Tawaifnama: Saba Dewan’s Radical Proposition That Courtesans Are People

Dewan combines the wealth of academic scholarship available on the subject with highly original research and gives us a work of immense depth and sensitivity.

“Where did the tawaif live in the city’s memory, I wondered as I tried to trace her in mehfils or musical gatherings hosted by wealthy merchant families in the opulent musical halls of their homes. I asked the people that thronged concerts organised by religious bodies on the ghats of the river Ganga, and everywhere received one answer: the tawaif was dead. She sang no more those beguiling melodies that made men forget their way back home. Almost everyone insisted that they had no idea about the current whereabouts of tawaif families.”

∼ From Saba Dewan’s introduction to Tawaifnama

Documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan’s search for tawaifs – courtesans who performed music and dance, and who formed an important part of the cultural fabric of north India for many centuries – began in the early 2000s.

“I was travelling to several places associated with tawaif cultures, like Jaipur, Lucknow and Ujjain, before I zoomed in on Benaras,” Dewan tells this writer on a Skype call from her home in Delhi. “In most places, the doors would slam against me.”

Almost 19 years later, her book Tawaifnama, an epic sweep through Indian history, tells us what her search ultimately yielded.

A chance meeting with a woman in a sarangi player’s house in Benaras led Dewan into a deep, complex and life-long friendship. This woman, whom Dewan never names, is a former tawaif, resolutely alive in a city that insists people like her are dead. And through her, Dewan meets not only members of her extended family, many of whom tell her the fascinating history of their family over three generations – she also meets many other families with courtesan lineages, and rich cultural pasts.

These histories are shrouded in stigma because of morality drives that began in the colonial era and continued into pre-independent and now post-colonial India, that looked askance at the non-conjugal sexuality of courtesans. In a country based on the idea of the patriarchal, heterosexual family unit, the construction of the ideal woman was of a woman who maintained life-long conjugal monogamy. Courtesans’ sexuality caused (and continues to cause) both fear and contempt in this imagination of the nation, and therefore their complex cultural legacy has been all but erased.

“And that is, for me, the biggest tragedy. That here is a community with such rich histories, which has been completely marginalised, but worse, stigmatised – made to feel shame for the histories they carry,” says Dewan.

The resulting book, which has taken Dewan over ten years to write, is both the story of this particular family, and a political and social history of India since the 19th century to the present day seen through the lens of its engagement with gender, sexuality, politics and culture.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

For people interested in the deliberately erased histories of tawaif cultures, which have been under successive attacks for a long time – not only from colonial authorities, but from nationalists, reformers, and cultural practitioners – this writer has no hesitation in saying that this book is a landmark work that will become central to the field.

Courtesan cultures in India have been increasingly studied in academia since the 1980s, but accessible and comprehensive non-academic works on the subject have been few and far between. It is a book like this that the subject has deserved for a long time. Dewan combines the wealth of academic scholarship available on the subject with highly original research and gives us a work of immense depth and sensitivity.

Watch: ‘Women Have No Name in My Country’

The book switches between three kinds of tellings. The first is set in present-day India, which explores the life of the protagonist as a former tawaif and the matriarch of her large extended family in Benaras and Bhabua. This is addressed directly to Dewan’s protagonist, and written in an intimate voice, almost like an extended love letter. It implicates Dewan’s own position as essentially an outsider to the community who is slowly trusted and given access over the course of several years, and chronicles her growing friendship with the protagonist, which has its own shares of complexities, including disagreements.

This alternates with Dewan’s recreations of the stories told to her about the history of the family – beginning with the 19th-century courtesan Dharmann Bibi, who took part in the 1857 rebellion. Though her patron and lover Kunwar Singh is remembered as a hero of the mutiny, her memory is not accorded the same respect.

Then there is her great-grandaunt Sadabahar, one of the most talented and celebrated tawaifs of her time, whose story of success and renunciation is in stark contrast to that of the protagonist’s own mother Teema, who is forced soon after she reaches puberty by her father and uncle to go to wealthy men who repeatedly rape her.

The rest of the history of the protagonist’s family closely follows the changing performance traditions that began in the early 20th century because of the dual forces of newer technology and ongoing marginalisation of salon-based courtesans – with an aunt who hoped to sing for the gramophone, like her idol, the famous Janaki Bai of Allahabad, and others who performed for the theatre, and the radio, or were forced to continue entertaining in their own kothas despite efforts by patriarchal bullies to “cleanse” cities of tawaif performers.

Author and documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan.

Along the way the family’s story intersects with performers who are far better known – Sadabahar, for example, would have crossed paths with Vidhyadhari Bai. And Pyaari khala, one of the many charming and deeply compelling people in the protagonist’s extended family, knew Rasoolan Bai well.

