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The lives of the original public women

  • Saba Dewan’s sprawling history of the life of tawaifs connects generations of private memories with public archives
  • Using interviews and personal testimonies, she creates a narrative that is tender, nuanced and exhaustive

A ‘nautch girl’ performing for an audience in 1899.
A ‘nautch girl’ performing for an audience in 1899. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

At a time when women’s empowerment is defined by a woman’s ability to occupy public space, Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama digs into the history of what Dewan, at a recent event in Bengaluru, called the “original public woman". The tawaif, once an important figure in the cultural life of north India, has now disappeared from public life. Any vision of her that remains is in the ostentatious characterizations of Bollywood—Rekha in the 1981 film Umrao Jaan being perhaps the most memorable.

Tawaifs—or courtesans who performed music and dance (and also engaged in a sexual life with their patrons outside the institution of marriage)—are literally two-dimensional in popular imagination. We know them either as conniving seductresses who trapped good, married men or as helpless victims who, devoid of any agency (sexual or otherwise), were forced into a degraded life.

Dewan’s astute book is at heart a dismantling of this pithy image. Primarily told through oral accounts, it charts the changing lives of tawaifs and their cultural valency from the mid-1800s until today. Tawaifs emerge as complex historical agents, with their own customs and caste strictures. It is not simply their absence from public view that Dewan notes, but also the manner in which they have been forbidden through a particular brand of moral and political censorship.

With the rise of nationalist politics in colonial India came a campaign to purge Indian society of vice. Women such as tawaifs—the upper rung of whom were some of the only literate women in society—became one of the major targets of this campaign. While early nationalist movements based on Hindu philosophies labelled tawaifs as immoral, the later Gandhian movement considered them victims who had been kept away forcibly from the docile and domesticated position which women inhabited. Tawaifs, in turn, were sold the idea that moving away from their traditional professions was service to the nation. By the final stage of the freedom movement, the external persecution of tawaifs—first, by the British, and later by Indian reformers—was coupled with a kind of self-purification. The internal purging, though not uniform, left tawaif families on the edges of society.

One of the major erasures in the history of tawaifs, Dewan contends, is their erasure as accomplished artists. A preoccupation with their sexual culture has overshadowed their dedicated and elite training in classical music. Once the custodians of the finest artistic traditions—their performances coveted by royalty and the general public alike—tawaifs were eventually branded as a sum total of their sexuality. But Dewan is careful not to glorify tawaif artistry or disregard sex work as something fallen. Instead, she articulates both art and sex as labour, employment, even a personal quest. At the same time, she reveals how tawaifs, despite the respect they commanded, the matrilineal customs they followed, and the sexual liberty they were able to claim, operated within a patriarchal and casteist social order. We hear women talking about their great loves with men, their manipulation of men to get what they wanted, but also of their dependence on a masculine culture, where virginity and artistic talent could be bought, sold and controlled.

Unlike a typical historical account that draws from primary and secondary texts, Dewan’s chronicle is far more intimate, staggeringly so. For almost two decades, Dewan—a film-maker by profession—has been researching the lost tawaif era, documenting the lives of former tawaifs.

In this book, she follows one tawaif family’s story through several generations. Geographically moving between present-day Varanasi and Bihar, she draws on the memories of former tawaifs, the musicians who trained and accompanied them, and the accounts of their children, who are navigating an ascribed stigma to create more “respectable" lives for themselves.

Singer and dancer Gauhar Jaan was known for her court performances in Bengal and Bihar.
Singer and dancer Gauhar Jaan was known for her court performances in Bengal and Bihar.

Often, these accounts depart from the real and into the fantastical, with stories of characters like Sadabahar, who could command the spirit world with her singing, or Dharmman, who left her child and profession to join the rebellion of 1857. By rendering tawaifs in fallible tales, Dewan shatters the concept of tawaif as archetype.

Far from being the cold researcher, Dewan positions herself as an outsider who has built a deep trust with her subjects over the years. To protect them and enable them to talk freely, she assigns them pseudonyms. She shares with us their private thoughts on their childhood, sex, desire and abuse. This kind of detail is a testament to Dewan’s skill as a researcher—she doesn’t shy away from the partiality and so-called half-truths typical of oral accounts. Rather, she uses these testimonies to unpack, elucidate and contradict textual sources.

While a colonial account might have only alluded to the eternal sexual availability of tawaifs, Dewan gives us the internal monologues of a tawaif who is discerning about her sexual encounters, and of one who was initiated into sex through repeated abuse. While we might assume that tawaifs were ultimately controlled by men, Dewan reveals a culture of female solidarity that tawaifs received from the women before them. It isn’t an either-or mode of historical writing, where Dewan wants to write off accounts before hers. Instead, she exposes the many contradictions and complications behind tawaifs, who have been reduced to pin-up figures.

As a historical text, Tawaifnama is a feat. Dewan bridges generations of private memories with public archives to compile a thorough and tender account of tawaif life. Most significantly, she approaches a 20th century culture with the nuance of 21st century gender politics. It is not the kind of history book you can skim for axioms and that is its strength—truths about tawaif culture and morality do not come easy and they do not come even-handed.

However, as a literary endeavour, the book is less successful. While Dewan uses the embellishments and hyperboles that often make oral history invigorating, she allows that register to colour her narrative. Even as she moves into third-person narration and more academic prose when quoting textual sources, she returns to a second-person address to her book’s main unnamed character, almost like in a love letter. She describes this former tawaif and the other characters around her in twinkling eyes and gentle gestures—the very cliches the book wants to transcend. Although lengthy, Tawaifnama is not a weighty tome—far from it, stretches of it are captivating. With its endlessly adoring detail, it feels overwrought and unwieldy at times. But weighing the book’s literary deftness against its historical contribution, it more than passes muster.

Poorna Swami is a poet, writer and dancer based in Bengaluru

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