History Reviews

‘Tawaifnama’ review: Banaras down the ages through the eyes of tawaifs

Tawaifnama. The name itself attracts attention. “Is this about Umrao Jaan?” asks a friend. “Is it the diary of a tawaif or one of those historical records like Baburnama?” asks another.

How do I explain what Saba Dewan’s book is about? Tawaifnama combines history, biography, gender studies, politics, culture, and music and walks the reader through a forgotten landscape of Banaras.

A chance meeting

In her introduction, Dewan mentions that she has been researching the subject since 2002 for a film. A serendipitous meeting with a former tawaif in Banaras leads to a strong bond between the two women. Dewan meets members of the tawaif’s extended family and other courtesan families and recovers an oral history reaching back to three generations.

The author first introduces the reader to her protagonist (who is addressed only as you) and follows her over a decade watching her attempts to live down past, establish her daughters ‘respectably’ and cope with being a Muslim in a State swept away by the saffron wave. “You paid a high price for living on in Banaras. Besides the material costs of monthly rent and living expenses, the city also heaped scorn upon you and denied space to your music practice and to your identity as a musician,” Dewan writes. These passages are also where the intimacy in the writing is most.

As the protagonist lets the author into her life, characters like Zahooran Bai; Dharman Bibi who fought the British in 1857 alongside her patron and lover Kunwar Singh; the beautiful Sadabahar, who is as much a mystic as a tawaif; Teema forced into prostitution by her father; Bindo who loses a chance to become a gramophone star; Pyaari, a contemporary of Rasoolan Bai and others are introduced.

Music is the connecting thread: development of styles, vivid portraits of concerts musicians and training of tawaifs; how the gramophone companies approached the tawaifs to make records. Then there is politics. If the colonial British rulers reduced the tawaifs to prostitutes, the nationalist movement, Gandhi and social reformers took their cue from that leading to a continuous stigmatisation and discrimination that has lasted until today.

Another troubling aspect is how the tawaifs continue to be used by those who ought to value them most: musicians of today. Dewan writes about an “attempt, even if ham handed, by an English-speaking non-tawaif woman musician to conjure the tawaif’s phantom on the sanitized respectability of the concert stage” and records her discomfort as a musician requests an introduction to retired tawaifs so that she could learn from them without in any way acknowledging their contribution.

Beyond pilgrims

The book also offers the reader a glimpse of the Banaras “beyond the pilgrimage circuit of imposing ghats, Brahmin priests and majestic temples propitiating the great deities of the Hindu pantheon.”

Dewan writes of her protagonist showing her “modest neighbourhood mosques calling out to the faithful, small shrines dedicated to local Sufi saints, crossroads memorials daubed with vermilion in veneration of unknown Bir Babas (warrior elders and protectors of a locality, respected across religious and caste divisions), and hole-in-the-wall altars lit with single-lamp offerings to mais or mother, turbulent, autonomous goddesses that have thus far refused to be domesticated by Brahminical Hinduism.”

Long after you close the book, the women remain with you: Pyaari khala and her lover Shambu Lala, Asghari and her need to be acknowledged, Tara whose family breaks in their attempt to keep up with the times, and the protagonist herself. Given the similarities between the tawaifs and the devadasis of South India, is it too much to hope a similar portrait of the latter community will also see the light of day soon?

Tawaifnama; Saba Dewan, Context/ Westland, ₹899.

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