Unraveling ‘Heeramandi’: Exploring the rich history of ‘Tawaifs’

Team Udayavani, May 14, 2024, 3:12 PM IST

The unknown courtesans singing ghazals in a Mushaira, Hyderabad, India (Courtesy: Rajadeendayal.com)

‘Phool rahi sarso sakal ban‘, these lines are all over the internet and we just can’t get it out of our heads. Such is the magic of ‘Heeramandi’, a Netflix series directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

‘Heeramandi’ is a tale of the tawaifs or courtesans who were considered to be one of the most powerful individuals during the Mughal era. Contrary to popular belief, they were well-read, educated, and accomplished women of those times. Tawaifs mostly entertained the elites (Nawabs) with their dance performances (mostly Kathak) and singing. It is also said that young nawabs were sent to the tawaifs to learn ‘Tameez and Tehzeeb’ (Etiquette and manners)

During those times, young tawaifs were trained in performing arts, poetry, and literature. They were also taught social skills to cultivate patrons and retain them. Once she had mastered the necessary skills, she was introduced to the profession with a celebration called ‘missi ceremony’. In the series Heeramandi, the ceremony was labeled as ‘nath utrai’.

There were hierarchies among them too while tawaifs were at the top and also different from other street performers and prostitutes. ‘Kotha’ is the place where the tawaifs lived and performed.  They would often host meetings too at the kothas which would be presided by the senior tawaif.

File:Nautch dancer.jpg
(A Calcutta nautch dancer From: Frederic Courtland Penfield: ”East of Suez. Ceylon, India, China and Japan.” New York: The Century Co. 1907. via Wikimedia commons)

However, during the 18th century, British raj took prominence and there was a gradual decline in their livelihoods. During British rule, tawaifs in North India, Baijis in Bengal, and naikins in Goa, were collectively referred to as “nautch girls.”

As the Mughal empire declined, several tawaifs moved from Delhi to Lucknow in Oudh State. There, the nawabs supported their art. But soon, even in Lucknow, their fortunes changed.

In the 1800s, Tawaifs also played an active role in the freedom movement. Especially during the 1857 rebellion, they secretly helped the revolt by using their establishments (Kothas) as meeting places and hideouts for rebels. Those who had money even gave financial support to the cause.

However, the sepoy mutiny marked a significant shift in British rule in India. With this, the art of courtesans came to an end. The British viewed even the most talented dancing girls as immoral, and Tawaifs’ services were no longer respected.

Courtesans, once celebrated performers, were now viewed as no different from prostitutes, and their kothas, where they had entertained affluent patrons for years, were labeled as brothels.

According to Pran Nevile, the author of  Nautch Girls of India: Dancers Singers Playmates, in the late 19th century, Christian missionaries and Indian reformers began the anti-nautch movement, leading to widespread public condemnation of courtesans and dancers. As a result, many of them, facing financial crisis, resorted to sex work to survive, reinforcing the perception of their association with prostitution.

However, during this time several tawaifs then began migrating to other professions. Gauhar Jaan, was known as the queen of gramophone records. She was one of the first performers to record music on 78 rpm records in India, which was later released by the Gramophone Company of India and resulted in her being known as “the Gramophone girl” and “the first recording superstar of India”

As described in Vikram Sampath’s book “My Name is Gauhar Jaan”, Mahatma Gandhi asked Gauhar to contribute to the Swaraj Fund for the freedom movement. She agreed to organize a fundraising concert on the condition that Gandhi would attend. However, Gandhi couldn’t make it, and Gauhar Jaan sent only Rs 12,000 of the Rs 24,000 she raised.

Then there was Jaddan Bai, who ran a film production house and made movies. Her daughter Nargis later became a popular actress. Mukhtar Begum from Lahore, rose to prominence as the queen of Parsi theatre and Hindi cinema. Fatma Begum was the first woman to direct a Bollywood film and her daughter Zubeida acted in India’s first talkie ‘Alam Ara’.

Indian artist and Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi established “The Courtesan Project” with a noble mission to challenge and dismantle the social stigmas surrounding tawaifs, while simultaneously advocating for their rightful recognition and appreciation as exceptional artists. Through her initiative, Chaturvedi endeavors to honor the rich cultural heritage and artistic prowess of these marginalized individuals, striving to elevate their status and restore their dignity within society.

From nurturing the arts to being the symbol of ‘power’ and ‘grace’, tawaifs played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural and political landscape of their time. Yet, their invaluable contributions often go unrecognized.


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