| Tawaif by mail: These postcard images were in circulation around the end of the 19th century
Images: Kashi Sangeet Samaj
I had been visiting Benaras since 2002 to conduct research for a film that would document the journey of the tawaif, or courtesan, within the cultural, social and political landscape of late 19th- and 20th-century North India. It was an uphill task – the history of the arts in India, and especially music is largely based on oral narratives and material traces, and these, when it comes to tawaif artistes, are even more fragmentary since this community has always stood on the margins of society.
Benaras was home to a large community of tawaifs till the mid-20th century. It was also the centre of an exclusive musical style of bol banao thumri and its associative light classical forms, such as the hori, chaiti, kajari and dadra, practised and preserved almost exclusively by women from courtesan backgrounds. The city continues to have a self-image of being a centre of Hindustani classical music, validated no doubt by the presence of well-known male musicians, patrons, music schools and music societies. It has, however, long since been deserted by tawaif singers and the music that once echoed in their kothas, salons. So where does the courtesan live in the city’s memory? At musical mehfils (gatherings) hosted by wealthy merchants and at concerts held on the ghats of the Ganga, I received the same answer: the tawaif is dead, she sings no more those beguiling melodies that made men forget their way back home.
Other custodians of memories had been more forthcoming. Guided by them I was able to map the city of Benaras from the late 19th to early 20th century when tawaifs had occupied quite literally the central space, the Chowk, the main square of the old city of Benaras, and its adjoining localities, Dal Mandi, Nariyal Bazaar and Raja Darwaaza. Many tawaifs owned property in these areas, and their kothas were resplendent with elegant furniture and gilded mirrors. Attracting wealthy patrons as well as musicians and members of the literati, these kothas were vibrant musical and cultural institutions.
A ‘devouring’ sexuality
As self-made women, tawaifs had to cultivate a range of skills that included, besides music and dance, ilme majlisi, or knowledge of the intricacies of social etiquette, as well as grounding in literature, politics and the arts of erotic stimulation. Their patrons came from the ruling elite – the king, the merchant aristocracy and the gosains or priests who controlled the resources of temples. Tawaifs were invited to perform at the court, at family celebrations in merchants’ homes, in prominent temples and on the ghats on important religious occasions. They sang of ecstatic passion, pangs of separation, sexual longing, jealousy and anger that imbue the poetry of thumri, and its associated forms.
The poetic text of thumri is from a feminine perspective, and is usually centred on the emotions experienced by the woman in love and the celebration of the romantic play between lovers. In the style associated with the bol bano thumri in Benaras, a tawaif singer’s performance was judged to a great extent by her ability to tease out the differing perspectives and multiple meanings embedded within any given phrase of the song. This she would achieve through voice modulation and abhinaya, which included dance gestures and facial expressions. The tawaif’s mehfil allowed for intimate eye contact between her and the predominantly male audience, some of who might also share a sexual liaison with the singer.
Not all tawaifs performed exclusively in courts and patrician homes, however. Unlike ‘elite’ tawaifs whose art practice defined the aristocratic culture of Benaras, other kothas were open to patrons from humbler backgrounds. While they did sing thumri, their repertoire mainly consisted of ghazals, dadras, folk music and songs performed in Parsi theatre and, much later, even film songs. As exponents of the culture of the bazaar, these tawaifs were dismissed by most of my informants as ‘mere prostitutes’, not worthy of discussing in relation to music and music practice. I also noticed that while the famous ‘elite’ tawaif singers were feted, they were also simultaneously removed in subtle ways from their courtesan backgrounds. Most people, for instance, avoided using the term tawaif in their context. Instead, the preferred term was gayika (female singer).
Attempts at recasting sexual morality go deep in the political and cultural history of Benaras. They go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city witnessed the rise of Hindu nationalism. Articulating the anxieties of a subjugated patriarchy, a major concern for the Hindu nationalists was the need to regulate existing female sexualities and control spaces of ‘dangerous excess’. For the newly emerging Hindu nationalists, colonial morality ironically became the parameter by which they were to define and differentiate the ‘moral’ from the ‘immoral’.
