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 Why in news

  • Dance to Freedom’s (Book by historian A.K. Gandhi) timely release makes for an excellent companion piece to another cinematic tribute to tawaifs in pre-independence India: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s OTT debut, Heeramandi, with its grand, hypnotic set up and ruthless, cunning and unforgiving characters, about which much has been written. 

  • The book provides necessary historical context to traditions such as nath-utrayi that the web series portrays


  • A tawaif was a highly successful courtesan, dancing girl or female entertainer who catered to the nobility of the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the Mughal era

  • Many tawaifs (nautch girls to the British) were forced to go into prostitution due to a lack of opportunities by the time of the British Raj

  • Known variously as tawaifs in North India, Baijis in Bengal and naikins in Goa 

  • Tawaifs enjoyed position as educated, noble, dignified women before the advent of Europeans

  • Their policies and judgments impacted their position among the royals 

Role in freedom struggle

  • Tawaifs’ role in fighting the British was unrecognised, confined to nothing more than footnotes in Indian history

  • During british period, Steamships enabled British officials to bring their families to their respective stations, allowing European morals to reduce courtesans as “mere prostitutes who also sang and danced.” 

  • It is commonly known that as punishment for the courtesans’ rebellion in 1850s, the British confiscated their properties, relocated them, and levied heavy fines. 

  • They implemented stringent, biased laws (on marriage, adoption, etc.), rendering tawaifs powerless. 

  • The nawabs’ boycott of kothas followed this retaliation, making the courtesans lose their wealth and social stature.

  • As the distinction dissolved, multiple “anti-nautch” movements arose, led by Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, and joined by revolutionaries, demanding a shutdown of kothas (brothel)

  • Mahatma Gandhi too called the profession “a social disease” and a “moral leprosy” that must be done away with.

Famous figures

  • The courtesans, however, had in them enough courage, grace and spirit to use their art as a tool for activism. 

  • Azizan Bai, born in the rich Lucknavi tradition of courtesans, operated in Kanpur circles as a spy

  • Often seen on the horseback, “in male attire decorated with medals, armed with a brace of pistols”, she fought till her last breath. 

  • Husna bai, the “Chaudharayan of Banaras”, confronted Mahatma Gandhi in a rally, organised the Kashi Tawaif Sabha, and took to singing the patriotic word. 

  • Begum Samru, the widow of mercenary Walter Reinhardt Sombre and ruler of Sardhana, was often called a sorceress or a witch by her enemies for her intelligent practical ways. 

  • She took keen interest in administration and in learning military techniques and displayed remarkable diplomatic skills. 

  • Begum Hazrat Mahal “rose from Pari to Begum” in the court of Mirza Wajid Ali Shah, the prince of Awadh (Oudh). 

  • When the docile and timid prince, inclined towards nothing but poetry, failed to save his province, Begum Hazrat stepped up and lead the protest and openly criticised the British who “felt no shame when it came to not keeping their word.” 

  • Dharman Bibi, left her newly born twins and sacrificed motherhood, to fulfil her duty towards her husband, Kunwar Singh, and the nation. 

  • Today, as Kunwar Singh is immortalised in history, there is hardly any mention of Dharman Bibi’s sacrifice. 

  • People in Arrah pretend not to know her, for the shame she might bring her royal patron; “so her memory has been swept under the carpet.” 

  • Gauhar Jaan, who popularised Hindustani classical music, also finds an honorary mention in Gandhi’s book



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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: Tawaifs UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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