After having worked on courtesans or tawaifs as they have been called since centuries, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan has now woven their life and times in her first book Tawaifnama in Delhi. Her documentaries bring focus to the issues of gender, sexuality and culture. Dewan has been closely associated with stigmatised women performers through here films such as Delhi–Mumbai–Delhi (2006); Naach (2008); and The Other Song (2009).
Tawaifnama, which was released in the capital on Tuesday, is a historical narrative of one family of well-known tawaifs with their roots in Benaras and Bhabua. Dewan attempts to bring out true stories of tawaifs through their self-histories, and in this endeavour, she successfully addresses the conventionally rewritten chronicles on the subject.
“Colonial law, starting from 19th century itself started impinging upon the lifestyle of not just the tawaifs, but communities of women who stood outside marital sexuality. From 1820s, there was a steady erosion of taiwaifs and an onslaught upon the community practices,” the author said during the release.
The book, published by Westland’s imprint, Context, largely brings to fore how tawaifs played a crucial role in the social and cultural life of northern India in the 19th century. They used to live a culturally-sound life with many were skilled singers and dancers. Tawaifs were companions and lovers to men from the local elite. According to the book, the dance form Kathak and Purab Ang Thumri singing of Benaras evolved from the practice of tawaifs.
They were also well-versed with literature and political events. But despite all the power and affluence, the book states tawaifs were marked by the stigma of being women in the public gaze, accessible to all.In attendance at the book launch was noted exponent of Hindustani music Shubha Mudgal. She spoke about how tawaifs used to live as a community and looked after each other in times of sickness and other such elements of daily life.
“I think this idea of bonding together as a community and caring and helping each other is really significant. I find this to be absent in today’s musicians and perhaps is the reason as to why we lead a very isolated life. Yes, you do need isolation, you need to be alone with your art and your work but if you feel you don’t belong to a community, then how does an artist take a position either socially, politically?”
Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Professor Emerita, Baruch College who was also present at the launch said, “After the Revolt of 1857, when the British re-instated the important people of Lucknow back in the city, their register mentioned the singing and dancing girls as the highest earners in society. She further added that it was the British who converted tawaifs not only in name but in substance from being carriers of cultures dance, music cuisine into practising prostitutes.”