I finally watched Umrao Jaan, and now I am all interested in Tawaif’s. Hopefully you are too!
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on Indian culture and society, or Indian history. This is just bits and pieces I have picked up and a discussion of how these women are presented on film.
A beautiful refined woman, filled with “tehzeeb” (refinement, etiquette) and “tameez” (morals, propriety, judgement). She is an expert in multiple art forms, classical dance and singing and writing. She is a master at one in particular, known as a dancer or a singer or a writer above all. The men who matter in the city come to her Kotha (brothel) and watch her perform and provide lavish gifts in appreciation. Young men of high class will come to her to be educated in appreciation of fine art and correct behavior. Older men who respect her might ask her opinion or advice on complex questions of diplomacy, finances, all matter of topics. Outside, the common people know of her. They gather to hear her sing and hope to catch a glimpse of her dance through the high walls and guards. On those rare occasions when her carriage goes through the street, children will chase looking for a glimpse of her face.
While other women and most men were illiterate, she is the most educated person (man or woman) in society. While other men and women scrabbled for food and survival, she is surrounded by crazed luxuries. It’s a wonderful life. But it doesn’t last forever, and it isn’t the life of every Tawaif.
The Tawaif’s at the top of their profession, they had money and respect. But the Tawaifs farther down had to scramble for both. In the smaller Kothas, you would see a tired woman going through her dance routine for small merchants who spent small amounts. The fancy carpets and elegant statues hid a hardscrabble existence behind closed doors. If you were lucky, you made enough money to retire once dancing got too hard for you. If you were less lucky, you may move on to a career as a “madame”, managing and taking a cut from your daughters. And if you were unlucky, you would dance and dance far into an age when it caused you pain and difficulty and clients were harder and harder to find. And if you were very unlucky, your dancing and other art was so inferior that you had to regularly supplement your income with sex work until you eventually were no longer considered a refined Tawaif and become another woman selling her body on the street corner.
Being a Tawaif is something you are raised to from childhood, there is no other option for you. Young women were either adopted/purchased into Kothas or born into them. Rigorous training in dance, poetry, music was life long. This is a great advantage of the Tawaif, they aren’t children thrown into sex work with no other abilities. A Tawaif can do many things, sex is just one of them. This is also why they are such a fascinating topic for films, a young Tawaif has already been stained so far as society is concerned merely be being raised in a brothel. And she is beautiful, elegant, talented. But she is not yet necessarily introduced to sex work. It is an odd betwixt and between position, the fallen woman who hasn’t fallen yet.
A Tawaif has a grace period between her missi ceremony that marks her debut and her first sexual experience. She is now officially a Tawaif, she has performed in public for men for money. This has marked her so far as society is concerned. But she has not yet lost her virginity. A Tawaif’s virginity is extremely valuable and (obviously) is only available once. Her sponsor (mother, aunt, foster mother) will bargain for the best possible sale of this valuable item. And the more performances she gives, the longer she is on the market, the higher the value. Since a Tawaif is more than a sex worker, there is also a concern with making sure that the sale of the virginity does not limit her abilities in other areas. An abusive partner, a brutal partner, or even a possessive partner, this is not good. Ideally the virginity will go for a very high price to someone of a very high class and refinement, whose attentions will serve to increase the value of the Tawaif over time not lower it.
All Tawaifs have the missi ceremony and the sale of the virginity. But after that, their lives can go in very different directions. It can be as simple as a greedy thoughtless sponsor selling her to a bad patron who breaks her and stunts her artistic growth. Or it can simply be a matter of her not being very good. Her virginity does not fetch a high price or a rich patron, she keeps performing but does not gain additional notice, and she drops down to a lower level of performer instead of rising up.
Some Tawaifs, after that initial virginity sale, might never need to turn to sex work again. Or might always keep that same first patron. But that is very very rare. More often, even the highest level Tawaifs would have a handful of patrons in their lives. Tawaifs can make a living simply by performing, and not just within Kothas. They would be hired for private parties by the wealthy of the city, men and women could watch together at these events. And their private performances in their homes would have an expected entrance fee of a certain gift. But in addition, it is good to have one recognized man in your life as protector and patron. Perhaps a king who keeps you close to him and travels with you by his side. Or perhaps a very wealthy merchant who visits your home no more than once a month. But someone, some official man who can provide a steady reliable income and (equally important) keep you from being importuned by other men who see you as “available”.
Tawaif culture was at its height in North India during the time of the Mughals. The British, starting in the 1850s, began to attempt to kill this culture. They saw Tawaifs as merely prostitutes, a symbol of the weakness and evil of the Mughal regime. If you read British novels from this era, they describe the Tawaif as exotically beautiful, erotic, powerful, etc. There is no discussion of her artistry and her role as the keeper of culture.
Being a Tawaif is something that is passed down mother to daughter. The British may have tried to kill the culture and keep it from spreading, but it wasn’t just a “culture”, it was families. And these woman and their daughters needed a place to go. In the early 1900s, there were still plenty of Tawaifs practicing their trade in north Indian cities. They no longer had the respect of the powerful, but they still danced and sang and wrote for those who made their way to the red light district. But the world was changing, live performances were going away as radio and records made them available to everyone. Tawaifs had to move with the times, the singers began to record songs and work in the radio. The dancers started giving large public performances, making money from sales of hundreds of tickets instead of hundreds from one wealthy man. And they could always teach, Indian society was changing, “Indian” culture and art was on the rise as part of the Independence movement. The Tawaif dance and song could now be taught to “respectable” woman. But that did not make Tawaifs respectable.
