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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.

I discovered the magic of the tawaifs on a visit to Bombay 40 years ago when I was given a pirated recording of Begum Akhtar, a tawaif who succeeded in radio and film. Indian friends used to express surprise that anyone, let alone a foreigner, took an interest in these out-of-fashion entertainers. On more recent visits to India, though, I have found I can hardly open a newspaper without encountering a story about them. Searching for explanations for this newfound enthusiasm, I found three.

Firstly, Tawaifs are role models for independent women. In a society that encourages young wives to treat their husbands with deference, it is a revelation to learn how the tawaifs engaged with powerful men as equals. They were not shrinking violets, like the heroines of many Bollywood romantic comedies. They could give or withhold love as they pleased. They earned respect not as wives or mothers, but because of their talent and virtuosity. "I don't think we should glamorize them too much," a gifted amateur dancer told me, "but they deserve great respect for what they achieved."

Secondly, the history of the tawaifs exemplifies an acceptance of multi-faith India. One Bollywood producer, decrying Hindu nationalist calls for the Taj Mahal to be turned from a Muslim shrine into a Hindu temple, recalled the warm intercommunal collaboration that used to exist in Bollywood, a legacy of the tawaifs. They came from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds and entertained both communities without distinction. As an example, Hari Singh, the last Hindu Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, patronized the Muslim tawaif Malka Pukhraj. Those were simpler, kinder days, especially for Kashmir.

The tawaifs' music and dancing are a fusion of Indian and Muslim-Iranian themes, and their poetry is rich with Iranian and Sufi Muslim allusions. Though this archaic language is hard to understand, YouTubers and dedicated internet sites offer translations of classic tawaif songs for a youthful audience that appreciates this Hindu-Muslim fusion. Tawaifs represent a spirit of religious tolerance that liberal Indians like my Bollywood friend warn is being lost.

Finally, younger Indians are regaining confidence in addressing sexuality after years of post-Victorian prudery. British colonial-era laws treated tawaifs as prostitutes, and even after Indian independence in 1947 talented singers could be blacklisted from film and radio if the authorities accused them of loose morals. Nowadays Bollywood, like Hollywood, cares little about the private lives of stars like Priyanka Chopra, the highest paid performer in India. No one is shocked by stories of affairs between tawaifs and their patrons. That is part of their modernity.

Indians' passion for this aspect of their cultural heritage has little parallel elsewhere. In researching the Chinese tradition of "singsong" girls, I discovered that young Chinese are unaware of the illustrious courtesans of the imperial dynasties who wrote poetry, painted, and sang for poets and emperors. "You are studying prostitution," said a young friend from Hangzhou.

Older scholars told me that no one in China today is researching courtesans. Modern editions of the romantic classics are often bowdlerized, with transgressive or erotic elements toned down. It reminds me of how Western classics, judged in the light of the legitimate concerns of the #meToo era, are being withheld from students.

This makes me wonder how long the Indian reevaluation of tawaifs will last. The revival of interest in them pits a small section of young, liberal urbanites against a broad populist movement striving for ethnic and social hegemony. In any case it just goes to show that we only use the past for what we want to make of the present. I wish the tawaifs well, for they show us all how music and art provide their practitioners with freedom and empowerment -- in any society.

David Chaffetz, author of "A Journey through Afghanistan," is a researcher of Asian arts and literature. His latest book, “Three Asian Divas,” focuses on  Iranian, Indian and Chinese singers.

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