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The Decline and Disregard of the Tawaifs of India

By Vishwa Thakkar


Tawaifs usually have a negative connotation associated with them. They are seen as shameless, vile, and corrupt women who pollute society. But this wasn’t the case in the Mughal era. People appreciated their talents in music and dance and yearned to see their performances. They were respected and held in high esteem. They were differentiated from prostitutes and were seen completely from an artistic lens. But all of this changed with the arrival of Britishers and Christian missionaries who systematically broke the institution down. To protect Victorian morals, they started to blur the differences between tawaifs and prostitutes. As a result, tawaifs lost their identity and livelihoods forever. 

In a scene from the 2002 film Devdas, a jealous Paro warns rival Chandramukhi against setting up a 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).” This notion of a sorry state of tawaifs or courtesans is a very recent one. They used to be a distinct category of top-performing artists who were held in high regard and viewed through respectable lenses, particularly during the Mughal era. The kings favoured their abilities and rewarded them with vast sums of money. Author Pran Neville’s book, “Nautch Girls of India: Dancers, Singers, Playmates ” best describes this: “They formed part of the retinue of kings and nawabs…many of them were outstanding dancers and singers, who lived in comfort and luxury…To be associated with a tawaif was considered to be a symbol of status, wealth, sophistication, and culture…no one considered her to be a bad woman or an object of pity.” So how did the status of tawaifs deteriorate to its current state? There is no one-shot answer but there is a one-party answer for sure. To arrive at that conclusion, we must first thoroughly understand the courtesan culture in order to comprehend how severe their degradation has been.  

Tawaifs were masters of music and dance, nearly monopolising these art forms. To maintain their monopoly, they usually practiced music or ‘riyaz’ every morning. Guests would sometimes arrive at their ‘kothas’ or houses in the evenings to watch them perform. Alcohol wasn’t allowed at their dance sessions, so they consumed ‘paan’ or betel leaves applied with opium. Basically, being able to witness them or learn from them was a luxury. As a result, as their earnings increased, so did their societal value. They were largely self-sufficient, free of the constraints that the majority of women in society faced. They were not forced to marry or have children; they could do so at their leisure. In fact, being associated with a tawaif was regarded as a privilege. Tawaifs could own property and pay taxes. They were also the only women who could inherit property. So, they were powerful and influential. In fact, noble families sent their children particularly to them to practice ‘aadaab’ (politeness) and ‘tehzeeb’ (refinement). 

However, with the coming of the British, attitudes about them shifted. As the British territories expanded, the royal patronage they received began to dwindle. As a result, they relocated from Delhi to Lucknow in the state of Oudh. But, after the annexation of Oudh in 1856, they were struggling to survive again. So, when the First War of Independence broke out in 1857, they decided that this was their opportunity to take revenge on the British. They started to help the revolutionaries in any way possible. Their ‘kothas’ acted as meeting spots and hideouts for them. They also provided financial help because they were one of the wealthiest classes. The tawaifs were in the highest tax bracket, with the “largest individual incomes of any in the city,” according to an examination of civic tax ledgers from 1858 to 1877. And not only this, many tawaifs directly participated in the War. Azeezunbai is one such example. She took command of a gun battery at Wheeler’s entrenchment, which had been firing shots since the first day of the siege. She was always among the soldiers, and witnesses claim to have seen her carrying pistols. When the war ended and the British regained control, tawaifs’ properties were confiscated, and they were treated as outcasts. The wealthy merchants, or ‘lalas,’ saw this as an opportunity to seize the tawaifs’ houses, so they backed the British in this move. Thus, the tawaifs’ livelihoods were threatened to such an extent that many were forced to turn to prostitution for a living.   

But this wasn’t the sole reason for the loss in livelihoods of tawaifs, there is a bigger picture that needs to be seen. The British men, though did not understand any of the tawaif cultures, still accepted them because they themselves lacked the company of any women. It was the East India Company’s policy only to send unmarried men to India. So, the men enjoyed the performances of these tawaifs, until their wives arrived. The British women were terrified to see the men being involved in the influence of these nautch girls; a derogatory term coined from the word ‘naach’ meaning dance. They started to demean the tawaif culture as tawaifs were seen as invaders of the household’s sanctity. They couldn’t digest this piece of India’s cultural heritage. Thus, the suppression of tawaifs began at the hands of British women. This was also triggered by the Christian missionaries and Victorian social reformers who discredited the tawaif system. The missionaries wanted to preach conservative Christian values and Victorian morals. They started to equate the nautch girls with prostitutes. In fact, an Anti-Nautch movement was launched to curb their existence and brand them as characterless and unworthy. Laws like the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, which was intended to prevent the spread of venereal diseases among British troops, permitted the Crown to monitor, regulate, and restrict courtesans’ profits by grouping them with prostitutes and subjecting them to rigorous controls. So, the tawaif culture was almost dismantled by the end of the 19th century. Keshub Chandra Sen, a Hindu philosopher and social reformer from the Punjab Purity Association, described ‘nautch girls’ as, “hideous woman…hell in her eyes. In her breast is a vast ocean of poison. Round her comely waist dwell the furies of hell. Her hands are brandishing unseen daggers ever ready to strike unwary or wilful victims that fall in her way. Her blandishments are India’s ruin. Alas! her smile is India’s death.” This clearly shows the complete transformation in the perspective towards tawaifs from the Mughal era to the British era. 

Many tawaifs eventually made their way to Bollywood later as they were already well equipped in dance and music, and these were the ideal requirements there. Jaddanbai, former tawaif and mother of actor Nargis set up her own production house called Sangeet Movietone. But, even as the industry got filled up with these talented women, the Victorian notion continued to haunt them. Tawaifs who worked as playback singers were asked to utilize radio stations’ “back entrance.” Tawaifs who were not married were forbidden airtime. The women, who had started out as artists, were subsequently labelled as prostitutes. And, from being part of the industry, their characters now became material for movie scripts. As a result, we can observe how Britishers systematically destroyed and stigmatised tawaif culture. Stereotypes continue to be connected with them and what’s sadder is that their overall contribution to the performing arts is underappreciated and they find little respectable space in Indian history. 

About the Author

Vishwa Thakkar is a second-year student at O.P Jindal Global University pursuing Honours in Economics

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