Tawaifs and tehzeeb: Notes from a symposium on courtesans' contributions to art, freedom struggle

The time is the pre-independence era, and the place, Kolkata. Indians are prohibited from riding in buggies. But a woman defies this rule, opting instead to pay a fine, as an act of resistance.

That woman was Gauhar Jaan, one of the best known singers and dancers of the 19th century, who belonged to a legacy of artists – the tawaifs and baijis – that can be traced back four centuries .

“It is impossible to be a student of Hindustani classical music and ignore women of the past like Gauhar Jaan,” said Shubha Mudgal, who was speaking at ‘Tehzeeb-e-Tawaif’, a day-long symposium on tawaifs, their art and how they have been portrayed in cinema.

The lives of tawaifs have been the subject of fascination, fiction and academic interest. Though pop culture and notions of Victorian morality led many to think of them as the “other woman” or women of “low character” who broke up marriages and enticed men, their story is far different – and much more complex. Gauhar Jaan is a luminous name in a long list that includes artists like her mother Malka Jaan, Begum Akhtar, Jaddan Bai, Zohra Bai Ambalewali, Rasoolan Bai, and Roshan Ara Begum, among others.

 Tawaifs and tehzeeb: Notes from a symposium on courtesans contributions to art, freedom struggle

Gauhar Jaan. Facebook

“The idea of the tawaif as we know it today is what emerged in Awadh, and the idea of the baiji was prevalent in Kolkata,” says Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi, who conceptualised the symposium and is the founder of the Sufi Kathak foundation. They were artists of high calibre, who were expected to be trained in Urdu literature and classical music and dance (Kathak); notably, they contributed immensely to the musical genres of the bandish and thumri.

Though it is true that a significant number of them did face oppressive circumstances, it is also true that many of them came to the kothas – the home and quarters of the tawaifs – from difficult situations in their own homes, noted Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Famously, they were also among the highest tax payers in undivided India; their coffers were filled with gold, silver and precious jewels. This was a detail that surfaced when the British established control in India and calculated the tax payed by “singing and dancing girls”. “Apart from shops in the chowk bazaar, they often owned land by the rivers and orchards too,” said Oldenburg.

With the gradual disappearance of princely states and the rise of social reformers and Victorian puritanism, the business and art of the tawaifs witnessed a decline. “The prevalent attitude of the people was such that they were perceived as being prostitutes,” said Lata Singh, Associate Professor, Centre for Women Studies, JNU. After 1947, many of the courtesans moved to Mumbai to work in the film industry and in Parsi theatre. “Many of the first actresses in Bollywood were descendants of tawaifs,” said Oldenburg.

Nearly five centuries later, the audience of the (remaining) tawaifs has changed. The mujrewalis are forced to perform to Bollywood songs, because their patrons don’t want to listen to traditional music. “There is an unjust stigma attached to them,” said Mudgal – a stigma that continues to haunt the daughters and sons of courtesans. What we are left with then are gramophone records of their music, history (oral and written) and questions about how their legacy ought to be remembered.

Connoisseurs and promoters of culture

It is said that sons of royalty were sent to courtesans to be trained in tehzeeb – culture and courtly affairs. Courtesans like Mah Laqa Bai Chand even had a place at court and were accorded the same respect as the nobility. They were well-versed in the art of conversation; what was on offer at the kotha, Oldenburg said, wasn’t just song and dance but also intelligent conversation and delicacies cooked specially in their kitchens (many visitors did not come with the intention to have sex). “They converted their earned money into business – they owned shops that sold ittar, they invented clothing designs,” she added.

Begum Akhtar. Facebook

Begum Akhtar. Facebook

“Poets longed for tawaifs to sing their works. Ghalib famously wrote to the nawab of Rampur, asking if a famous tawaif in his court could sing his sher,” said Chaturvedi. To have one’s work performed by a courtesan in those times was a way to ensure your poetry would be remembered and passed down generations.

Tawaifs were also promoters of the art form: Visiting artists would be given a platform by the tawaifs if they were good. If they proved their mettle, they were even given the opportunity to perform in front of patrons,” Mudgal said.

Immortalised – and misrepresented in cinema

In the 21st century, many people’s first impression of a courtesan is formed by watching Bollywood films like Umrao Jaan (1981), Pakeezah (1972) and Devdas (1955), where the women are usually performing love songs in front of a male audience. Yatindra Mishra, who is an author and scholar of music and cinema, is of the opinion that these depictions are far from the truth.

Tawaifs would conduct mehfils (programmes) of different types and bhaavs (emotion). They would often perform in homes during occasions like the birth of a child or a wedding, where they would sit with the women of the house. They also performed at temples,” Mishra explained.

Mujras, as they have been portrayed in films, are usually khadi mehfils (performed standing). “In reality, the courtesans would establish the bhaav while sitting and stand only later on in the performance,” Mishra clarified.

Manjari Chaturvedi performing in a costume modelled on the clothes of a tawaif

Manjari Chaturvedi performing in a costume modelled on the clothes of a tawaif

The dress of the courtesan in Bollywood songs more closely resembles the costume worn by Kathak dancers of the Lucknow and Jaipur gharanas, he added. “The peshvaz of the tawaif included a lehenga, or it could be a Benarasi sari, usually with a pallu draped over the head.” Though tawaifs like Gauhar Jaan and Begum Akhtar were known for their jewelry, most women didn’t look as ostentatious as they have been portrayed in films, he added.

