When prostitution was a symbol of high culture in the elite circles of 19th century India

A steamy past.
A steamy past.
Image: AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh
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The word tawaif is used as a singular in Urdu and means “prostitute.” However, Mirza Jafar Husain, who spent most of his life in the traditional atmosphere of twentieth-century Awadh society, observed that the word tawaif baazi for whoring was never used in Lucknow. The equivalent word “randi baazi” for whoremongery was current but was considered vulgar. In better society, the expressions employed were tamash bini, which means libertinism or licentiousness, and aiyyashi, or debauchery.

Such was the fascination with and desire for courtesans in Lucknow that the nineteenth-century rekhtigo poet Mirza Ali Baig “Nazneen” Dehalvi wrote:

Kya jaaniye kya kasbiyon mein shahad ghula hai
Ghar walion se khush koi shauhar nahin hota
(One does not know what honey pot the prostitutes have
No husband seems happy with his own wife)

Writing about courtesans in nineteenth-century Lucknow, Adrian McNeil of Macquarie University observed that courtesans had royal patronage and were “well provided for.” Those outside “were engaged by the households of the wealthy or were employed in kothas (bordellos, salons, brothels) in the bazaar.” Kothas were of two kinds.  The kothas on the peripheries of Lucknow catered to the economically weaker sections and largely had coarse, uneducated, and unpolished whores. The better ones entertained the gentry and were serviced by courtesans who were “sophisticated and refined in manners, conversation, and performance.” In Awadh, every newcomer to a kotha usually acquired a new name. When a prostitute left or died, perhaps the same name would go to someone else.

What’s in a name?

According to Dr Moti Chandra in his book The World of Courtesans, “the names of the courtesans (in ancient times) usually ended in dattā, mitrā and senā.” In northern India, particularly Awadh, tawaifs usually had the suffix “jan” or “bai” added to their names as an indication of their professional status. A kotha worker could rarely run away from the kotha. Musclemen were always stationed outside the kothas and they watched all persons entering and leaving. Every kotha had its malkin (the proprietress), who let out tiny rooms to the sex workers. All prostitutes of a kotha were under the control of a nayika. The money earned by each woman was deposited with the nayika, out of which a portion was paid to the malkin. Most of the prostitutes seldom received sufficient money, but their food, accommodation, and meagre medical expenses were taken care of.

A man smitten by a particular sex worker had to pay a hefty sum to release the girl. There were many instances in Lucknow where prostitutes left their profession and married into respectable families. There were courtesans who developed liaisons with decent men and became magdalens in due course. Largely, such alliances were discouraged and disapproved, but well-to-do men were generally able to get around the censure. With time, the pasts of such wives were forgotten and the stigma and the slur no longer held sway. Although many courtesans had only one or two abiding sexual liaisons during their life, these relationships were quite lucrative and profitable. Dr Chandra mentions: “She is a robber of independent will, bereft of love and has desire for sex. She cares only for her own interest […] Greed never leaves her even when she is old. She is not interested in love […] The sex act is for money alone.”

Lucknow’s native historian, Veena Talwar Oldenburg, who has done pioneering work on the colonial impact on the Nawabi city, visited the kotha of the courtesan Gulbadan between 1976 and 1986 for her research. She noted from the tax records of 1858 to 1877 that the tawaifs of Lucknow were high earners. This income was from both artistic entertainment as well as social and sexual services provided by them. The money, however, did not give the courtesans high social status. Nonetheless, the courtesans were treated as “a symbol of culture” and despite limitations, the courtesans did exert their influence and weight in the social sphere.

The mehfil

The noted Hindi writer Amritlal Nagar wrote about the tawaifs, mainly of Lucknow, in his book Yeh Kothewalian (1958). Among other things, he has recorded a number of interviews with courtesans, which he conducted in the 1950s. This author has attempted to summarize Amritlal Nagar’s description of the courtesans of Awadh here. In large music and dance mehfils (assemblies), courtesans from seven or eight deras, or sources, displayed their talents. In Awadh, these mehfils usually started with singing of thumri, dadra, ghazal, etc., during which the courtesans supplemented their singing with exhibitions of bhava, or hand and facial expressions and gestures. Sometimes, bhands (jesters and mimics) were also present and innuendoes, banter, stinging allusions and sarcastic observations were exchanged between the cultured courtesans and the bhands, much to the amusement of the audience. After light classical singing and mirth, and when the night had advanced and only genuine connoisseurs were left, the classical singing started. The most famous singer presented her art at the end of the programme. 

The musical programme also included performances of Kathak dance. Lucknow was once known for thumri singing. The singers would describe bhava in the songs. Along with thumri, dadra and tappa were also rendered. The courtesans sang the ghazals of Mirza Khan “Dagh” and Amir Ahmad, Ameer Minai and others who were the writers of fine Urdu ghazals. The ghazal repertoire of leading courtesans was rich and many visited the kothas to hear them. It was these tawaifs who formed part of the Sham-i Awadh (Evenings of Awadh).

The well-known saying is: Subh-i Benaras, Sham-i Awadhwa, Shab-i Malwa. The mornings in Benaras, with their crowded bathing ghats, are attractive. The revelries of evenings in Lucknow are well known. And because Malwa has clear and cloudless skies, the nights of Malwa are said to be delightful.

Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications India Pvt Ltd from Aslam Mahmud’s book Awadh Symphony.