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Hell is in her eyes. In her breast is a vast ocean of poison. Round her comely waist dwell the furies of hell. Her hands are brandishing unseen daggers ever ready to strike unwary or willful victims that fall in her way. Her blandishments are India’s ruin. Alas! Her smile is India’s death”. (qtd. Sampath, 186)
The courtesans of India have long had a very turbulent reputation. Once seen as advisor’s to the Mughal courts, they are now objects of sexual glorification.
Imagine a vast hall with the roof seemingly reaching the sky. The walls studded with intricate murals and carvings soaked in real gold leaves. Huge mirrors and wall to wall Persian carpets, crystal chandeliers so vivid and vibrant that it seems the entire sky is engulfed in them. Among all of this is a dainty petite figure of a woman sitting in the middle of that hall being the focus of thirsty glances of kings and courtiers alike. The men admiring her, and the women hidden behind a purdah aspiring to be her.
Ek tumhi nahin tanha ulfat main meri ruswa
In aankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaaron hain
Ek sirf hum hi mai ko aankhon se pilaate hain.
(It is not just you disgraced by desire for me,
There are thousands drunk by the passion of these eyes,
It is I alone, only my eyes can offer drink.)
The Mughal Era was a period rich with arts and culture. Evenings constituted hours spent listening to shayari, classical music and watching dance performances. Architecture was ornate with beautiful paintings and bejewelled walls and ceilings, of which the Taj Mahal stands testimony. There was keen appreciation of the finer things in life. Tawaifs or courtesans played an important role in society. They were schooled in poetry, dance, music, politics, arts, literature and held the job of entertaining and pleasing men.
Not only this, the nawaabs and nawaabzadis were sent to tawaifs to learn tehzeeb. Tawaifs were not only not looked down upon, they were the ones responsible for inculcating what we regard as the etiquette of royalty! Sex was only a small part of what they had to offer and they could choose who they wanted to be intimate with. With complete right to say no, they were often wooed by the kings with caravans loaded with presents.
Yes, this was the golden era of the famous courtesans of India who have now unfortunately been reduced to ‘kothewalis’. These women once ruled the nation with their seductive glances, are now mere sex workers ostracised and condemned by the society.
The courtesans of India did not emerge out of a sudden whim, the history of such women takes us back thousands of years. In fact, details of the Mahabharata and Ramayana state that courtesans existed even then. This section of women who were called courtesans had a precise job: of giving pleasure to the men of the court.
In contrast to the concepts that courtesans were a condemned section of the society, these women were in fact so rich and so politically active that they sometimes made hugely significant dents in Indian history. The Mughals were very fond of such intellectual yet attractive women. The story of ‘Anarkali’ and ‘Salim’ is surprisingly not fiction. Imagine there once existed a courtesan who was beautiful yet powerful that we still hear her story in the film Mughal-e-Azam (1960).
Not only Salim, but Aurangzeb was bedazzled by Moti Bai, Shah Jahan had Noor Begum, and there was Gauhar Jaan.
Indian history is full of women who were politically, intellectually, culturally involved in shaping the history. Historically speaking, courtesans were ‘devadasis’ or women who used to sing and dance for the presiding deity of the temple. These women were married to the presiding deity, but the kings and courtiers also had the pleasure to witness their art of poetry, singing and dancing. In plain words though the ‘devadasis’ were married to the Lord, they often quenched the pleasures of the rich.
Now comes a surprising fact. Can you imagine that all Indian classical dances like Bharatnatyam, Odissi, and Kathak are just residuary art forms left behind by these ‘devadasis’ or courtesans? After the Mughal period came the colonial era, it was the worst phase for courtesans. Though these courtesans were deeply involved in sexual activities with the rich, it is in this era that their status was reduced to mere prostitution.
Today one may hear the term ‘kothewali’ and immediately club it together with a perception of a woman with a shallow character involved in prostitution. This was not always so. It was the British who condemned the practice of ‘devadasis’, they bifurcated the princely kingdoms causing a loss of patronage for the courtesans. For these reason, the courtesans, now called the ‘nautch girls’, were forced to become mere sex workers because they needed to feed themselves and their families. These courtesans now started catering to the rich and poor simultaneously. The art and culture in their performances became significantly reduced to mere sexual acts and the culture of singing and dancing remained came under the canopy of ‘mujra’.
‘Mujrewali’ or ‘kothewali’ became generic terms for prostitutes. The thin line between the learned courtesans and lowly sex workers vanished. ‘Mujra’ became the trend. Incidentally, a ‘mujra’ when seen, has an uncanny resemblance with kathak, a classical dance form of India still common today.
The courtesans performed mujras for the British soldiers and the other men. Men who came to visit them did not care about hearing poetry or watching inciting dancing and singing, they were just interested in sex. The era of the British Raj is rightly called the dark age of these heavenly courtesans. Following this period, there came the freedom movement which acted as a renaissance for the courtesans. These women who were now just mujra dancers and sex workers were given the opportunity to work in films and music industry. People like Rukmini Devi, Kelucharan Mohapatra, and Madame Meneka refined the ‘devadasi’ dance and made it suitable to be performed on stage as classical dance and music set to suit the aesthetic conservative approach of the masses.
Moreover, the stigma associated with performing for films was considered dirty but it didn’t matter to the courtesans as they had no worries of family or in-laws. The oldest existing gramophone record of an Indian singer is that of Gauhar Jaan who was one of the living original and authentic courtesans. From ‘Baithak’ style performance to the silver screen, the art of being a courtesan now had a mass appeal. And what remains of the heavenly nymphs of the Indian courtesans is ‘mujra’ with its broken hip hop jerks amalgamated with kathak movements and item numbers played by DJ’s at weddings.
The golden era of the Indian courtesans is now gone but the culture of classical dance and music which they gifted to us must be preserved and their story must be shared and spread far and wide.
The choice of the term singing ladies, ganewali, is a considered one. This is because the term tawaif accumulated over time moralistic, value-loaded connotations which forced these golden throated, articulate and often sharp-tongued ladies into silence. When they did speak, they had to reinvent themselves through polite myths to reinforce their self-esteem which had consistently been battered by references to them as fallen and dangerous women. They had to constantly camouflage their personas, a process crucial for making them into the legends which they were.
By the end of the 19th century, ‘tawaif’ had become an impolite word not used in genteel conversation; in the popular mindset the tawaif was equated to a Whore.
It is, therefore, not difficult to understand why these women, whose patrons are often paid far more to listen to them sing or talk than for sexual favours, went into a self-apology mode in public. Ironically, though not surprisingly, little remains of the writings of these most educated women of their times. Many did write poetry, but even this seems to have been censored out of literary canon. The little that survives is not easy to find.
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