In the absence of an extensive formal archive, it is oral history and anecdotal evidence that can help a researcher recreate many tawaif histories. It is no different with the protagonist’s family – many of the tales from family lore are fantastical in nature, and can be read in multiple ways. For example, there is said to be a prophecy about Sadabahar because of her unusual eyes, which predicts her ultimate devotion to the mystical and her renunciation of her life as a performer. And there is a story about Bindo, the protagonist’s aunt, who showed great promise as a young tawaif, but lost her chance to become a gramophone star because of what Dewan tells me is “her hubris and impetuousness… these are things you are cautioned against in tawaif narratives.”

Bindo disappears after she travels with an infamous patron, but in a particularly gorgeous story from the family lore, she is rescued by an embodiment of Sohini, a raagini or melody, and thus not only makes her escape in family memory from a cruel end, but is restored in status as a true musician, capable of calling music itself to her rescue. “Bindo’s is ultimately a redeeming story,” Dewan tells me.

Also read: Book Review: Four Fabulous Female Bards from Kashmir

“These are apocryphal stories that are actually reflecting multiple meanings,” she adds. “People make a big deal of what’s real and what is fictional, but what I wanted to do was to be true to the essence of what they told me, in all its beauty and even its ugly parts.” Dewan has made it clear in her introduction that she has blurred identities and merged characters to protect real-life people, and changed the names of the characters for the same reason.

The third kind of telling in the book situates both these personal histories in a much larger context of social and political history, whether this is about a series of legislations from colonial times until today to target women seen as “public” and therefore disreputable; the development of certain kinds of musical traditions associated with courtesans in Benaras and Bihar, including the bol banao thumri and the purab ang style of singing; courtesans’ contribution to the nationalist movement and their desperate attempts to unionise and protect themselves from the same nationalists; or the struggle for tawaif performers to stay on in their homes in the centres of cities in post-colonial India in the face of deep stigma and discrimination.

“It was my endeavour to implicate it within the larger narrative of a nation on the move. Colonialism, nationalism, Hindu nationalism – I wanted to look at all the changes that were taking place,” said Dewan.

Dewan’s sweep and understanding is formidable, and the story moves inexorably towards the saffronisation that impacts many of its Muslim characters, not only the protagonist but many others along the way, including a failed poet who worked for the Allahabad radio in the years following independence, and a family of courtesans where the sons are raised as Hindu while the daughters are raised Muslim. The religious syncretism of courtesan cultures is repeatedly broken down by communal tensions and Islamophobia.

In the heartbreaking last chapter in the book, the intolerable and devastating impact of this is seen in Dewan’s protagonist’s life. “She can’t cast her tawaif identity away internally, but she can remove its external markers. There is so much of herself she cannot share with her neighbours because she would be stigmatised for it. But being a Muslim in the India of today is stigma enough,” Dewan adds, quietly.

Saba Dewan
Context, 2019

Dewan and I speak about the surge of interest in tawaif histories, particularly, as Dewan notes, “in women academics and women artists.” A lot of recent feminist commentary on tawaifs in this field casts them in the mold of what Dewan calls “postergirls for feminism”, who live in the “liberated zone” of the matriarchal kotha, and therefore resist the patriarchy.

Many of these narratives tend to stress on the music and dance repertoires of tawaifs – an endeavour that is extremely necessary and completely valid. But in doing so, they ignore patriarchy, caste and sexuality in a way that leaves the story incomplete. “The pitfalls of looking at tawaif history uncritically through any lens is that we either end up victimising or valorising them. And that’s not being fair to the actual women who lived those lives,” says Dewan.

And so Dewan looks, and looks hard, at the misrepresented aspects of this history, with a compassionate and critical eye. She talks about the fact that the community itself (and its associated community of accompanists, such as sarangi players) is diverse, made up of caste- and clan- based hierarchies. She talks about the fact that while better-off and more elite tawaifs enjoyed sexual autonomy, there were those throughout history that, because of economic and social circumstances, were sexually assaulted. She talks about how the women in tawaif households who don’t perform can be treated – the daughters who are married off, the daughters-in-law – with as much discrimination and contempt as they can in non-tawaif households. “We try to make absolute statements about tawaifs. This is not some matrilineal liberated zone, free of patriarchy – it was a very important adjunct to patriarchy.”

Dewan is also critical of women artists using tawaif repertoire to further their arts practices, without caring about real-life descendants of the women they valorise and claim to champion. “There is a certain type of artist sponging off the tawaif, in the name of being a benefactor. What are they (tawaif descendants) gaining in the process here? It is their legacy. If you care for them, then surely there are ways in which that should reflect in what you do. I found a lack of interest in the tawaifs themselves. In some ways this becomes another way to use them, although we are made to believe that it is for their own good,” she adds.

“I was very clear that I was not writing a history of who I wanted these women to be. I know people are going to be uncomfortable about this, but I had to stay true to their stories,” she adds.

Drawing out this complexity over almost 600 pages, never once does Dewan portray any of the women she’s talking about from a singular lens of either victim or heroine.

The women who populate Tawaifnama are exactly that – women – and this book is the glorious chronicle of the radical notion, to paraphrase Marie Shear, that courtesans are people.

Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. She is the managing editor of Skin Stories at Point of View, and is working on her first book.