Sometime in early 2019, walking through the narrow, dimly-lit lanes of a neighbourhood in central Mumbai, I met Rani. In her mid-50s now, Rani had been a tawaif – the term for courtesans in north India – for over three decades till recently. For over two months, I had been walking around the neighbourhood, little-known in Mumbai, and yet, a crucial piece of its cultural heritage. Bachu Seth ki Wadi, as it was called, was home to some of the most celebrated tawaifs the city had seen, and I was trying to convince them to let me interview them for my documentary podcast series, The Last Courtesans of Bombay. The area was one of Mumbai’s most impoverished and passed off as an extension of Kamathipura next door, once Asia’s largest red-light district.
Most tawaifs would refuse to speak, wary of the harm that more media coverage could cause to their reputations. They would tell me how television media crews would arrive unannounced, shoot women performing and then label them as sex-workers, sometimes even urging the police to act against them. But Rani wasn’t one of them. She was shy, and allowed her niece, instead, to speak. But when Rani did start speaking, within minutes, she summoned her niece to bring “that bag” out. Dusty and ripped in places, the bag turned out to be Rani’s prized possession – it contained diaries filled with handwritten poems and songs in delicately written Urdu. This was Rani’s body of work, her raison d’être since she started training in Hindostani classical singing, dancing and Urdu reading and writing at ten. As I later discovered, she was not the only one in this neighbourhood to have had such a prolific, artistic past. Nor was she the only one to be embarrassed to admit it.
Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama (The Story of Tawaifs) tells the story of tawaifs across colonial and post-colonial India, tracing their history by carefully interweaving the personal and the social. The book highlights the contributions made by tawaifs across two centuries in the fields of literature, art, music and dance. Just as critically, the book highlights their role as early feminist figures – who questioned the logic behind the domestication of women and marriage, among other things – in times when women’s roles were strictly relegated within the household.
Tawaifnama does this by presenting stories from generations of one family of tawaifs, across two centuries, highlighting the changing times and ways in which tawaifs have operated. In doing so, the book presents a mirror to Indian society’s changing moral codes, shaped intensely, among other things, by colonial rule. Dewan prefers to keep her protagonist, a former tawaif, unnamed through the book but goes on to chronicle her family’s rich history of generations of tawaifs, many of whom earned fame and wide acclaim.
Historical records unearthed by various academics and researchers show that tawaifs enjoyed influence among writers, journalists and poets.
Also a documentary filmmaker, Dewan explores the lives of many tawaifs from this family’s past to zoom out and capture the ever-changing nature of the relationship between Indian society and tawaifs. Well-researched and intricately written, Tawaifnama presents a nuance account of the tawaif community’s history when few such writings exist in the public realm. From Dharmman Bibi, a tawaif who marched into war with the British during the 1857 mutiny, to Sadabahar, one of the most influential tawaifs that Banaras had seen, to Pyaari Bai, a tawaif who became a radio sensation in Allahabad of postcolonial India, this book documents the rise, and often, the fall of a multigeneration tawaif family. While doing so, the book delves into gender dynamics within families in the tawaif community, the significance of music and arts in their lives, and the role of the colonial and postcolonial state’s policies and laws in stigmatising these communities.
Beyond moral strictures
Set in the north Indian stretch from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, to Shahabad, a district in Bihar, the book focusses, through the stories of its characters, on establishing just what it takes to be a tawaif –from intense and unending training in singing and dancing and also, often, Urdu writing and enunciation, to social skills employed in cultivating patrons and retaining them. For a country where public morality is easily offended, the book serves as a vital resource in helping understand why tawaifs were, in many ways, important guardians of a particular form of culture and tradition.
Dewan follows a family of tawaifs from Banaras (now called Varanasi) and its surrounding regions, who, for generations now, have produced some of the most popular tawaifs in northern India. Based on oral histories, she traces back at least two centuries of the family’s past, highlighting the broader patterns of social mores that tawaif families follow. Dewan also raises pertinent questions about their accounts and often displays scepticism about their claims. The approach allows her to retain a reasonably concise narrative around one family, but also extrapolate from their stories to understand the historical context and society’s changing reception towards tawaifs.
The social churning after the 1857 rebellion resulted in the tawaifs being caught in the crossfire between the nationalist groups on one hand and the colonial state on the other.
This ties in with my own experiences while documenting tawaif stories for the podcast. Rani and other erstwhile tawaifs I met, like Reshma Aapa, both in their 50s, would tell me how, apart from being tawaifs, they also became teachers for the sons of Bombay’s elite. “Rich families would often send their sons to our kotha so that they could learn Urdu speaking, poetry and etiquette from us,” Reshma Aapa told me. Rani told me how the boys would be told to sit and observe how a tawaif goes about her interactions.
