Tawaifs: The unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle

The word tawaif is today used as a profanity. That wasn’t always the case. In June 1857, when Indian soldiers…

Tawaifs’ contribution to the Indian freedom struggle has been erased by history
Tawaifs’ contribution to the Indian freedom struggle has been erased by history

The word tawaif is today used as a profanity. That wasn’t always the case.

In June 1857, when Indian soldiers laid attack to Cawnpore (now Kanpur), encasing British East India Company authorities, they were joined by a mistress. Amidst the encounter, as shots zoomed around, the prostitute was seen by at any rate one observer furnished with guns.

Azeezunbai’s intriguing story finds no notice in history course books. In the event that it endures today, it is mostly in authentic reports, nearby legends, and a paper composed by Lata Singh, a partner educator at the Center for Women’s Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Experiencing these assets can resemble leafing through a flip book. Dissipated crosswise over them is an image of a lady who made a significant commitment to the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, at the bleeding edge and off camera, functioning as a source, errand person and conceivably even a schemer in the Kanpur section of the defiance.

A prostitute from Lucknow, Azeezunbai moved to Kanpur at a youthful age. There, as Singh composes, she developed near the sepoys of the British Indian Army, especially one Shamsuddin Khan. Declaration given to the British investigation into the resistance portrayed Azeezunbai as being “close with men of the second mounted force” and “in the propensity for riding” with furnished troopers on horseback.

She was likewise spotted “on horseback in male clothing embellished with decorations, furnished with a support of guns” The story of Azeezunbai is one of the many overlooked accounts of India’s concubines that were inspected amid a workshop held at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House on April 27. Tehzeeb-e Tawaif, composed by ManjariChaturvedi’s The Courtesan Project, as a team with Avid Learning and the Royal Opera House, united students of history, essayists and scientists for multi day-long symposium to examine the inheritances of India’s performing craftsmen of the eighteenth to the twentieth hundreds of years.

The specialists included Singh, student of history VeenaTalwar Oldenburg, artist Shubha Mudgal, social author Veejay Sai, film researcher Yatindra Mishra, scholastic and political theory teacher SanghamitraSarker and administrator antiquarian A Sharma.

The occasion pursued a comparative emphasis in Delhi in March and is one of numerous manners by which Chaturvedi, a Kathak artist and organizer of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, is attempting to change the contemporary view of prostitutes.

Pushed to the margins

History has broadly underestimated the voices of ladies, however even inside that worldview, India’s female performers have gotten an excessively negative criticism. Referred to differently as tawaifs in the North, devadasis in the South, baijis in Bengal and naikins in Goa, these expert vocalists and artists were named as “nautch young ladies” amid the British guideline, and their calling was conflated with prostitution in the late nineteenth century. Subsequently, their commitment to India’s traditional expressions was scoured out of the aggregate cognizance and their accounts discovered little spot, even in the edges of history.

In their greatness days, the prostitutes were at the focal point of workmanship and culture in India, capable in both music and move. Creator and history specialist PranNevile, a legitimate voice regarding the matter, drew a connection between these open performers and the apsaras of Indian folklore. In his book Nautch Girls of India: Dancers, Singers, Playmates, Nevile portrayed how the tawaifs of North India delighted in riches, influence, eminence, political access, and were viewed as experts on culture. Respectable families would send their children to them to learn tehzeeb, or manners, and “the craft of discussion”.


The tawaifs achieved their apex under the Mughal rule. “The best of the concubines, called deredartawaifs, asserted their plummet from the illustrious Mughal courts,” composed Nevile. “They shaped piece of the entourage of lords and nawabs…many of them were extraordinary artists and vocalists, who lived in solace and luxury…To be related with a tawaif was viewed as an image of status, riches, advancement and culture…no one believed her to be an awful lady or an object of pity.” There is no authoritative research on the degree to which sex was a piece of what the concubines advertised. What is clear, in any case, was that their lives couldn’t be secured by an expansive brush stroke.

