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India Has Often Appropriated, Seldom Appreciated, Its Courtesan Culture

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Aug 30, 2019

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One of the most skillful, rousing performances of dance I’ve ever witnessed happened to be on a protest stage in Delhi. In the winter of 2013, two judges of India’s highest court had decided that a colonial-era law that effectively criminalized queer sexuality belonged in the Indian Constitution. They held that queer people formed a “minuscule minority” of the population — and so the “minuscule minority” responded, all over the world, in a simultaneous protest called the Global Day of Rage. There were speeches, there were slogans, and there was the now-proverbial singing about the dark times. Then there was a transgender activist and dancer who set a crowd of defiant, disheartened people cheering with her performance of Jab Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya? (What do we have to fear when we have loved?) 

The song, featured in the cult classic Mughal-e-Azam is performed in the film by the courtesan Anarkali in defiance of Emperor Akbar, who deems her too lowly for the affections of his son, Salim. With its message of love and rage against tyranny, it translates effortlessly from the Mughal court to contemporary India. Its impact as a protest song is incredible. But, as in an iconic scene from the original song, it contains mirrors upon mirrors – even as the cinematic courtesan is allowed a song of rage and rebellion, her real-life historical counterparts faced something quite different. 

In India, courtesans have been known for hundreds of years by different names, depending on what they have done and what their social location is – from tawaifs, who performed in courts and salons in Mughal India, to baijis and gaanewalis, who were the first recording superstars, to lavani dancers, who perform at theaters across Maharashtra. 

Over time, courtesan culture and the people’s identities have been conflated, not only with each other but with sex workers – even though sex work may or may not be a part of the equation.

Courtesan culture and communities’ non-heteronormative sexuality has always been used to talk about them only in terms of possible sex work, or sexual relationships with patrons – never as tremendously influential and important artists in the arenas of music, dance, poetry, etiquette, theatre, film. And yet, courtesans have been at the forefront of all of these fields — their contributions have enriched the performing and literary arts immensely — and have rarely been acknowledged, whether it is the performance of thumri or ghazal in what is known as ‘light’ Hindustani classical music or the appropriation of sadirattam performed by devadasis, by upper-caste elites who created Bharatanatyam.


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In the last two hundred years, the marginalization of courtesans – women in the public sphere, who were literate, often well versed in literature and other arts, who participated in cultural and political life — has led to deep repercussions in the way we live and look at gender norms today. It allowed more privileged, upper-caste and -class women to start occupying public spaces (in a far more limited manner than cisgender men) while more marginalized women, who had always occupied public spaces, found their very presence demonized. Women’s work, in general, has been treated secondary to their prescribed role in the domestic sphere, and this has always reflected in how we have treated traditional female performers and courtesans. 

This marginalization is deeply shaped by public discourse, including what we choose to remember and what we erase. For example, the very foundations of our film industry, which also reflect and shape how we see women, have been influenced by work done by women from courtesan lineages. We have forgotten this legacy in favor of a handful of fictional films that almost always portray the tawaif as a tragic figure in need of rescue. Jaddan Bai, a pioneer in Indian cinema, was of courtesan lineage. So was Begum Akhtar, one of the most respected and successful vocalists India has ever seen, who was called the Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazals) for her mastery of the craft. 

A wealth of academic research in the field tells us that courtesans were for hundreds of years the most visible exponents of music and dance in what is today northern India. Although tawaifs occupied a liminal space in mainstream society, the most elite among them were able to amass great wealth and wield some amount of political and cultural clout in 19th century Lucknow and elsewhere. A landmark essay by scholar Veena Talwar Oldenburg tells us that women categorized as “singing and dancing girls” were in the highest tax bracket in Lucknow from the period 1858-77.

It may be the figure of the high-status tawaif, someone attached to the courts of princely states or occupying their own, well-equipped salons, that is most recognizable in popular culture today, but tawaif identity was never so uniform. It included less-elite communities of women who performed at street festivals, weddings, and other celebrations. 

In 1857, British Crown Law was imposed all over India, which replaced the East India Company with the British Parliament that ruled over the entire region that is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even wealthy and famous tawaifs began to lose their powerful status. Tawaifs of all kinds began to be at the receiving end of punitive measures under laws such as the Contagious Diseases Act and the Cantonment Regulations. And later, the anti-nautch (dance) campaign — a movement against courtesan performers that looked at their work as polluting “Indian culture” and them as hapless victims — was not only launched by the colonial authorities but supported and led by Indian elites; it served, over time, to demonize and sideline these women. 

There is no doubt that the British colonial policy did not understand the cultural space the tawaif occupied, nor her engagements outside of marriage, and therefore she was understood to occupy exactly the same space as sex workers who did not perform. Most scholars agree that this conflation is inaccurate and the reality was much more diffuse and complicated. 


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The Last Courtesans of Bombay, Episode 1: Finding the Tawaifs


Sometime in the 19th century, the figure of the ideal Indian woman was constructed, and the courtesan was her shadow; she represented the things that were unacceptable to the new nation that was being made. In the early 20th century, elite Indians appropriated and ‘sanitized’ the arts that tawaifs had practiced and greatly enriched for a long, long time — including kathak-based dance and vocal music forms, such as thumri

Unlike devadasis in the south, tawaifs were never formally banned. But, as ethnomusicologist Anna Morcom says in her book Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: Illicit World of Indian Dance, they were stigmatized so severely that they largely had to leave the cinema and performing arts (or if they participated, had to hide their origins) so that so-called respectable — that is, much more socially powerful — women could enter these fields. To this day, women from courtesan lineages find themselves stripped of status and stigmatized by notions of respectability – something that deeply impacts not only their livelihoods but their entire lives. This is powerfully illustrated in filmmaker Saba Dewan’s recently published, exhaustive history of courtesans in north India, Tawaifnama. 

The complex history of the courtesan has great bearing on any of us today who want to understand how gender currently works in India, and even for those of us who live and love outside of the structures that are prescribed for us – queer people, single people, people fighting for the right to marry outside caste or religion, people fighting for the recognition of live-in relationships as legitimate ways of making a home with someone. This intricate history, still relatively unacknowledged in public conversations, is one deeply powerful place from which to have all of these conversations.

These are the ashes on which our most popular, highly nostalgic film representations of tawaifs are built. The real-life stories they erase are the ones we must now seek out, more than ever before. 

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Written By Shreya Ila Anasuya

Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, an independent journalist, and the managing editor of Skin Stories, a digital publication on disability, sexuality, and gender housed at the non-profit, Point of View.

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