Time travel with the tawaifs of Tamizh land

Walking through the by-lanes of Royapettah and neighbouring areas, historian Kombai Anwar reminds us of the rich history of Kanchens of Madras

Published: 19th January 2021 06:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th January 2021 06:19 AM   |  A+A-

photos: wikipedia

Express News Service

CHENNAI: A few months ago, through a decade-old documentary film, Other Song by writer and filmmaker Saba Dewan, I was introduced to a haunting thumri, Laagat karejwa mein chot, phool gendwa na maar (My heart is wounded, don’t throw flowers at me) by Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient Rasoolan Bai. The film did little more than just trace the life and times of the thumri exponent. Through her lens, Saba attempted to rediscover strains of the original version of the said thumri, but with the lyrics, Laagat jobanwa mein chot, phool gendwa na maar (My ‘breasts’ are wounded, don’t throw flowers at me), documenting how the words of several such thumris have been changed over time to fit into the rather ‘sanitised’ cultural prism of the society. 

In a fading canvas about beguiling melodies, a lost thumri and forgotten life, Saba brushed myriad hues of Rasoolan’s long-lost identity of being a tawaif (a courtesan who performed music and dance) and that of the forgotten existence of her ilk in the country. As I travelled along with Saba, through the bylanes of Lucknow, Muzzafarpur and Varanasi, collecting memories of a handful of former tawaifs and those from the lineage now living in anonymity and poverty, a parallel pursuit made me cognisant of the once-thriving (now non-existent) Kanchenwada — a locality which housed the kanchens (the elite among the tawaifs) — in the heart of Chennai. City-based academic and historian Kombai Anwar, who, over a decade ago, began his research on the tawaifs of Madras, walks us through their rich history and how they became an integral part of the cultural fabric of the city for almost three centuries.   

A royal wedding
“Years ago, when I was drafted into historian late S Muthiah’s Madras Gazetteer Project to write about the city’s Muslim history, I came across how Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan, the last Nawab of Carnatic, took Jahangir Baksh, a tawaif or Kanchen, as his second wife in 1848. This was unlike any royal wedding and it fascinated me. While I was aware that the history of the Arcot Nawabs was often interspersed with the richness of Hindustani arts, the depth of it remained unchartered,” he shares. The century-odd-old royal wedding of the titular Nawab drew an inquisitive Anwar, who then lived in Royapettah, to learn more about the tawaifs. “I used to take several walks in the neighbourhood, talk to old-timers and make inquiries about the tawaifs who once resided in the area. But, it was only after two years of waiting, did a door finally open. I was introduced to Makbhool Hussain, an elderly man who used to play the tabla for the kanchens who lived in the Jani Jahan Khan Road and it was conversations with him and a few other former residents and old-timers, that helped me put pieces of the city’s history and that of its tawaifs together,” shares Anwar.

In the 18th Century, Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah moved his durbar from Arcot to Madras. The  court’s Hindustani musicians and dancers too followed him to the city, marking the beginning of the tawaif culture in the city, says Anwar. Over time, the locality next to Amir Mahal became the cradle to several kanchens. “A predominant number of dancers and musicians originated from Hubli-Dharwad and that is perhaps where the name Kanchen wada, which, in Marathi, means a locality or traditional complex, came about,” he details. But, it was not until about two decades after 1855, when the British East India Company annexed the Carnatic kingdom (and auctioned off the then official residence of the Nawabs — the Chepauk Palace), did the Nawabs of Arcot move into the Amir Mahal. “While curating an Arcot Nawab trail, I found a street named ‘Gana (music) Bhag Street’ adjacent to Star Theatre. So when the Nawabs lived in Chepauk Palace and the rest of the nobility along the Triplicane High Road, that could have been the neighbourhood where the courtesans were housed before they moved closer to Amir Mahal,” he suggests.

Stigma and survival
The kanchens, known for their excellence in dance, music, poetry and their adab (etiquette), were held in high esteem that sometimes, those belonging to rich families, used to send their children to the Kanchenwada, to learn etiquette. “Kamala Bai, Haseena, Radha Bai, Nayab Jan Bai, Nazeeraa Banu, and Baby Bai, are some of the tawaifs, whom the old-timers remember fondly. And like their patrons, the tawaifs too belonged to different faiths and religions,” says Anwar, recalling his meeting with a former tawaif in Bengaluru. “She described in detail about how the entire street — from Zam Bazaar to the other end of the road, used to be dotted with vehicles to attend the mehfils or music gatherings,” he shares, elaborating about the lanes that once echoed with the ghazals of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi and Mirza Ghalib. Eventually, with films beginning to influence society, the kanchens too sang popular Hindi songs from Mughal-e-Azam (1960) to Kohinoor (1960) to keep up with the changing needs of their clientele.

But with cinema growing as a new avenue for entertainment, it had, by then, began catalysing the decline of patronage for the kanchens due to which, many stepped into the celluloid. From Nasreen Banu, a kanchen who migrated from Delhi to Madras post-partition, dancing in Paigham (1959); Baby Bai making a guest appearance in Gharana (1961) to Hindustani musicians like Ustad Ahmad Hussain Khan playing the sitar for Tamil film music composers, the performers of Kanchenwada, over time, began finding different platforms to flourish. However, with the showbiz booming and social values changing, the Kanchenwada was threatened of its survival. “Several moral drives began stigmatising them and in many ways, they were at the receiving end of harassment. The anti-nautch movement in the late 19th and 20th century, like its effect on the Devadasi system, had an impact on the tawaifs too. When cases were filed to deprive them of their practice, Kamala Bai, a kanchen from Madras, engaged MA Ghatala, a High Court lawyer, to represent them in the case. In 1958, the court ruled in their favour and this victory was celebrated with a party for Ghatala at a house near the Music Academy,” tells Anwar.

Despite the legal win, the tawaif culture in Madras, which thrived even over a century after Ghulam Ghouse Khan’s passing, came to an end when one of the leading performers, Baby Bai moved out of the Kanchenwada to get married and start a family. “Many others followed suit and by the 1970s, the 250-odd-year-old tradition in Madras came to an end,” says Anwar. Now, the Mir Bakshi Ali Street, Mohammed Hussain Street and Jani Jahan Khan Road, which once used to turn iridescent by its opulent patrons and come alive with the rhythm of the tabla and dholak, echoes of the harmonium, sarangi, sitar, and the jangles of the ghungroos, is dotted with bachelor mansions and shops, drowning its past in the cacophony of horns and traffic, leaving no trace of Kanchenwada. 

Need for documentation 
With the wealth of academic scholarship on the subject in Madras close to zero, Anwar shares that the original research, which not only offers depth but is also sensitive to the complex cultural legacy of the tawaifs, is the way to preserve the stories of the community. “Here, we are talking about a community in Madras with a rich cultural history but nothing much has been done to document it. This is a reflection of our own poor history of documentation. For instance, Madras had a vital role in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but how many of us know about it? We need more serious researchers and academics who dig deep into such under reviewed aspects,” he shares.  

As for the tawaifs of Madras, whose lives are now almost erased, the efforts of people like Anwar and Saba are, perhaps, the beginning of a long journey in searching for and documenting not just a forgotten tune but of a tradition lost in time. 

Learning etiquette
The kanchens, known for their excellence in dance, music, poetry and their adab (etiquette), were held in high esteem that sometimes, those belonging to rich families, used to send their children to the Kanchenwada, to learn etiquette. 

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