Whenever I hear the word ‘tawaif,’ an image of beautiful women bedecked with jewels comes to my mind. Maybe Hindi film industry has too much on my impressionable mind. Hindi films like Umrao Jaan, Amar Prem, Devdas, and Pakeezah celebrated not just the beauty of these ‘tawaifs’ but also eulogize the excellent singing and dancing talent.
Tawaif or courtesan was a much glorified and prominent figure in the courts and darbars of the Indian kings. They were the epitome of ‘tahzeeb’ or etiquette in the nobility. The young girls were trained in ‘mujra’, which was inspired by various traditional performing arts such as Kathak, Gazal, and Thumri. Generation after generation, these women provided sex to their patrons who were wealthy and sophisticated and maintained a high social status. They brought grace and dignity to the courts of the landed gentry, especially during the Mughal era.
But somewhere down the line, with the coming of Britishers, the concept of Christian morality clashed with the local ethos of not just sexual relations but arts and aesthetics of the ancient Indian civilization. The ‘tawaif’ culture had got its sanctions from the Hindu concept of ‘devadasi’ where young girls were dedicated to temples for singing and dancing. Over the time, these women become ‘randi or ‘kanjari’ or a whore and are now seen as only providing their body for cheap money. They gradually lost respect, wealth and their high status.
The ‘kothas’ or their establishments where they provided services became brothels, ‘chaklas’ or red light areas. The end of royalty and landed class led to the erosion of hereditary wealth and lost patronage. Stricter public morality and outcry against any form of sexual association outside of marriage affected the women. A few years ago, there was a considerable outcry against the Mumbai dance bars where women used to dance for affluent clients in return for money. Honorable women do not have sex outside the boundaries determined by society.
With the ‘tawaifs‘ going into oblivion, we lost the rich heritage of singing and dancing. We also lost the battle regarding women’s control over her body and her destiny.