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  Courtesans of yore  
  Geishas of India  

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' (courtesan) 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 (a large house where the 'tawaifs' lived and entertained) 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 Uttar Pradesh by means of her extraordinary political and military abilities, was a 'tawaif'. Moran Sarakar rose to become the queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1802. She was considered to be very learned in the 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 in the Lucknow of 1913, 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'.

Performing a role similar to that of the geishas of Japan, 'tawaifs' were female entertainers who excelled in poetry, music, dancing, singing, and were often considered to be the authority on etiquette. By the 18th century they had become the central element of polite, refined culture in the north.

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 protégé, 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 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 four million rupees."

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. 'Tawaif', separated from their means of financial support and devoid of a relevant cultural context, could not survive.

The colonial construction of 'tawaifs' as prostitutes also began simultaneously. The British passed laws enforcing their registration and regular medical examination in Lucknow and other cantonment towns. They picked up beautiful women from 'kothas' and relocated them in the cantonments, de-humanising the whole tradition.

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.

That Lucknow's 'tawaifs' transgressed the new moral codes established for middle-class femininity and womanhood for the native middle classes in the pre-Independence period was made clear in numerous articles published in the 'Oudh Akhbar', which portrayed 'tawaifs' as harbingers of dangerous vice.

This new middle-class did not generally trace its descent from elite Muslim and 'nawabi' families but was a nouveau class quite removed from traditions like that of the 'tawaif'. Indeed 'tawaifs' were often themselves unwilling to engage with those who, in their eyes, were 'uncultured' and lacked proper etiquette.

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, or at least the popularisers, 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 Indian for centuries.

Fortunately, the arts of 'tawaifs' did not die with them. In fact, by a curious twist of fate, the bourgeoisie which had spearheaded the destruction of the institution, appropriated the arts of the 'tawaifs'. Today, dance is an upper middle-class phenomenon and classical vocal lessons are generally just for the children of the most affluent. The irony of this evolution just cannot be missed. (Women's Feature Service)
  By  Yogesh Vajpeyi  
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