Tawaifnama: A requiem for an era

Rihan Najib | Updated on July 19, 2019 Published on July 19, 2019

Lost grandeur: A still from the documentary ‘The Other Song’, which documents fading tawaif traditions   -  SABA DEWAN

Film-maker Saba Dewan on her debut book, bringing women back into history, and resisting singular identities

“Dalip Singh was perhaps the only man Dharmman Bibi could not conclusively defeat in the wrestling arena.” It is one of the many arresting anecdotes in documentary film-maker Saba Dewan’s book Tawaifnama — an intricately woven and exhaustively researched history of tawaifs. Translated loosely as courtesans, these women however performed more important social and cultural functions than mere entertainment. Dharmman Bibi, for instance, was a tawaif who was known across Arrah in Bihar for her beauty, her singing — and swordsmanship. She is remembered for riding into the battlefield alongside her patron during the Rebellion of 1857.

Film-maker and author Saba Dewan   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SABA DEWAN


The book opens with a conversation with Bibi’s great-great-granddaughter, whom Dewan doesn’t name but addresses in the second person throughout. “This book came out of long conversations between me and her, and I thought I should keep it that way,” Dewan (55) tells BLink.

We are seated at a cafe in SDA Market, a gentrified hub of watering holes and restaurants opposite Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Looking around, she remarks how much the once-sleepy market has changed. She currently resides in Gurugram with her husband, the film-maker Rahul Roy.

The author registers surprise when addressed as one. “I’m a writer, willy-nilly,” she counters with a genial shrug. Tawaifnama is her first book, though its subject is very familiar to her. Apart from her documentaries on identity politics such as Dharmayuddha (1989) and Nasoor (1991), Dewan is known for her trilogy of films — Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi (2006), Naach (2008) and The Other Song (2009) — that delved into the lives of stigmatised women artists and performers. The Other Song examined the lives and fading traditions of tawaifs.

Tawaifnama; Saba Dewan; Westland/Contxt; Non-fiction; ₹899

“As a film-maker, I have always been interested in micro-histories and the details of people’s lives,” she says about her work in documenting the history of tawaifs. In the early 2000s, she began researching her own roots. “What is the history of women like me, my mother and grandmother? I was looking at the context in which middle-class women in the late 19th and early 20th century stepped out of the purdah into public space,” she explains. “That’s when I started reading up about other women, whose history is inextricably linked with ours.”

In the foreword of the book, Dewan traces how the anti-nautch movement during the late 19th century relegated the tawaif and her arts to the realm of the obscene and immoral. Nationalist reformers, who campaigned for women’s right to education, simultaneously “projected the tawaif’s presence in public spaces as a threat to the moral and physical well-being of Indian society”, Dewan writes.

“Public space had to be ‘cleansed’ of their presence for women like my grandmother and great-grandmother to be allowed to come out, so that they weren’t mistaken for tawaifs, the original public women,” Dewan says. “But my history could not be complete without also looking at their history.”

Growing up in south Delhi, Dewan admits that she was only remotely familiar with the world of tawaifs. “I thought they were creations of Hindi films — and Bollywood has certainly spun its own mythologies around them,” she says. Films such as Devdas (1955), Umrao Jaan (1981) and Tawaif (1985) took up the subject but confined the depiction of the tawaif to that of a refined and tragic but, ultimately, fallen woman.

In 2003, travelling through Ujjain as part of fieldwork for a film on sex workers, Dewan met a family of tawaifs. It sparked a curiosity that she took forward in The Other Song, which was the beginning of a long, fruitful association with several tawaif families, including the one in Varanasi, on whom the book is based. “It’s been 16 years of knowing each other. I am very privileged to have had this access and of course, they were extremely generous,” she says. This ongoing relationship has been the bedrock of her work.

“When I started work on The Other Song, I had all these doors slamming on me,” she recalls. The women and musicians she met were reluctant to divulge their identity and history, so building trust took years. “But a big part of documentary practice is patience,” she says.

She has taken forward the work done in her film into Tawaifnama. She is careful about how she locates herself in this endeavour. “My place in that history is that of a usurper, is it not?” she asks with a wry smile. “I approach the history of tawaifs with the deepest respect, and I take immense pride in them. But I don’t ever want to claim this history as mine,” she says, in a reference to the problematic appropriation of the musical repertoire of tawaifs by middle-class and, therefore, ‘respectable’ artistes. Songs with roots in tawaif, nautanki and other folk traditions are stripped of their origins and presented as new music, marginalising these artistes further.

Dewan and her husband had started the #NotInMyName protest in 2017 in response to the rising tide of hate crimes against minorities since 2015. The last straw for her was the lynching of 15-year-old Junaid Khan. “I had to take a stand. It was very personal,” Dewan says, ruing how religion has hardened into a weapon. So it’s baffling to read now of Muslim women dancing and entertaining through the day, interrupting their art only to do the namaz five times a day. “Well, we have become increasingly burdened with truer and truer representations of identities, which means a certain kind of Islam and Hinduism,” she notes. “I mourn the loss of an age where we could carry so many selves within us and still be at peace.”

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on July 19, 2019
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor