‘Tawaifs’ : The Unsung Female Musicians of India
The tawaifs as they were called, played a pivotal role in India’s independence struggle against the British.
The word ‘tawaif’ carries a bad rap in today’s times. But that wasn’t always the case.
Today a tawaif is used to depict either a prostitute or the ‘other woman’ or a ‘woman of low morals’ who breaks families for her personal benefit. And unfortunately, in modern times, their portrayal as seductive girls, singing and dancing to double meaning songs meant to titillate the customer has further damaged their reputation
Unfortunately, the reality of their profession is far different from their reputation. In pre-independent India, they were artists of the highest caliber, trained in different forms of music, and enjoying an elevated status in society.
The tawaifs were not only well respected but were also strong-willed independent women who owned lands, properties and were one of the highest taxpayers in British India.
But their only mistake was that they went against the British in the Indian rebellion of 1857 and the British made them pay a terrible price for it by destroying their reputations and making them prostitutes for the British soldiers.
"Dancing and singing girls" as the British called them were the primary recipients of their wrath as they confiscated all their properties, labeled them as prostitutes, and send them to British garrisons to ‘service’ the troops there. Overnight a rich cultural heritage of music and dance was reduced to flesh trade as their ‘kothas’ (dancing halls) were degenerated to brothels run by pimps.
Today, forgotten and pushed away in the dusty annals of history as women of disrepute, no many know that they played a stellar, pivotal role in India’s freedom struggle against the British.
The story of the tawaifs
Unlike other freedom fighters whose names prominently feature in India’s history, the names of tawaifs hardly feature in any recognized works and are mostly denigrated to footnotes as an afterthought. One such name that comes, again and again, is Azeezunbai. She was a tawaif in Kanpur, who fought against the British in the 1857 uprising and was later executed by the British.
That Azeezunbai was fearless would be an understatement. She was instrumental in ensuring that the Indian rebels get the right information about the British movements and can be prepared with their strategies. She was said to have deep contacts within the British army that helped her to spy details and pass them on to the rebels.
And during the peak time, her house or ‘kotha’ was the meeting point for rebels. She had created groups of nurses using her own money to attend to the wounds of the rebels and also distribute arms and ammunition to far-flung areas.
She not only played a supporting role but also led from the front, traveling on horseback, dressed in military attire, and armed with pistols. She was also solely responsible for motivating the army and leading them to initial victories against the British.
But unfortunately, she was the only one in such case who was noticed. As per Lata Singh, a professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, a lot of tawaifs are not even known now by names as she writes.
“There are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of women like Azizun in the Rebellion, but most of these seem to have gone unrecorded. In Lucknow, their role is documented as ‘covert’ and ‘generous financiers’ of the Rebellion.”
And the interesting thing to remember was that the tawaifs were all strong-willed independent women who funded the revolution using their own money and also employed other people who can help raise funds for the revolutionaries. They were not just repositories of art and culture but they were the powerhouses who drove India’s freedom struggle in full fervor.
After the rebellion was crushed, the British took terrible revenge on them by completely obliterating their names and reputations from history. A culture was destroyed and an era of classical dancing and singing was deliberately smudged with prostitution, flesh trade, and lewdity that unfortunately exists even today.
Even today things have not changed
Nearly 300 years later, only the audience of the (remaining) tawaifs has changed. Instead of knowledgeable patrons appreciating classical music and dance, the tawaifs of today dance to lewd Bollywood songs and suggestively gyrating moments catering to a male audience who is either too drunk or debauched.
Most of them have left the profession and the few who are still there are struggling to identify their rich legacy that has got obliterated over the years.
As Shubha Mudgal a famous Hindustani classical singer rightly says about their lost art.
“There is an unjust stigma attached to them – a stigma that continues to haunt the daughters and sons of courtesans. What we are left with then are gramophone records of their music, history (oral and written), and questions about how their legacy ought to be remembered.”
The tawaifs deserve to get our respect because they are no less than the other heroes of our Independence struggle against the British.
About the author
I am an executive who likes spending time reading and writing about almost everything under the sun.I love writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and creativity where boundaries are blurred, and possibilities are immense.