top of page
  • Bhanu Sharma

Finding the Tawaifs

When we first study the term “tawaif”, we usually get a picture painted by the Bollywood Industry depicting characters such as Umrao Jaan or Pakeezah, but it is high time that we acknowledge the story of Indian Courtesans which was not merely a tale of entertainment but also an integral part of the Indian Culture. They were considered to be first professional women entertainers with their role fixating mainly on the enjoyment of selected sections of the society, or for society at large, free from the confinement of domestic routine, childbearing and secluded from inner realms of the home. The courtesans were renowned for their graciousness, refined customs and mannerism, proficiency in singing, dancing and literature. The debate sometimes spurs around the question of whether courtesans of India or later evolved kothewalis were the first feminists to challenge male dominance and traditional ideas of patriarchal society. Their self-perception and descriptions highlighted their engagement in non-confrontational resistance to the new regulations and the resultant loss of prestige they had suffered since colonial rule began. Thus, it could be believed that their lifestyle proved to be resistant to a rather oppressive and patriarchal society even though the nature of that struggle remained exploitative.

Amrapali or Ambapali was one of the most celebrated courtesans of ancient India. She was declared as the most beautiful girl in the city of Vaishali at the age of 11. She was not only renowned for her physical sensuality and beauty but also her pristine social status, political acumen, wisdom, fearlessness, compassion for the society which made her construct temples, schools, roads and other institutions. The courtesan culture was never termed as “demeaning” rather prestigious as it was believed to be an important expression of several art forms. Researches show that in the late 1800s, tawaifs in Lucknow, the city considered to be the heart of India’s mujra culture, were the highest taxpayers of the city. With access to royalty and power, people often remained close to courtesans for financial help. These absurd notions went so far that at a point in time, it was believed that until a person had an association with courtesans, he was not considered to be a polished man. In addition to that, not everyone was allowed to enter kotha without proving himself worthy of it. Therefore, men usually would be on their best behaviour for a chance to patronise these women. History also focuses on the rigorous education and training undergone by the courtesans to entertain their patrons. Nakhras were extensively used to manipulate earnings from the male patron.

Veena Talwar Oldenburg extensively researched on the Courtesan culture and wrote “In an attempt at a composite and seamless depiction of the courtesan, the contention is that contrary to popular perceptions, a courtesan in ancient times was not coerced into this profession. In this profession and matriarchal lineage, it was the woman who was deeply celebrated. The Kothas were usually closely knitted, and socially conscious communities with a specific code of conduct and failure to follow those rules led to heavy penalties imposed by the kothewalis. Oldenberg also brought into light that the closest emotional relationship and the most satisfying physical involvement among them were with other women. They usually referred to themselves as “chapat baz” or lesbians and “chipti” or lesbianism, and they made no verbal distinction between homosexuals and heterosexuals relations although lesbianism remained a strictly private matter. In addition to that, the lesser talked about relationships included their cooperation with some women outside the kotha, such as the married women to whom they rent space so that they too can earn extra money.

It was then in 1856 with the British usurpation of the kingdom of Awadh alongside forced exile of the king and many of his courtiers that led to an abrupt end to the royal patronage for the courtesans. The imposition of the contagious disease regulations and heavy penalties on courtesans, not only crumple down the esteemed cultural institution but also its gradual debasement to common prostitution leaving formerly wealthy, prestigious and respectable courtesans in an extremely vulnerable position under the British Rule. With sustained vilification, forced divestment of earnings and assets held by courtesans, denigration of their profession, many of them were pushed towards impoverishment. Yet, when it came down to providing sexual pleasure to European soldiers, British authorities arbitrarily relocated beautiful ‘specimens’ from among the kotha to the cantonment which finally led to the dehumanisation of the profession and sex becoming cheap, convenient and easy for the men. The ghetto quality of life, which was later turned to red light areas, resulted in the birth of prostitutes with all the negative implications and exploitation.

These courtesans were also the front- liners during the nationalist movement under the Gandhian phase and increasingly motivated women into the freedom struggle. Gandhi himself approached Gauhar Jan, a renowned singing and dancing girl in Calcutta, to induct women and raise funds for the freedom movement in 1920, yet the double standards of the leaders were evident when the proposal by various courtesans to organise themselves during the non- cooperation movement in 1921 was rejected as it was thought to be morally and socially objectionable move. Gandhi appeared to discriminate between courtesans in this movement.

Courtesans were forced to abandon their esteemed lifestyle and turn into women selling their bodies for earning their bare minimum yet the courtesan culture remains a significant testimonial to any study on the evolution and commoditisation of women in India from ancient times to the British rule and nationalist struggle to the present day. It was an established social institution at one point in time, but it has completely lost its existence and value now, with women in this field becoming a victim of huge exploitation suffering in the hands of government, police and society with no life or job security whatsoever.

By Bhanu Sharma


bottom of page