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Tawaifs: Their Descent and the First War of Independence

This essay is excerpted from a larger paper written by Juhi Dhruva for the course, Women Society and Changing India

Juhi Dhruva

31 August, 2023 | 6m read

“Mohe panghat pe nandlal ched gayo re,

Mori nazuk kalaiyan marod gayo re

Mohe panghat pe nandlal ched gayo re,

Mohe panghat pe…”

Everyone has heard these famous lines from the song “Mohe Panghat Pe Nandlal” from the film Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Most assume this song was written for the film, however, history suggests otherwise. Archival records show this song was first sung by Indubala, a well-known Bengali actress and singer and student of the famous tawaif, Gauhar-Jaan. Tawaif is a word that today has become synonymous with that of a prostitute, or a naachnewali/gaanewali. Did the word tawaif actually mean this or is this a construct that was created as a result of widespread Victorian morality in colonial India? Who were these women and what did they do? This essay attempts to understand tawaifs and dispel the negative connotations surrounding this esteemed set of performers, their practice and the role they played in the Indian freedom struggle.

The word, tawaif, comes from the Urdu word, tawaf. Tawaf means to circle around, or circumambulation. The ones who circled around while performing came to be known as tawaifs since Kathak involved a lot of spinning. Tawaifs were flagbearers of culture, music, etiquette, and dance. They were accomplished in the arts, enthralled the nobility with their work, gave a voice to poets like Mirza Ghalib and Daagh Dehlvi, and took them to the courts. They were handsomely rewarded for their work, lived like nobility, and tutored young nawabs and begums in the arts and etiquette. In a patriarchal world, the tawaifs of India wielded power and influence that most men could not even dream of. British records suggest that these women were a part of the highest tax-paying bracket of Indian citizens and organised concerts that only the wealthy could afford. Their forced descent from the wealthiest to artists scrapping for money is an interesting example of how colonialism ruptured the cultural veins of India.

While there is emerging academia on the fact that women have largely been ignored in records documenting freedom fighters, the ones on the fringes have been disregarded even more. The tawaifs were as much a part of the struggle as were the soldiers, the nawabs, and the common folk but their stories lie hidden. One such story that still lives in Kanpur is the story of Azeezunbai in the Seige of Cawnpore in 1857. As one of the most prominent tawaifs of her time, Azeenzubai, like her contemporaries wielded great political and societal influence. Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan’s writings on her form the basis of what we know of these women. In his account, Trevelyan calls her ‘the Demoiselle Threonine of the Rebellion’ (Pati 99) and records that she, ‘appeared on horseback amidst a group of her admirers, dressed in the uniform of her favoured regiment, armed with pistols, decorated with medals’ (Pati 99).

Azeenzubai was close to the sepoys, particularly to Shamsuddin Khan, who repeatedly visited her. Her kotha was a meeting point for the conspirators of the revolt and she in fact was one of the critical conspirators owning to her proximity to Khan and Nana Sahib. Her role is seen as that of informer and messenger. Some accounts also mention that Azeezun had formed a group of women, who fearlessly went around cheering the men in arms, attending to their wounds administering medicines, and distributing arms and ammunition. Begum Hazrat Mahal, the wife of Nawab of Audh was also a courtesan. Her role in the revolt although celebrated in history, discounts the information of her being a tawaif. There would have been many such accounts but there is only so much that has come to notice.

After the 1857 uprising when the British gained firmer control, they took various measures to consolidate their power. Among these measures was the confiscation of property from the locals. Additionally, some of the most attractive tawaifs, or courtesans, were forced to serve British troops. These women, who were primarily non-combatants, were dealt with harshly. They faced heavy fines, had their apartments raided, and were robbed of their wealth.

The British recognised the influence and power held by the tawaifs. Historical accounts even suggest that these women had economically supported wars when kings needed funds. However, the British understood that they needed to handle the tawaifs tactfully. The discovery that one in every four soldiers had contracted venereal diseases made them realise the need to control prostitution to reduce mortality rates. While the intention was to regulate sex workers, the British also classified the tawaifs under the same category for ease of taxation, subjecting them to scrutiny.

The implementation of the Contagious Diseases Act aimed to curb the spread of sexual diseases but had a negative impact on the tawaifs. Sex workers and tawaifs were subjected to sudden and mandatory medical examinations if suspected of having sexual disorders. Infected individuals were forcibly confined in “lock hospitals” until they were deemed disease-free. This further marginalised the tawaifs and created a stigma around seeking their services due to the associated medical examinations. Consequently, their profession experienced a decline.

Motivated by Victorian morality and nationalist sentiments, reformers viewed nautch as immoral, degrading to women, and a symbol of cultural decay under British influence. The anti-nautch movement aimed to abolish or reform the practice of nautch in 19th and early 20th-century India. Efforts included social ostracisation, discouraging patronage, and legislation. The movement’s impact varied, with remnants of the tawaif tradition persisting. It reflected a complex interplay of moral, social, and nationalist perspectives, reshaping the cultural landscape. The rise of a middle class aspiring to Victorian values also contributed, to distancing themselves from tawaif culture. The clash between Victorian morals and tawaifs resulted in social stigma, state regulations, changes in patronage, and the rise of middle-class morality, leading to the decline of tawaifs

(Juhi Dhruva is from the YIF class of 2023. She is currently taking time off to work on some personal writing projects that she has always wanted to work on. She is always dancing, sometimes with her feet and sometimes with her pen)

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