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Portrait of Manjari Chaturvedi a Sufi Kathak Indian dancer
Portrait of Manjari Chaturvedi a Sufi Kathak Indian dancer

Discrimination Against Courtesans is a Colonial Holdover in India

One musician is trying to reclaim the history of powerful female artists on the subcontinent.

Words: Asma Hafiz
Pictures: Monica Dawar

On March 19, 1999, Manjari Chaturvedi, a Sufi Kathak dancer — a unique form that fuses Indian classical dance’s movements and rhythm with Sufi mysticism — met one of India’s last surviving courtesans, Zarina Begum, during an event in Lucknow’s Taj Hotel. Chaturvedi danced to one of the songs as Zarina Begum performed live. It was a memorable encounter, but afterward, they lost touch. It was a decade later, in the summer of 2009, when Chaturvedi performed in a concert called “An Ode to the Courtesan” that the two reunited in India’s capital, New Delhi. 

“I did this concert at a time when nobody wanted the word courtesan to be associated with Kathak. They still don’t want it. There are very senior dancers who come from a different generation where they did not want to acknowledge it to gain respect. I don’t see a point in why we should not talk about these women with respect today,” said Chaturvedi.

The concert was a hit and people walked up to Chaturvedi, showering praises. Begum’s musical compositions left a mark on Chaturvedi who came to adore her. “It was at the time when I got interested in the compositions of courtesans not the lives of the courtesans because till then I did not know much about them,” added Chaturvedi. 

Historically, courtesans, otherwise known as “tawaifs” flourished as entertainers, captivating the noble classes of the Indian subcontinent with their talents. These women were engaged in courtly and ceremonial roles, often as dancers and singers. Notably, historical records reveal that a subset of these women willingly contributed taxes, a testament to their esteemed position. Veena Oldenburg in her essay “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow” writes, “They [courtesans] were classed under the occupational category of ‘dancing and singing girls,’ and as if it was not surprise enough to find women in the tax records, it was even more remarkable that they were in the highest tax bracket, with the largest individual incomes of any in the city.”

Saba Dewan, an Indian filmmaker and author of the book “Tawaifnama,” started researching the tawaif culture in 2001. She explained how the term “tawaif” emerged relatively late, around the 18th century. However, female performers have been an integral facet of Indian society since ancient times, dating back to the Mauryan era, 322-185 BCE. Unlike in contemporary society, historically, courtesans’ roles were not deemed disgraceful or morally objectionable, as they were not synonymous with sex workers. “Tawaifs were recognized and given salaries as accomplished musicians. They had an identity as artists. Also, yes, they did take on lovers at their own discretion. That was their prerogative also,” added Dewan.

Portrait of Manjari Chaturvedi a Sufi Kathak Indian dancer
Portrait of Manjari Chaturvedi, a Sufi Kathak Indian dancer, on December 5, 2018. Photo by Monica Dawar.
The Courtesan Project

As Chaturvedi delved into the history of Kathak and sought to uncover the names of courtesans, she was taken aback by the absence of any female performers’ names prior to India’s independence. A decade ago, she founded the Sufi Kathak Foundation, which became a conduit for extending pensions and medical aid to senior artists. Begum sent a pension request to the organization, which was quickly approved and continued for several years. 

During this time, Begum experienced partial paralysis following a stroke that confined her to bed. When Chaturvedi visited her, she found the aging artist living with her daughter and son-in-law in a tin-roofed chamber with a single window. Tears welled in Chaturvedi’s eyes, and in a tender moment, she inquired if there was any way to bring the aging artist comfort. Begum’s simple yet heartfelt desire was to grace the stage, adorned in a Banarasi saree, and sing her heart out. This poignant plea became the catalyst for Chaturvedi, solidifying her determination to organize a grand event in honor of Begum. 

“That became the aggressive start of the Courtesan Project. I came back after visiting her in Lucknow and told my team that I want to do a good program for her. When I reached out to people for sponsorships, they refused on my face saying they could not imagine honoring a tawaif. I could only manage to get venue sponsorship and I decided to go with it,” said Chaturvedi. 