After the revolt of 1857, colonial authorities spared no effort to depict Indian princes as effete and profligate, steeped in decadent pleasures symbolised by the ‘prostitute’ tawaif. This period also coincided with the imposition by the colonial government of the Contagious Diseases Acts and other prostitution-related laws (see accompanying review by Rakesh Shukla). In the main, they branded tawaifs as ‘common prostitutes’ and pathologised their sexuality as ‘diseased’. Internalising this Victorian moral code, nationalist discourse too seems to have cast the non-marital sexuality of the courtesan as ‘devouring’, and her arts as ‘obscene’. It was argued that Hindu society needed to be cleansed of its degenerate practises, including the practice of patronising tawaifs, in order to regain back its stamina and vitality.
One of the issues taken up by Hindu-nationalist leaders of early 20th century was the demand that Hindi be declared the official language, as opposed to Urdu. During my research of Hindi pamphlets from the time, I came across a series of popular cartoons that presented the tawaif as ‘Begum Urdu’, the embodiment of the alien, exotic, untrustworthy, decadent, morally corrupt Muslim ‘other’ – in direct contrast to ‘Mother Devanagari’, the upper caste, respectable, honest and homespun mother of every true Hindu son.
This attack was coupled with the anti-nautch movement of early 20th century, which had a strong presence in Benaras. It attacked the tradition of holding ‘nautches’ (dances) by the upper classes and the open presence of tawaifs on public occasions. Demands were also made in various North Indian cities to change municipality laws so as to regulate the tawaifs’ place of residence within certain specified areas of the city.
It was not only the tawaif who was under attack in this period. Art practices linked closely with her also came under hostile scrutiny. With an increasing sense of nationalism came the need for a music that was classical, morally uplifting and reflective of India’s great Hindu cultural heritage. The problem was that Hindustani music practice at the turn of the 20th century did not quite conform to these notions. The antiquity of most of its major genres like khayal and thumri in their present form could not be traced beyond a few centuries, and its close links with court-based patronage imbued Hindustani music practice in the eyes of middle-class nationalists with bawdy associations and an unacceptable pleasure-seeking morality.
Locating Hindustani music in ancient shastra-based principles and mode of learning, early cultural nationalists (such as Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digamber Paluskar) focused their attacks on the corrupting influence of its present practitioners, ‘dancing girls’ and ‘ignorant and narrow minded’ Muslim ustads, both seen as interlopers to a sacred tradition. Increasingly under the influence of cultural nationalists, music learning, practice and performance became cast in a spiritual, Hindu mode, and simultaneously moved out into newly established music schools and colleges, music societies and public concerts largely patronised by the middle classes. A natural trajectory was the attempts to locate thumri within a devotional, spiritual framework. This ‘cleansing’ process continues to the present times. The explicit or implied presence of Krishna in a large number of thumri texts is given as proof of the ‘inherently’ devotional nature of thumri – undermining the ambiguity that exists within thumri texts of the erotic and the spiritual coexisting.
With their traditional spaces and modes of music practise under attack, many tawaifs found space as performers in the newly emerging industries of mass entertainment, such as the gramophone, theatre and later films. The earliest singers to record for the gramophone, in the early 20th century, came from tawaif backgrounds, as did the first actresses of Parsi theatre and, later, the ‘talkies’, films with sound. A majority of tawaifs could not make this transition, however, and continued to perform within their kothas to a dwindling group of patrons.
Later, the anticolonial movement led by Mohandas K Gandhi defined by a more inclusive politics, was also deeply influenced by his ascetic sexual morality. Gandhian nationalists castigated the practice of patronising tawaif musicians as ‘degenerate’ and, under their influence, large sections of the old aristocracy put an end to patronising tawaif performers. On the eve of Independence in 1946, Sardar Patel, the veteran Congress leader and minister of home and broadcasting in the interim government, banned women artistes whose ‘private lives were a public scandal’ from singing on All India Radio. This left AIR with almost no female Hindustani music singers, since most hailed from courtesan backgrounds. Though it was eventually revoked, the ruling had far-reaching implications. I got to hear of tawaifs in Benaras who immersed their musical instruments into the Ganga and stopped singing altogether. Many others, dependent on the radio for a regular income, entered into marriages, mostly with their accompanist sarangi and tabla players, so as to be considered respectable for the state-controlled airwaves.
