Author Saba Dewan tells Medha Dutta Yadav about her decade-long journey to bring the tawaifs out of purdah.
Why this particular topic?
I was researching for a documentary on it that came out in 2009. Once the film was done, there was still so much research material left. So everyone suggested why not put it in a book? And so Tawaifnama was born. Also, almost all my work as a filmmaker has focussed on gender and sexuality, so this theme seemed a natural progression. Women and women’s lives interest me.
The book has a very cinematic language.
I guess that happened because primarily I am a filmmaker. As filmmakers we write for films and so that is the language I had when I wrote the book.
This book took almost a decade to come about.
I got a fellowship in 2010 to do my research on this book. And the book took nine years to arrive. It is because the research is very intensive and the book itself covers a very wide span of modern history. It needed a lot of archival research. The field work took a lot of time. I was spending long periods of time with the families to arrive at their stories. Also, it was a challenge to arrive at a truthful account without romanticising it.
How difficult was it to enter the personal realm of these women?
I think, a large part of that process was accomplished during the making of the documentary. I started work on the film in 2001. I faced the main challenge then. Because of the stigma heaped on them, no one wanted to be associated with the tawaifs. By the time I came on to the book, I had already done a film which was very well-received by the community and they had confidence in me now.
Did Bollywood paint a different picture of tawaifs?
Bollywood chose to portray tawaifs from within a patriarchal, male lens. That portrayal has very little to do with real-life tawaifs.