“I wish for a future where if someone is referred to as a ‘tawaif,’ it signifies a person of refined elegance. Witnessing this transformation is my dream.”

Manjari Chaturvedi

The Courtesan Project documents the noteworthy historical role of “tawaifs” in the art world. This endeavor serves as a platform to raise societal awareness about the lives of courtesans and shed light on the injustices they faced due to discriminatory norms. While the project hosts performances, it also highlights the invaluable contributions of Tawaifs through dance exhibitions and informative seminars.  

Colonial Discrimination 

Dewan explains how the image of courtesans was tarnished. In the early 19th century, British missionaries arrived with distinct moral beliefs, viewing women in strict categories of either virtuous or immoral. This perspective is evident in accounts from European travelers, particularly missionaries, who often labeled these women as prostitutes. However, following the 1857 mutiny and India’s direct governance by the British crown, a deliberate shift in policy occurred. 

“Basically, it was a white man’s burden. You paint India and Indian society as so decadent and so debauched and so unfit to govern themselves that they had to be governed by the British. There are so many accounts of how tawaifs played a role in the revolt of 1857 and how many provided help and assistance to the soldiers who were part of the revolt. After the 1857 mutiny got over, people who were seen as accomplices were punished. So, there was a rage against these women,” said Dewan.

Colonial laws also contributed to their degradation. “The imposition of the contagious diseases regulations and heavy fines and penalties on the courtesans for their role in the rebellion signaled the gradual debasement of an esteemed cultural institution into common prostitution,” Oldenburg wrote. 

Enforced by this legislation, the British exercised authority over and restricted the income of courtesans, branding them with the term “prostitutes.” The new middle class, who were English educated, started looking at the courtesans as shameful figures who had to be removed from Indian society.

Dewan explains how that process was then carried to its logical conclusion, post-independence when tawaifs were squarely equated with sex workers. Over the century public spaces were routinely “cleansed” of the visible presence of women like tawaifs. And then music too had to be, “cleansed of the tawaifs,” even though Thumri, Dadra, and other classical musical styles had been created, and were exclusively performed by tawaifs.

Portrait of Manjari Chaturvedi a Sufi Kathak Indian dancer
Portrait of Manjari Chaturvedi, a Sufi Kathak Indian dancer, on November 18, 2015. Photo by Monica Dawar.

At the core of the Courtesan Project, Chaturvedi’s primary mission is to redefine three significant terms: “tawaif,” “mujra” (an Indigenous dance form in India), and “kotha” (a term linked with brothel). Chaturvedi contends that these words have been misappropriated as derogatory labels, despite their historical association with an esteemed art form. Throughout her decade-long journey of working around the tawaif culture, she has been hoping and pushing to witness a shift in societal perception, where people recognize and honor the contributions of courtesans.

“I wish for a future where if someone is referred to as a ‘tawaif,’ it signifies a person of refined elegance. Witnessing this transformation is my dream,” added Chaturvedi.

Chaturvedi highlighted that history has often been shaped by male perspectives, resulting in the erasure of women’s contributions. In the context of Indian art history, female artists have not only been excluded but also unfairly portrayed negatively. The significant role of tawaifs, for instance, was overlooked, leading to a lack of formal documentation. Their history primarily survives through oral traditions and narratives.

Fulfilling Begum’s wish, in 2014, Chaturvedi organized a symposium and performance in New Delhi which featured Begum. Cloaked in a pristine maroon Banarasi silk saree, Begum graced the stage while seated in a wheelchair. The fusion of Begum’s timeless vocals and Chaturvedi’s intricate, graceful dance breathed life into a forgotten era, entrancing the audience.

With tears in her eyes, Chaturvedi related, “It was at that time I came to know that she owned only one saree and she wore it to the show.”

Asma Hafiz

Asma Hafiz is an independent journalist based out of India.

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