Saba Dewan is a documentary filmmaker based in New Delhi. She is currently researching a book on the ‘tawaif ’ tradition under a fellowship from the New India Foundation.The last nails in the coffin of the tawaif tradition in Benaras were struck just a decade after Independence. I came across reports published in Aaj in the summer of 1958, accounts of the introduction in that year of the anti-prostitution law, the Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act (SITA). They report the frequent police raids on the houses of tawaifs, followed by arrests. Tawaifs responded to the raids with legal petitions and letters to newspapers, asserting their identity as artistes and not ‘prostitutes’. There are also reports of tawaifs forming associations in order to protect themselves. From late 1950s, however, courtesan families began vacating Dal Mandi’s adjoining mohallas. By the early 1980s, the last of the surviving kothas in the area had shut down for good.
Few contemporary musicians who I met in Benaras would admit to any past link with courtesans, and certainly not of any knowledge about their present whereabouts. Nonetheless, I was able to contact some women from tawaif families. In deference to the morality of the cultural elite, they now refer to themselves as gaanewaali, and have generally moved into the lifestyle associated with middle-class ‘respectability’. Their daughters are not exposed to any training in music or dance, and have mostly been married off. Sons have been educated and are encouraged to seek jobs or begin their own businesses. The descendents of less-well-off tawaifs, however, have had to make different life choices. Over the last 25 years, girls from these families have moved on to perform in the better-paying dance bars of Bombay and Bangalore, in ‘orchestra parties’ that are in great demand in smaller towns, and dance troupes. Still, none of the tawaif families I met showed any inclination to speak of a past they feel is best forgotten.
It was at this point that I was introduced to Saira Begum, a practicing thumri, ghazal and hori, chaiti, dadra singer based in Benaras, who proved to be far more receptive than the others in her community. Saira a soft-spoken woman in her mid-50s, and belongs to a well-known family of tawaif singers from Bihar. There were several women in her family who had made their way to Benaras before her and set up kothas there. Saira and, over time, her extended family opened for me a world little known to outsiders. Daughters in tawaif households were pampered in much the same way as boys in patriarchal families are for being future bread-winners. The head of the household was always the senior-most tawaif, the nayika, who functioned as the matriarch. This inversion of gender norms proved to be reflected within the wider kotha community as well, which comprised of tawaifs along with male accompanist musicians. Traditionally, tawaifs provided leadership within this community as choudharayins, empowered to resolve all internal disputes and issues.
Through Saira I understood that only those girls who showed signs of having the requisite musical talent or beauty would be selected for the expensive training and grooming necessary to become a successful tawaif. They did not get married but instead entered into long- or short-term sexual relationships with wealthy patrons. Those daughters perceived as less gifted would be married off to boys within the community. Their status as purdah-bound dependent wives was so unattractive compared to the power and independent income enjoyed by the tawaifs that few girls aspired to it of their own will.
Born at a time when the tradition was in decline, Saira lives with the disappointment of not having the opportunity to ‘learn and live music’ as had the older women in her family. But she is one of the few remaining tawaif performers of her generation who insisted upon learning and performing forms such as the thumri, kajari and hori. Although rising to become an extremely popular singer, Saira stopped performing in Benaras once her children were born, preferring instead to sing outside the city where few people knew her personally. Later, for several years, Saira stopped performing altogether, eventually putting her efforts towards ‘respectable’ performance platforms such as the radio, television and concerts. She has not taught any of her three daughters music, preferring to marry them off.
In many ways, Saira’s choices have been tempered by the need to navigate stigma. In this, they are reflective of the ways in which nearly all tawaif performers have had to reinvent themselves through euphemisms and lifestyle changes, in order to negotiate the changed cultural economy of post-Independence India.
The tapestry offers articles that come up in the course of the work done by Himal’s sister organisations. This piece comes from Film South Asia.