The Tawaif identity is a confusing one. It is something that comes with training, not birth. If a young girl is kidnapped and sold into a brothel, or taken there by her mother and handed over, she is not yet a Tawaif. She can be “rescued” with only a slight stain. But if she is kidnapped and handed over and spends three years learning dance and singing and all the rest, then she is a Tawaif, permanently stained. On the other hand, if a Tawaif marries and leaves her profession (not actually that uncommon), her daughter who is raised outside of the Kothas and not taught dancing or singing or other skills is still somewhat stained.
In a way, it is empowering. You are a Tawaif not because of birth or because of the status of your virginity, but because of what you know and what you do. But on the other hand, as time moved forward, knowing those things and doing those things became an obstacle you had to overcome, your skills no longer had value because they were considered “evil”. And thus more and more Tawaifs either fell back on pure sex work, or attempted to make a meager living in respectable ways. And many of them ended up flocking to the new film industry.
Nargis comes from a Tawaif family. Her mother was a trained singer in the Tawaif tradition, supposedly Nargis’ father was a doctor who married her mother and then left her. Her mother came to Bombay and became a successful respected artist in the film industry. Her daughter was sent to regular school but also trained in performing skills and began working full time as an actress at age 14. And gained her first public lover and admirer at age 18.
This is a story we know, but I suspect there are many similar stories we do not know. The film industry was a place where the Tawaifs could come and be respected as artists, their work was valued not just their bodies. But there were still parts of their lives that were different. The Tawaifs were the heads of their households, any man was there to support them and not the other way around. And the men were transient, not the steady single husband of other women. Their sons were given education and advantages to grow up and be respectable men. Their daughters were trained to be performers like their mothers and were sent out for their public performances at a young age, like their mothers. It is rumored that Nargis’ mother also sold her virginity, as had always been done in their family. I don’t really believe that, but it is certainly clear that she handled the negotiations around Nargis’ first film in the way a virginity sale would have been handled in the past. She made sure her daughter was guided by an experienced director who cared for her and would give her the best possible start.
These women helped found the Hindi film industry and the film industry gave back by telling their stories. There is a particular kind of Tawaif tale that is told over and over again through to today. A young girl who is born or sold into the life. She is talented and intelligent and special. But the sadness of a Tawaif is that while her skills and body are appreciated, her heart and soul are not. Not even by the people who raised her.
Dil Aashna Hai is an interesting new age take on the Tawaif story. Our heroine Divya Bharti is a dancer raised in a Kotha. Her mother dies and she is sad but also confused because her mother confesses as she dies that Divya is not her biological child. She has the freedom to live in the brothel and reject the advances of suitors she does not want, but she still must put up with those advances. Merely by living there, by being raised there, she is seen as available. Merely by dancing in public (not sex work, just dancing) she is seen as not good enough for a respectable man to marry. And at the same time, these “respectable” men will pay money to watch her perform, even hire her to add class to their events. All of this could be set in Lucknow in 1830, but instead it is in Bombay in 1992. Divya was kidnapped from an orphanage and sold to a brothel, and now she dances at parties and nightclubs for rich people who enjoy her dancing but do not want her real person. When she is finally reunited with her biological parents, they are horrified at her story, Again, she has not actually worked as a sex worker. And there is no clear evidence that her adoptive mother was abusive. But merely being raised in a brothel and dancing in public is horrifying to respectable people.
Dil Aashna Hai is a little different because it is modern, but the same story is told over and over again in films, especially the “Muslim Socials” that were popular in the early years of Hindi film. Our Tawaif heroine is refined and beautiful and just launched in the brothels. Our hero falls in love with her, but society is against them. He must protect her from having her virginity sold, he must defend her from society that dismisses her, and she must deal with the inner misery of her life.
I believe in that inner misery. Part of it made up, certainly, is included in these plots simply to teach girls that it is always better to be “good” than “bad”. Tawaif’s get education, some degree of sexual freedom, nice clothes, jewelry, all kinds of good things. And some of them get to marry a nice man and have children and a normal life (once their career is over. And maybe that man doesn’t stick around and ends up marrying someone else. And almost certainly that man is not as rich and powerful as her patrons were). Telling young girls “booooo, you don’t want this!” is a tool to keep them happy with their small lives. But part of it is also true.
A Tawaif is raised and trained by people who see her to some degree as a commodity. Her training is to up her value in the marketplace. And the men she is with, although they may be kind and understanding and even truly love her, they see her as a commodity too because she is something they have purchased. Ultimately it is a lonely life. You are living with your co-workers, and befriending your clients. There is no part of your life that is not work related. And because of that, there is no part of your life that is really secure. Your patron may get married and be forced to stop seeing you, your Madame may start promoting a new girl, or your best friend may start competing with you for clients, your voice or looks or legs may go and then no one will want you. It can all far apart so easily. That is the fear that traces through the classic Tawaif movies, comes from the woman who worked on these movies who saw that fear in their mothers or grandmothers or within themselves.
And that is the fear we still see among actresses today. The line between an up and coming actress hired to dance for a millionaire’s party and a Tawaif is very small. Without a patron (a public boyfriend or father or someone else), you are seen as available and potentially looking for a patron. Your art is respected by your fellow artists, but is also seen as an element to increase your value in the marketplace of the sex trade. The reality is that (I think) very few actresses supplement their income with sex for pay, or try to help their career through sex for favors. But every actress must deal with that stigma, with the lingering idea that a woman who performs in public is already damaged simply because of her performance. She has lost any safe place in society the moment she steps on stage.