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Fame and infamy

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Lucknow’s tawaifs were once the epitome of culture, but their image has suffered over the years..

Enchantress: Aishwarya Rai in the latest version of Umrao Jaan.
Enchantress: Aishwarya Rai in the latest version of Umrao Jaan.

Tawaifs excelled in poetry, music, dancing, singing, and were considered an authority on etiquette.

Yogesh Vajpeyi

Ek tumhi nahin tanha ulfat mein meri ruswa/

Is sheher mein tum jaise deewaane hazaaron hain/

In aankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaaron hain/

(It is not just you disgraced by desire for me, there are thousands captivated by me in this city and intoxicated by these eyes.)

This melody from the film Umrao Jaan (1981) portrays the tawaif (courtesan) of Nawabi Oudh as a tragic figure, whose lover faces disgrace in civil society. This disgrace is but one of the many complex representations of the North Indian tawaif in Hindi cinema that has fed popular imagination.

Cultural centres

“Yet, there was a time when tawaifs were considered the epitome of etiquette and culture. They were the preservers of North Indian music and dance and hobnobbed with the nobility,” says Chote Miyan, heir to a kotha (a large house where the tawaifs lived and entertained) in Chowk, the old market of Nawabi Lucknow.

During the 80-odd years that Lucknow served as the capital of the Nawabs of Oudh, the kothis in Chowk were the centres for musical and cultural soirees. “Today, the tawaifs are gone. The word applies to a common prostitute now,” rues Chote Miyan.

Yet, history bears testimony to their glorious past.

Begum Samru, who rose to become the ruler of the Principality of Sardhana in Western Uttar Pradesh (in 18th and 19th century) due to her extraordinary political and military abilities, was a tawaif.

Moran Sarkar became the queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1802. Learned in the arts and letters, she was known for her philanthropy. The Maharaja even minted coins in her image.

Start of the decline

The annexation of Oudh by the British in 1856 sounded the first death-knell of this medieval institution. With their patrons gone and the British punishing them for supporting the rebels in 1857 and branding them as prostitutes, the tawaifs had to wage a battle for survival.

Writing about them in the Lucknow of 1913, local historian Abdul Halim Sharar noted that until his association with tawaifs, he was not “a polished man”.

Tawaifs, as the influential female elite, were largely a North Indian institution that became prominent during the weakening of the Mughal rule in the mid-18th century. The term tawaif comes from the Arabic word taifa meaning ‘group’.

“To relate tawaifs to prostitution is a corrupt portrayal of the institution,” observes historian Veena Talwar Oldenberg in her book The Making of Colonial Lucknow.

Similar to the geishas of Japan, tawaifs were entertainers who excelled in poetry, music, dancing, singing, and were considered an authority on etiquette. By the 18th century they had become the central element of polite, refined culture in the North.

In the limelight

The decline of the Mughal empire in Delhi forced many to drift to the courts of the Nawabs of Oudh, Hyderabad, Rampur and Bhopal. Within these new centres, tawaifs were sponsored by rich and powerful nobles and embodied luxurious and urbane living.

Lucknow’s tawaifs enjoyed iconic fame. The prince-in-waiting, Lucknow’s last Nawab, Wazid Ali Shah, a frequent visitor of tawaif Wazeeran, is said to have made her protégé, Ali Naqi Khan, his Wazir (Chief Minister) when he became king.

Though their prominence faded after the British annexed Lucknow in 1856, the role of tawaifs in the country’s first war of independence is on record. In the civic tax ledgers of 1858-77 (kept in the record room of the Lucknow Municipal Corporation), tawaifs were classified as ‘dancing and singing girls’ and placed in the highest tax bracket.

Their names also figure prominently in the lists of property confiscated by the British after they had crushed the rebels. “These women, though patently non-combatant, were penalised for their instigation of and pecuniary assistance to the rebels,” Veena writes. “The value of this part of the booty of war was estimated at nearly Rs 40 lakh.”

Very much a part of the feudal society of the North, the institution was doomed after the British began a string of annexations in the 19th century. Tawaifs, without financial support and devoid of a relevant cultural context, could not survive.

Death of an institution

It was around this time the British too passed laws enforcing their registration. They picked up beautiful women from kothas and relocated them in the cantonments, de-humanising the tradition.

Despite such repression, the kothas continued to be influential sites for high culture until the country’s independence. If the British initiated the portrayal of tawaifs as an overly decadent, feudal and sexually-uninhibited society, the growing middle-class interventions sought to regulate, reform or otherwise marginalise them.

That Lucknow’s tawaifs transgressed the new moral codes established for middle-class femininity and womanhood in the pre-Independence period was made clear in numerous articles published in the Oudh Akhbar, which portrayed tawaifs as harbingers of vice.

This new middle-class did not generally trace its descent from elite Muslim and Nawabi families but was a nouveau class removed from traditions like that of the tawaif.

Art forms still live on

The courtesans of yore popularised several art forms. They specialised in the vocal forms of the dadra, ghazal and thumri. The kathak is also inextricably linked to the tawaif. This rhythmic and at times abstract dance form has been popular in the North for centuries.

Fortunately, the arts of tawaifs did not die with them. By a curious twist of fate, the bourgeoisie which had spearheaded the destruction of the institution, appropriated the arts.

Today, dance is an upper middle-class phenomenon and classical vocal lessons are generally for the children of the affluent.

Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 14, 2009)
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