Fall of a culture

There was a time when tawaifs of Lucknow were treated as the epitome of etiquette and
culture. They excelled in poetry, music, dancing and singing, and entertained the nawabs
of Oudh. Today the word applies to a common prostitute, writes Yogesh Vajpeyi

A sprawling market has come up where tawaifs once ruled from their apartments
A scene of Lucknow’s Chowk. A sprawling market has come up where tawaifs once ruled from their apartments Photo: WFS

Ek tumhi nahin tanha, ulfat main meri ruswa;
In aankhon ki masti ke, mastaane hazaaron hain;
Ek sirf hum hi mai ko, aankhon se pilaate hain.

(It is not just you disgraced by desire for me;
There are thousands drunk by the passion of
these eyes;
It is I alone, only my eyes can offer drink)

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

"Yet, there was a time when tawaifs were treated as 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 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 apartments in Chowk — where these women lived and entertained the court’s elite in opulence — were the centres for musical and cultural soirees. "Today, the tawaifs are virtually gone. The word has been redefined and 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 UP by means of her extraordinary political and military abilities, was a tawaif. Moran Sarkar rose to become the queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1802. She was considered to be very learned in arts and letters, and was respected for her philanthropy. The maharaja even minted coins in her image.

The annexation of Oudh by the British in 1856 sounded the first death-knell for 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 valiant battle for survival.

Writing about them, local historian Abdul Halim Sharar noted that "until he had association with tawaifs, he was not a polished man".

The position of tawaifs as the influential female elite was largely a north Indian institution that became prominent during the weakening of the Mughal rule in the mid-18th century. However, the term tawaif — the plural form of the Arabic word taifa, meaning group — is today synonymous with a prostitute. This is an extreme corruption of the word, and not at all a reflection of this once noble institution.

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

The decline of the Mughal empire in Delhi forced many leaders of this institution to drift to the courts of the nawabs of Oudh, Hyderabad, Rampur and Bhopal. Within these new centres of nawabi culture, tawaifs were sponsored by rich and powerful nobles, and became the emblems of luxurious and urbane living. Lucknow’s tawaifs enjoyed an iconic fame in this regard. As the prince-in-waiting, Lucknow’s last nawab, Wazid Ali Shah, was a frequent visitor to a tawaif, Wazeeran. He is said to have made her prot`E9g`E9, Ali Naqi Khan, his wazir (chief minister) when he was installed on the throne.

Though their prominence was less obvious after the British annexed Lucknow in 1856, the role of tawaifs in India’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 classed under the occupational category of "dancing and singing girls," and were 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," Oldenberg 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 northern India, the institution was doomed after the British began to acquire a large part of India through a string of annexations in the 19th century.

Despite such repression, the kothas continued to be influential sites for high culture until Independence in 1947. If the British initiated the problematising of tawaifs as emblems of an overly decadent, feudal and sexually-uninhibited society, the growing middle class interventions sought to regulate, reform or otherwise marginalise them.

Today the institution of the tawaif has virtually disappeared. "The word has become redefined so that it is applied to a common prostitute," says Gulbadan, heir to the owner of a kotha in Lucknow. "But these prostitutes have nothing in common with the tawaifs of old."

What people forget is that the courtesans of yore were the originators of several art forms. For instance, they specialised in the vocal forms of the dadra, ghazal and thumri. The kathak dance form is also inextricably linked to the tawaif. This highly rhythmic and at times abstract form of dance has been popular in northern India for centuries. — WFS