These were ladies of riches and office, and any sexual relationship they may have had with benefactors was likely consensual. Besides, there were progressive systems inside the performing craftsmen, and the tawaifs were at the best, a class unmistakable from road exhibitions and prostitutes.TheTehzeeb-e-Tawaif symposium at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai. With the landing of the British started a progressive devastation of their occupations. Their imperial support wound down as the domain under the East India Company developed, yet it wasn’t until the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny that the foundation was disintegrated.

At this point, the Mughal realm had just been in decrease for quite a long time. Deserting Delhi, numerous tawaifs had moved to Lucknow in Oudh State, where the nawabs still upheld their specialty. In any case, it didn’t take long for their fortunes to turn even in Lucknow. The British added Oudh State in 1856, and all of a sudden the tawaifs wound up in a perfect vantage when the uprising began fermenting. Discontent against the East India Company was developing, and the tawaifs reacted by assuming a functioning job in the revolt from in the background.

Their foundations assembled kothas progressed toward becoming conference zones and refuges for revolutionaries. The individuals who had amassed riches given radicals monetary help. The power and impact they applied are itemized in Veena Talwar Oldenberg’s essay Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow.

Her examination of metro charge records from 1858 to 1877 demonstrates that the tawaifs were in the most noteworthy expense section, with the “biggest individual earnings of any in the city”. The article additionally takes note of the deliberate crackdown on the organization following the insurrection. Oldenburg composes: “The prostitutes’ names were likewise on arrangements of property: (houses, plantations, assembling and retail foundations for nourishment and extravagance things) seized by British authorities for their demonstrated contribution in the attack of Lucknow and the insubordination to British principle in 1857. These ladies, however plainly noncombatants, were punished for their impelling of and financial help to the dissidents. On one more show, somewhere in the range of twenty pages in length, are recorded the crown jewels of war seized from one lot of ‘female condos’ in the royal residence and patio nursery complex called the QaisarBagh, where a portion of the ousted ex-King Wajid Ali Shah’s three hundred or more consorts lived when it was seized by the British.

It is a noteworthy rundown, persuasively reminiscent of an advantaged presence: gold and silver adornments studded with valuable stones, weaved cashmere fleece and brocade shawls, bejeweled tops and shoes, silver-, gold-, jade-, and golden took care of fly whisks, silver cutlery, jade challises, plates, spittoons, huqqahs and silver utensils for serving and putting away sustenance and drink, and important decorations.”

Amid the symposium in Mumbai in April, Oldenberg shed all the more light on the British striking back against prostitutes. “They got warrants for [searching the kothas] and would demolish them, break the furnishings, pull down the drapes,” she said. “That is the manner by which the tawaif culture was really, physically, dissected.”

Decline of the art

In the amnesic records of history, another little-refreshing name is Begum Hazrat Mahal. The spouse of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, Hazrat Mahal was, as per a few records, a concubine before marriage. Amid the uprising, while her better half was in a state of banishment, revolts under her initiative quickly caught control of Lucknow and her child, BirjisQadr, was named the lord. At the point when British powers recovered Lucknow in 1858, Hazrat Mahal looked for haven in Nepal and lived there until her demise in 1879.

Over in Cawnpore, there were mumbles of another prostitute assuming a job in the 1857 disobedience, regarding the notorious Bibighar slaughter, in which in excess of 100 hostage British ladies and kids were killed. Some accounts distinguish the schemer as Hussaini, who Singh accepts was a concubine lower in the pecking order of tawaifs. She composes that separated from Hussaini and Azeezunbai, “there will undoubtedly be several anecdotes about the job of these ladies in the Rebellion”, the greater part of which have gone unrecorded. She makes reference to, for example, “unverified records of young ladies rampaging in a fight with British warriors”.

The insurrection was a defining moment for the British domain in India – and the passing sound for mistresses’ craft. The organization came legitimately under the British crown, carrying with it the Victorian-period ethical quality venture, which set a premium on ladies’ virtue and family life. As open entertainers, mistresses were likened with whores and their kothas, where they had engaged well off men for a considerable length of time, were marked as houses of ill-repute. Laws, for example, the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, which was initially planned to check the spread of venereal ailments among British troops, enabled the Crown to screen, control and smother the income of mistresses by clubbing them with whores and exposing them to exacting guidelines.

