The word tawaif is often too easily associated with a prostitute. Hindi movies of the 60s-80s may have partly been responsible for this degradation of usage, through their representation of jilted lovers and men alike seeking solace in the kothas, legendary houses of ill-repute, to be entertained by the erotic mujras of tawaifs. That these courtesans of the Mughal age and after were the living repositories of the art and literature of that time and trained in etiquette, is largely unmentioned. That the entertainment they provided in these mehfils may have been the equivalents of modern-day classical music concerts or a poetry recital is as easily overlooked.

In his excellent albeit unreferenced essay, The Tawaif, the anti-Nautch movement, and the development of North Indian Classical Music”, David Courtney summarizes the chapter on tawaifs with the following words:

The tawaifs were often poets and authors, in a period when the majority of women were illiterate. When everything was considered, the tawaifs had, education, independence, money, power, and self-determination, in a period when many women were little more than cattle.

The essay then explains the situations that led to the eventual stigma associated with this profession leading to their disappearance. These causes are entwined with the history of the country – the failure of the 1857 revolution (the kothas were centers of political debate, some of which led to the uprising), the puritanical wave in Britain around that time that came to India through the teachings of missionaries, and the emergence of an Indian bourgeoise educated in western ideals of society and their social reform movements that came to associate tawaifs with prostitution – a social evil to be done away with. As the tawaifs began to disappear, the art forms that they had sustained and excelled in – kathak, ghazal, thumri, were passed on to a growing literate middle-class in search of a national self-identity, a unifying cultural history that would be a motivator for the freedom movement. It is truly a sad irony that the very champion of women’s rights in India, overlooked the tawaifs’ significance when he rebuked their offer to partake in the freedom movement. This is mentioned in a review of Saba Dewan’s 2009 documentary, The Other Song, that highlights the largely unknown history of the tawaifs.

During the first non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s, a group of tawaifs responded to his call for Hindu-Muslim unity and support for the Independence movement. They resolved to sing only patriotic songs on all occasions. An outraged Gandhi lashed out at their “obscene manifesto”. He wouldn’t accept them as Congress workers or accept their donation unless they gave up their “unworthy profession that made them worse than thieves”.

My own notion of a tawaif was no different from what I wrote in the first line of this post. Delving into the history of this profession has changed this view. Stereotypes, it appears, are best dispelled by making an effort to understand those that we stereotype.