Mishra says that the thumri in Umrao Jaan is close to reality in terms of both the lyrics and dance. Though ‘Mohe Panghat Pe Nandlal’ in Mughal-e-Azam accurately describes the situation in which the jagmohana, a piece performed during Janmashtami which is written in a colloquial language, would be staged, the song itself is not a jagmohana.

Of note is the depiction of the courtesan falling in love with men who were either drunk or of no morals. "In many films they didn't have identities of their own or any sense of individualism," said Mishra.

From the kotha to the recording studio

Though many believe that the first Indian voice to be recorded on a gramophone is Gauhar Jaan’s, archivist and historian AN Sharma said that this was a misconception: “The first people to be recorded commercially were two nautch girls from Kolkata,” he said. Over the decades, more than 300 recordings of unknown courtesans were made, dating back to the 19th century. There are some records where the performers’ and patrons’ are mentioned.

The courtesans were paid handsomely: “Gauhar Jaan was paid Rs 300 for one recording session, and Janki Bai was paid Rs 3,000 for an evening of recording work,” said Sharma. A known face was necessary in order for a record to be sold. “The music of the bais was in great demand, so they capitalised on the situation by insisting that one of every five songs they recorded would be included in films. They nurtured the music of early films,” Mishra explained.

But the courtesans had several reasons to not lend their voices to gramophone records. Sometimes, their patrons would not allow it. Author Veejay Sai said that some of them did not want to record their voices because it would mean that laypeople could access their art. Some others feared the recording device itself, which they felt would rob them of their voice. “The women felt that they could not deliver their art in an uncompromising manner because the gramophone could only record three-minute long performances,” Sharma noted.

Engagements with the British and the independence movement

The British struck at the root of the profession and destroyed it, Oldenburg said. “British soldiers left behind diaries where they spoke of the relationships they shared with the tawaifs,” she adds. When it was found that these soldiers were falling sick and succumbing to ‘venereal disease’, the British decided to supply “healthy/disease-free women” to the cantonments, maligning the courtesans further. In the 1880s and 90s, “letters were written to the Viceroys and Governor Generals, asking them not to consume the entertainment of the nautch girls,” said Sharma.

Mushaira by courtesans in Hyderabad. Wikimedia Commons

Mushaira by courtesans in Hyderabad. Wikimedia Commons

Though they were strictly non-combatants, they played a significant role in the struggle against the British. “Their role was constructive… They hid weapons and rebels in their kothas,” Oldenburg explained. Azizan Bai fought against the British in Kanpur in the Revolt of 1857, Chaturvedi added.

Opposition to their profession didn’t just come from the British; Gandhi was concerned about the courtesans’ lives but wanted them to quit singing and dancing, Sharma said. It is said that they offered donations to the Congress party, but Gandhi refused and suggested they weave khadi instead. “When Husna Bai approached Gandhi, he asked her to take up a respectable profession,” he added. It is said that Varanasi's Husna Bai sang and encouraged others to sing patriotic songs, even dedicating the first part of her performances to the country, as a mark of solidarity.

Discrimination and the male gaze – and moving beyond it

There was an attempt to sanitise the identities of the courtesans in the radio about 50-70 years ago, said Mishra. “They were asked to get married or add ‘Devi’ before their names, only then were they granted entry through the front door of studios,” he said. Though the courtesans belonged to different religions, Mudgal said that many converted to Islam "to ensure they would get decent burials".

Nautch girl dancing with musicians accompanying her in Kolkata. Wikimedia Commons

Nautch girl dancing with musicians accompanying her in Kolkata. Wikimedia Commons

Did the tawaifs and their art pander to the male gaze? “The male gaze exists within a social structure… The audience was male, but these women held power, their performances were not like tamashas. Courtesans like Gauhar Jaan had a say in where they would perform,” Singh said.

Oldenburg narrated a story from her time in Lucknow when she was conducting research, which showcased how power played out in the kotha. The research assistant who was helping her when she was at archives in Lucknow did not have a name – he was a tawaif’s son. He didn’t know who his father was. His sister, on the other hand, was learned and due to inherit property. This was common – in fact, the birth of a girl child was celebrated in the kotha. “They [the courtesans] disabused me of my prejudices… When I asked if they were dependent on the patronage of men, they said that everything involves money, that I’d sold my mind to obtain a fellowship.”

The burqa was empowering for them, because it allowed them to reverse the male gaze. It allowed them to control who could see them, and at what price, Oldenburg added. “When I asked if they ever considered getting married, the 70-year-old woman with three teeth who I was speaking to asked if I thought they’d never fallen in love. She smiled at Rasoolan Bai [another courtesan in the same kotha] and said that they’d been together for 40 years. This is the kind of ishq that has no name.”

'Tehzeeb-e-Tawaif' was organised by Sufi Kathak Foundation, The Royal Opera House, Mumbai and Avid Learning at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai on 27 April

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 09:25:59 IST