Christian teachers and Indian reformers propelled the counter nautch development in the late nineteenth century, and general assessment began to weigh vigorously against concubines and artists. With their vocations destroyed, some of them swung to sex work to bring home the bacon, further solidifying their relationship with prostitution. When mass protection from British standard started through the Swadeshi and non-collaboration developments during the 1900s, the economic wellbeing and monetary position of most prostitutes was a pale shadow of their clout in 1857. All things considered, instances of their help for, and help to, the patriot cause can be found in verifiable records. GauharJaan, a commended prostitute who found tremendous accomplishment as an account craftsman during the 1900s, was drawn nearer by Mahatma Gandhi to add to the Swaraj Fund to help the opportunity development.

She consented to arrange a raising support show relying on the prerequisite that Gandhi would go to her presentation. Gandhi was unfit to make it, and Gauhar Jaan sent just Rs 12,000 of the Rs 24,000 she figured out how to raise, as VikramSampath composes in My Name is GauharJaan, his book on the artist’s life.

Amid the Gandhi-drove non-collaboration development from 1920 to 1922, a gathering of prostitutes in Varanasi framed the Tawaif Sabha to help the freedom battle. As indicated by Singh, Husna Bai, who led the sabha, asked individuals from the gathering to wear iron shackles rather than decorations as an image of challenge and to blacklist remote products. Singh is archiving the job of tawaifs amid the later phases of the patriot development in an up and coming book.

Amritlal Nagar’s Ye Kothewalian (1958), a record of the life of tawaifs, incorporated a letter from a concubine, Vidyadhar Bai, on her gathering with Gandhi in Varanasi. On his recommendation, she composed, a few mistresses had chosen to begin their melodic exhibitions with versions of patriot tunes. One such tune composed by her, Chun ChunKePhool Le Lo, was incorporated into the letter.

That tune lives on today – it was incorporated into artist Shubha Mudgal’s 2008 album Swadheenta Samar Geet, a accumulation of tunes from the opportunity movement. The music was created by her significant other, Aneesh Pradhan. In 2011, the couple worked together with theater executive Sunil Shanbag on a melodic drama Stories in a Song, one scene of which reproduced Gandhi’s experience with the Tawaif Sabha. Mudgal stated, “The possibility of craftsmen requesting political and social change” was what attracted her to Vidyadhar Bai’s tune.

“[The song] is a significant update this isn’t something new being finished. The political class was incorporating them in exchanges on an all the more long haul premise and not similarly as a race procedure. They were being approached to participate in the development and in open life at a grassroots dimension.” In different pieces of the nation as well, previous mistresses and whores tried to take part in the opportunity development. Gandhi met a gathering of whores in Barisal (in present-day Bangladesh) and Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh), who communicated the craving to join the Indian National Congress.

Gandhi encouraged them to surrender sex work and begin turning the charkha. “My entire heart is with these sisters. Be that as it may, I am unfit to distinguish myself with the strategies received at Barisal,” he wrote in an article in Young India, his week by week publication,in June 1925. “…I am solidly of feeling that, inasmuch as they proceed with the life of disgrace, it isn’t right to acknowledge gifts or administrations from them or to choose them as agents or to urge them to move toward becoming individuals from the Congress.” This social ostracisation may have confined the degree of tawaifs’ inclusion in the opportunity battle, says Singh. “Indeed, even the working class ladies who were taking an interest in the development said they would prefer not to be seen around them [the courtesans].

Being with them [and] being seen with them was additionally making nervousness among the white collar class bhadramahila [educated woman].” These different stories, when assembled, make a harsh image of the manners by which concubines endeavored to add to the opportunity battle. Chaturvedi says a considerable lot of these accounts have been lost since “we never believed that tawaifs were sufficiently significant to report.

In any case, [the stories] are very outstanding in the oral account”. Chaturvedi’s The Courtesan Project has been attempting to expose these commitments through move exhibitions and workshops like the one in Mumbai.

She is additionally attempting to solidify all her examination through a documentation venture, which will include a book and a web interface. “We grabbed away everything from them, their music, move, verse,” she said. “In any case, we’ve never offered credit to them. We should regard them. We should think about them, and I would like to have the option to do this in my lifetime.”