the Indian Puranas.

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