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Truth about the Tawaifs: Courtesan Culture

In Bollywood movies like Umrao Jaan, Mughal-e-Aazm and Pakeezah, Bollywood has highly appropriated the identity of “courtesans”. The depiction of these courtesans has been appallingly limited to prostitution with happenstance of singing and dancing. Families of their lovers and the society in general did not fancy acquaintance with the courtesans or tawaifs. This description reflects the current perception of tawaifs, entirely ignoring the significant contributions they have made to art, literature and much more.

(Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

In the ancient scriptures, the description of women who had multiple lovers are often found. These women engaged in the vocation of entertainment, becoming singers, actors or dancers. At the same time, they were not bound to be with a single lover, they choose to be with multiple lovers. Although the scriptures do not shame these women for the choices they made, our current social ethos just can’t help it.

With the Islamic invasion and the direct succession of British invasion, the postulation of free women was altered and conflated. On one side, Islam advanced the disciplines of Indian music and dance. Women flourished as they learnt about art of sorts. Devdutt Pattnaik, mythologist, said, “These women were considered to be exponents of the 64 different kinds of arts, which meant many of them were literate, being educated in the subjects of poetry and prose. We know of famous courtesans who wrote poetry. They also found renown as exponents of the various musical forms.” On the other side, British brought to India a colonial morality and an idea of virtue. Hinduism adopted this idea. It became traditions. The idea being anything remotely related to sex and sexuality was an utter sin that humanity can commit. It became an act against the traditions.

For centuries, the free, independent women with their notable works in the field of music, dance, poetry, etiquette, theatre and film have shaped these forms of art a great deal resulting of how we know the same art forms of art today. It is said that nawabs or prince-to-be were sent to the tawaifs to learn tehzeeb or etiquettes. The course also included the skill to understand and differentiate good music and literature. They were encouraged to practise skills like art of ghazal writing. It is noted that when courtesan with their skills in art of sort used to entertain their guests, sex was merely incidental and not a pre-decided bound.

Opposing to the depiction of their fictional counterparts, tawaifs were actually respected and became influential figures of their times owing to their massive knowledge and skill sets. In her essay, Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, Veena Talwar Oldengburg points out, “They appeared, surprisingly, in the civic tax ledgers of 1858-77 and in the related official correspondence preserved in the Municipal Corporation records' room. They were classed under the occupational category of "dancing and singing girls," and as if it was not surprise enough to find women in the tax records, it was even more remarkable that they were in the highest tax bracket, with the largest individual incomes of any in the city.”

However, courtesans had their statuses at stake since the inception of the British Raj. The cultural impact was one thing. British Crown Law was imposed all over India leaving the British Parliament in charge of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Courtesans became the ultimate target of many policies and regulations by the British Raj. For example, Contagious Diseases Act and the Cantonment Regulations demanded them to undergo medical examinations once a week, examining them for traces of venereal diseases.

Courtesans become an epitome of how liberated, educated and influential a woman can be and still be reduced to terms like “prostitutes” and “sex workers” for an outright ignorance of placing their preferences in domestic spheres a fundamental characteristic as their contributions and achievements are set aside as secondary characteristics or left to oblivion.

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