A woman floats down the Ganga in an ornate barge, singing and dancing as rose petals are showered on her. The scene is not from a movie. It’s a real woman, a tawaif , performing in Benares on Janmashtami day, a performance so famous it has come down to us as legend.
Tawaifs , the Awadhi term for highly skilled courtesans, rose to prominence between the 18th and 19th centuries in the royal courts of Awadh, part of present-day Uttar Pradesh. They sang, danced and were the purveyors of all that was considered good taste and high fashion. They took Persian influences from the courts of Shia kings and married them with Indian forms, and from them we inherit the Kathak and the dadra and thumri.
By the early 1920s, however, as colonial mores and ideas strengthened, the tawaifs slowly began to lose their prestige and demand. They could no longer sustain themselves financially by dancing and singing for their royal patrons. Sensing the decline of their kothas and dreading a push into prostitution, the multi-talented tawaifs began migrating to other professions. Some were lured by the gramophone industry, others moved towards Parsi theatre.
The most highly regarded of the tawaifs , or baijis as they are colloquially known, moved to Bombay and set up shop in the nascent film industry. They brought with them an arsenal of skills — kathak, mujras, how to sing a perfect dadri or thumri, and the ability to write Urdu poetry — all of which were immediately put to use in Bollywood. It was at this time that they began acting as well, the first women to do so. Before them, female roles had been played by hairless young boys.
“They were successful writers, directors and producers,” says Lata Singh, associate professor, Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “They paved the way for women from the mainstream to follow.”
Jaddanbai, former tawaif and mother of filmstar Nargis, was one of the first women to stir up the industry. She set up her own production house called Sangeet Movietone. She produced, directed and composed music for films. Her mother, Daleepabai of Allahabad, who had been widowed at 13, defied her Brahmin family to elope with a Muslim sarangi player. She learnt to sing and dance and became an accomplished tawaif , and also trained her daughter who went on to become an even more accomplished courtesan.
Jaddanbai had been preceded by Fatma Begum, the first woman to direct a Bollywood film. No known copies of her 1926 film Bulbul-E-Paristan exist, but she too set up a production house called Fatma Films. Her daughter Zubeida became a star in silent movies, eventually going on to act in India’s first talkie Alam Ara (1931). Actress Nimmi’s mother was Wahidan, a former tawaif from Agra, who trained her daughter in dancing and singing.
Soon, the culture of the tawaifs influenced the very grammar of Hindi films. Composers recreated the music of the kothas . For instance, the song ‘Mohe Panghat Pe Nandlal Ched Gaye Ro’ is taken from the repertoire of UP’s tawaifs . Originally sung as a jagmohana, or song sung in praise of Lord Krishna’s birth, it became a part of K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-E-Azam (1960).
According to Singh, many legendary figures of Hindi film music such as Naushad, S.D. Burman and Salil Chowdhary were indirectly indebted to mehfil sangeet . “Naushad even worked with the accompanists settled around the kothas of Lucknow and Benares,” she says.
Even as the industry filled up with these incredibly talented women, there arose the invariable anxiety around their sexuality and sensuality. Filled with Victorian ideas of morality, the industry slowly began to brand them as ‘loose,’ a categorisation that would follow them forever. Young India’s new nationalist discourse declared that the ideal Indian woman was a perfect mother and wife, not a sensuous dancing girl with agency and complete autonomy over her body.
Slowly, their contributions were erased. Tawaifs who worked as playback singers were asked to use the ‘back entrance’ at radio stations. Unmarried tawaifs were denied airtime. The women, who had begun their journey as artists, were eventually stigmatised as prostitutes. And, from being part of the industry, their characters now became material for movie scripts.
In a scene from the 2002 film Devdas , a jealous Paro warns rival Chandramukhi against setting up home with Devdas: “ Tawaifon ke taqdeer mein shauhar nahi hote (A tawaif ’s destiny does not include a husband).” Chandramukhi, the tawaif , replies, “ Tawaifon ki taqdeer hi nahi hoti ( Tawaifs don’t have a destiny).”
Chandramukhi, Umrao, Pakeezah, Anarkali — the tawaif began to offer countless actresses the chance to show off their skills in a hero-driven industry. Rekha’s Filmfare award-winning performance in Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981) established her, while Pakeezah (1972) was Meena Kumari’s swansong and door to eternity.
Despite Bollywood’s love affair with the tawaif ’s character, as Singh says, “Cinema always portrayed courtesans as stock characters whose lives are intertwined in a morality tale.” Either vamps oozing sexuality or prostitutes with a heart of gold, their characters were doomed to stay unmarried, and invariably achieved redemption only through death. The films successfully diluted the tawaif ’s life and times.
