Tawaif culture in India: not a blasphemy


In June 1857, with the closure of East India Company (ESI), there were a few other stories that were supposed to be in history, but unfortunately, got lost in the mists of time. Tawaifs (courtesan) were also strong pillars of support in the freedom struggle.

Azeezunbai is a name nowhere to be found in the pages of history. The archival reports, local legends, or a paper written by Lata Singh, is the reason the name has survived till date. Lata is an associate professor in the Centre for Women Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University. There are scattered stories of some unsung heroes, who contributed to a crucial time like the Sepoy movement of 1857. They were the heroes behind the scene who worked as a messenger, an informer and also as a conspirator in the times of Kanpur rebellion days. 

The unforgotten story of Azeezunbai was revised and recognized in the seminar held at the Mumbai Royal Opera House on 27th April. Tehzeeb-e Tawaif was organized by Manjari Chaturvedi, the director of the organization who was looking into The Courtesan project. The Royal Opera house collaborated with Avid Learning and collected writers, historians, and researchers to discuss the legacies of performing artists of the 18th and 20th century. 

Indian female artists have received a bad reputation, for example, Tawaifs. People are less aware of how the word “tawaif” came into existence — known with names in different regions like devadasis in South and baijis in Bengal. They were professional dancers, poets, atehzeebnd singers, who were combated with the prostitutes later by the Britishers — popularly known as the “nautch girls” they were scrapped out collectively.

Courtesans had their glory days where they were the center of attraction for art and culture. They had a time when they enjoyed power, prestige, political access, and were an important part of the culture. Reputed families would send their children to Tawaifs to train them with tehzeeb- “art of conversation.” There was a time when getting associated with the tawaifs, as they were of the Mughal’s descent was considered as a symbol of pride for people to hang out with. People never perceived Tawaif as a bad woman as they do today.

Now, due to the decline of the Mughal empire, tawaifs had to move out of Delhi and shift towards Oudh state, as Nawabs still valued their art. But, in 1856, everything changed when the British invaded the Oudh state. In the revolt for East India Company, Tawaifs were the unrecognized heroes who played an active role in providing with the hideouts and arranging meeting spots for rebels in the “Kothas.” 

The decline of the renowned art

Warrants were released against the Tawaifs, and their Kothas were destroyed physically by the Britishers. The turning point in Indian history and courtesans was the switching of powers and handing it over to the British empire. Courtesans were connected with the prostitutes, and their Kothas were labeled as brothels.

Non-Cooperation Movement that happened from 1920 to 1922 also involved tawaifs and formed a committee named as Tawaif Sabha. Mahatma Gandhi had meetings with the groups of Tawaifs, which was led by some famous artists like Gauhar Jaan. 

The director of The Courtesan Project said, “We snatched away everything from them, their music, dance, poetry.” She added. “But we’ve never given credit to them. We must respect them. We must know about them, and I hope to be able to do this in my lifetime.”

This is a story which should reach out to the masses, and the Tawaifs should get the respect and honor they deserved because they are our heroes just like our beloved freedom fighters.


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