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Tea Leaves

Revenge of the courtesan

Young Indians seek validation in tales of the 'tawaifs'

Nautch girl dancing with musicians accompanying in Calcutta, India. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Alternatively shunned and romanticized by Indian society, tawaifs -- also called courtesans, dancing girls or prostitutes -- are making a comeback in Indian media and literature. A raft of new books such as "Tawaifnama" by Saba Dewan and "Faint Promise of Rain" by Anjali Mitter Duva is reminding readers how much Bollywood -- and India -- owe to these storied entertainers.

Tawaifs once represented the apogee of Indian glamor and artistry, entertaining elite audiences with dance, song and witty repartee. But radio and film put paid to most of these salon entertainers. A few lucky women thrived in the new media, but most 20th century tawaifs faded into obscurity, or worse. Indian director Satyajit Ray brought their seedy decadence to the screen in his 1958 film "The Music Room," while Merchant Ivory's "The Courtesans of Bombay" (1983) showed the sordid state to which they had sunk.

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