What makes the book important is the continuing stigmatisation that tawaifs have faced in postcolonial India. In fact, the term ‘tawaif’ is bandied around as an insult, intended to synonymise anything from a woman with loose morals to a sex worker. Much of this stems from the amorous relationships that tawaifs would develop with patrons. But, as patronage dried up owing to, as Dewan points out, a combination of colonial crackdown on elites and social ‘reform’ movements which frowned upon the courtesan culture, many tawaifs took to sex work as a desperate measure to sustain themselves and their families.
One recent manifestation of this stigmatisation has been the continued attack by Maharashtra against women dancers in bars. Citing concerns over the effect of witnessing such performances on male customers and their families, in August 2005, the government banned female dancers from performing in bars, leaving over 70,000 women without a job, overnight. Despite repeated decisions by the courts, including the Supreme Court of India, overturning the ban, the government has constantly sought ways to make it impossible for the bars to function, buoyed by both the all-round political support for the ban as well as public sentiment.
Dewan’s book shows how such campaigns around moral strictures have been recurrent through Indian history: from the anti-nautch campaign against dancing girls (or ‘nautch girls’) in the late 19th-century by various social and religious groups, including Hindu nationalist groups as well as Christian missionaries, to India’s first home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s drive to ban from the public air waves those musicians “whose private life was a public scandal”.
The ‘reformist’ attack
In the pre-colonial and colonial eras, elite tawaifs – owing to their proximity to provincial rulers on account of being performers in their court or their mistresses – enjoyed immense clout, which often extended to having a say in matters of the court. In addition, historical records unearthed by various academics and researchers show that tawaifs enjoyed influence among writers, journalists and poets. Tawaif kothas, where the tawaifs often lived and performed, would host meetings of local intelligentsia, presided mostly by the most senior tawaif of the kotha. In her seminal paper ‘Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow,’ academic Veena Talwar Oldenburg offers a glimpse of the elevated socio-economic position held by some tawaifs, when she writes about her discovery of tax records of Lucknow from 1858 to 1877. In the records, she finds that tawaifs – categorised as “dancing and singing girls” – “were in the highest tax bracket, with the largest individual incomes of any in the city.”
Around the same time, the social churning after the 1857 rebellion produced a breed of reformist Hindu elites who believed that Hindu society needed moral cleansing as a prerequisite to a successful freedom struggle. From employing militant actions for cow protection, to casting Urdu as a foreign language, the churning resulted in the tawaifs being caught in the crossfire between the nationalist groups on one hand and the colonial state on the other.
From constantly labelling these women as ‘prostitutes’ to opposing their participation in temple celebrations, the media coverage mobilised public opinion against the inclusion of courtesans in the public realm.
Meanwhile, tawaifs also emerged as a key source of strategic support for many of the freedom-fighters during the rebellion; the homes of the tawaifs acted as places for secret meetings, while their enormous financial clout helped sustain the struggle against colonial rule. The colonial state, wary of the tawaifs’ position in Indian society and their anti-colonial actions, looked to break their influence by categorising them as sex-workers through a series of laws. Academic Anna Morcom’s work reveals that around the time of the rebellion, many British soldiers were incapacitated after they started contracting venereal diseases. Blaming this on sex workers and courtesans, in 1864, the colonial government passed the Contagious Diseases Act, which clubbed courtesans with sex workers and granted local municipalities the right to relocate them. Courtesans were forcibly evicted and were even subjected to physical examinations to ascertain whether they carried any diseases or infections.
Some Hindu nationalists and reformists – groups like Arya Samaj, for instance – through public meetings, canvassing in tawaif localities, and by influencing the press coverage, portrayed the tawaif culture as foreign and degrading to the Indian ethos, pointing to the Muslim and lower-caste background of performers as well as the amorous nature of their performances. As the book illustrates, they also attacked syncretic traditions like tawaifs performing in Hindu temples and festivals. In Banaras, for instance, some nationalists opposed the tradition of tawaifs performing during the Burhwa Mangal fair in spring, following the festival of Holi. Such events provided significant platform for tawaifs, not just for the patronage but also for the opportunity it offered for tawaifs to showcase their skills to general audiences and, thereby, retain societal acceptability for their trade. Reformist movements also frowned upon the money lavished on tawaifs and were against the consumption of alcohol.
With public morality increasingly shaping up against patronising tawaifs, the performing community began to be marginalised. Dewan interweaves these disparate, yet linked, phenomena that emerged around the same time, and, in doing so, emphasises their collective impact on the tawaif culture.