Film after film reinforced the trope — from Mughal-e-Azam ’s beautiful Anarkali who must abandon her lover Prince Salim or face being entombed alive to Muqaddar ka Sikandar ’s (1978) Zohra Begum who would rather die than allow Sikandar’s family to be defamed by her presence.
More complex portraits began to emerge in films such as Umrao Jaan and Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), finally talking about their precarious existence. Umrao, a reluctant courtesan, kidnapped and sold to a kotha as a child, never quite belongs in any world. Banished by her brother from their family home, she returns to Lucknow, only to find her kotha too looted and deserted. In Mandi , the tawaifs are forced to relocate their kotha every time a politician turns his ire on them. Their presence threatens the ‘respectability’ of localities, but ironically enough, every place they go to becomes vibrant, as commerce and culture inevitably follow them.
One of the few films that grants happiness to a tawaif is Pakeezah . Kamal Amrohi always said that he had made the film for his wife Meena Kumari in much the same way that Shahjahan made the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz. In his blurb for the film, Amrohi wrote: “A nautch girl is born to delight others, such is her destiny. She preferred to die a thousand times than to live as a body without a soul.” However, even here, the character Sahibjaan’s destiny is ensconced inside a respectability narrative. Her marriage is made possible only after she gives up every aspect of her identity as tawaif to choose respectability.
Strangely, Bollywood stuck to this cliché, not once portraying the fascinating lives led by the real tawaifs of the early 19th century. These were some of the most transgressive women of Indian history. For instance, popular tawaifs were the top tax-paying citizens of Lucknow at one time. They were among the earliest freedom fighters; they entertained British officers even as they sheltered Indian rebels. Courtesan Azizan Bai of Kanpur rode into the battlefield to exhort Indian rebels to fight the British in 1856. She was later arrested.
According to historian and academic Veena Talwar Oldenburg, the tawaifs under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, were “refiners” in every sense of the word. “Refined speech, brocade, embroidered clothes, elaborate hairstyles, jewellery and the adaa for which Lucknow became famous were all born in these courts,” she says.
Their list of innovations is long — from developing the local style of tabla to the sevaiyan served at royal feasts. Oldenburg says one of their biggest achievements was in bringing sexual freedom to the culture of Lucknow.
The tawaifs had considerable agency over their financial, sexual and spiritual lives. Oldenburg recalls being transfixed by a series of meetings she had with the last tawaifs of Lucknow. They changed her notions of gender and power. Each of their actions, from the way they spoke to the way they wore their burqas, appeared unique and bold. When Oldenburg asked a tawaif why she chose to wear a burqa, pat came the reply: “ Muft mein hamara chehra hum kisiko bhi nahi dikhaenge (I won’t show my face to anyone for free).” When Oldenburg accused them of pandering to the male gaze, they countered by asking if she had never heard of play-acting. In a crumbling kotha , she met a pair of elderly tawaifs who were evidently a couple. They called their love for each other “ pyaar jiska koi naam nahi hai (a love that has no name).”
It was these fluid spaces the tawaifs occupied that were not acceptable or fathomable to Victorian moralists. In 1864, Britain introduced the Contagious Diseases Act at home and in its colonies. And used this law to ransack kothas and regularise the tawaifs into prostitutes.
It was an attitude mimicked fairly faithfully by Indian cinema. Film after film overtly sexualised the role, leaving an indelible legacy on the women of tawaif communities. Singh traces the evolution from tawaif to mujrewali to bar dancer and item girl. Singh points out that a number of women in dance bars come from tawaif communities. “A thin line exists between bar dancer and sex worker.” And often, the very precariousness of their existence pushes them into sex work.
The evolution, says Singh, can be understood in terms of the shift in patronage. “Earlier, the patrons were nawabs and rajas who appreciated the tawaif ’s art. But with the erosion of their power in the colonial era, business communities and rural non-gentry emerged as the new patrons. This brought a change into the art form too.”
Performances became more dance than song, and the form came to be called mujra in Bihar and other parts, and the dancers, mujrewalis . Soon, dances began to be matched to film songs, which had bawdier routines. Unlike the almost classical format of the tawaif ’s routine, the new mujrewali performed exclusively for the male gaze. And, unlike the tawaif ’s performance, the bar dance and the item number are consumed almost pornographically by men.
As modern Bollywood tries belatedly to add more nuance to its portraits of bar dancers ( Chandni Bar , 2001) and mujrewalis ( Anaarkali of Aarah , 2017), not many remember the extraordinarily talented women who came here first, filled with hope that the world would appreciate them only for their art.
The author is an independent writer based in Mumbai.