When I first started working on my podcasts, many colleagues and acquaintances were puzzled and did not realise that Mumbai still had tawaifs who wrote, sang and danced to live music in the living rooms of their homes. After I finally managed to start talking with some tawaifs, it did not take me too long to understand why so little was known about them.
The city’s tawaif community was extremely wary of the representation that ‘outsiders’ would offer of the community. The worries stemmed from a number of factors – from their unconventional approach to relationships, where female performers were expected to remain unmarried but were permitted to have relationships with patrons; to a history of being conflated with sex workers and Mumbai’s bar dancers, a group that most tawaifs were disdainful of.
Films had let them down constantly, they would tell me, pointing to the narrative that Bollywood films would, often, present for the archetypal courtesan: a girl who had been sold by unscrupulous parents, was coerced into becoming a tawaif, and lived miserably, till the protagonist ‘rescues’ her – a story line made famous by the classic Hindi film Umrao Jaan.
The media, especially television news, was no less responsible for their state, they would tell me. The Indian TV media scene is crowded: of the total 900-odd television channels, around half of them are news related, many of them 24-hour channels. The unending quest for content, among other factors, has resulted in serious compromises on the quality of journalism. Such compromises often have ghastly effects on the lives of tawaifs, such as Rani’s niece, Reema, who quit the profession a few years ago after realising its diminishing returns. Reema told me how TV crews would sometimes run ‘sting operations’ on her kotha, trying to record her performances and blackmail her. “At other times, they would be willingly used by police officials as pawns by raiding our premises and recording the raid, to falsely show that we are sex workers and were soliciting clients.” Given the deep suspicion about journalists shared by Reema, and almost every other member of the community I met, I was nervously asked in my initial visits to assure them that I was not recording their conversations. This suspicion and the media-driven morality crusade against tawaifs find an echo in Dewan’s book.
A parallel strand that runs through the book is the role of the press in mobilising opinions against tawaifs in colonial India. From constantly labelling these women as ‘prostitutes’ to opposing their participation in temple celebrations, an activity performed by tawaifs across generations, the media coverage mobilised public opinion against the inclusion of courtesans in the public realm. For instance, Dewan reveals how Bharat Jiwan, a Banaras newspaper, protested the tawaifs’ participation in the celebrations at temples in the city in 1917, saying that “prostitutes had gathered there all night. Instead of this, had some bhajan (devotional song) group been called, would it have been a sin?” Press reports around the same time also inveighed against the tawaifs’ ‘vulgar’ songs and criticised the patronage offered to them.
These patterns from history persist. The media’s role during the 2005 ban on dancers in Maharashtra’s dance bars, for example, was instrumental in shaping opinions in the public realm against these dancers. Much of the media reporting in the days leading up to the ban claimed that these dancers would ‘entrap’ married men and leave them bankrupt, affecting their family lives. A similar line of reporting also denied agency to female performers, labelling them as victims and denouncing the bars.
The book, however, is also sceptical of many practices within the community. Across many performing communities in India, like the Nat community for instance, the lack of agency on the part of girls or young women is apparent. Traditionally, families involved in the profession would, within a few years of birth, ‘decide’ if the girl should be groomed to take up the profession or to become a married woman. So, these communities often have sharp division of labour and roles within the household for women: the tawaif women are strictly meant to pursue the profession, while those who get married enter into an arrangement steeped in patriarchy. The latter are barely allowed a say in decisions about the family and her own self, while having to shoulder entirely the family’s physical and reproductive labour. The former become the chief bread-winners and, consequently, the de-facto heads of families.
The book succeeds in its approach, one where the narrative constantly tries to interweave personal histories with the community’s cultural history and the political context of a changing India. What makes this possible is the author’s rigorous research and her past experience as a documentary-filmmaker exploring questions of gender, sexuality, identity and culture. The author’s capacity for nuanced reflection is often apparent in the book, when she discovers the flaws in her chief protagonists’ characters and when she is transparent about her role as an insider-outsider.
Tawaifnama’s only weakness is the wide expanse of time and geography it tries to cover. In trying to do so, it throws the net very wide and thus, mars the readability of the book. One instance of this is just the number of characters present in the book, often, at the same time. On one page, for instance, the book names 15 different individuals. The reader, therefore, might be forgiven for having to flip back pages to recount their origins.
But this is a minor weakness and must not derail any enthusiasm in reading a book as pertinent as this. In times where questions of public morality and curbs on art and literature abound, the book serves as an important occasion to understand the process through which such strictures are shaped and how incomplete they invariably remain.
Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based out of Mumbai, writing on issues of rightwing politics, gender and social justice at the intersection of development. He is also the creator of a four-part podcast series ‘The Last Courtesans of Bombay’, an audio documentary on the city’s secretive tawaif community that was released in September 2019.