HerStory: Diamonds And Lust – Chronicles Of The Heeramandi Courtesans

HerStory: Diamonds And Lust – Chronicles Of The Heeramandi Courtesans

Heeramandi was famous or notorious, depending on perspective, for some of the most beautiful and talented women performers

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, April 19, 2024, 12:56 PM IST
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A still from Heeramandi | Promotional Pic

There’s nothing like a big, splashy screen project to draw attention to the past—and right now Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, an opulent star-studded streaming show coming up soon, has stirred up interest in this almost legendary area of old Lahore, that was once the centre of the tawaif culture of Asia.

The term “red light area” came up much later, to mark the areas where sex work was the prime occupation, but tawaifs, like the Japanese geishas or even devdasis, were not garden variety prostitutes. They were trained in classical music, dance, poetry, tehzeeb (etiquette) and, of course, the art of seduction. Kings and noblemen frequented those kothas of yore to watch dance and music performances. If they also patronised some women or took on mistresses, it was expected of wealthy men. Some of them were the muses of artists and poets of their time, or even poets in their own right. (Mirza Ghalib's muse was a tawaif called Nawaabjaan). Princes and young noblemen were sent to them to learn the finer points of the classical arts, social graces and courtly tehzeeb. And because the tawaifs had the ear of the rich and powerful, they often acquired a certain influence.

Heeramandi was famous or notorious, depending on perspective, for some of the most beautiful and talented women performers. Undeniably, there was trafficking of women and exploitation involved, but they also made their reputations as much admired artistes. When cinema production started in Lahore, and was considered a disreputable profession, the early female singing stars were inevitably sourced from Heeramandi. After Partition some of them came to India. They may have hidden their origin, but it was whispered about a lot of actresses and singers that they belonged, if not to Heeramandi, then the tawaif gharanas of India.

An internet search reveals that the area within the walled city of Lahore was originally named Heera Singh Di Mandi (grain market), named after the man who established it, Heera Singh Dogra, a prime minister during the reign of Sher Singh during the Sikh period. Lahore was the capital of Emperor Akbar’s empire, and since this market was located close to the royal court and the staff lived there, it came to be known as the Shahi Mohalla. During the Mughal era, it housed tawaifs who were also attached to the court as entertainers. According to writer Moin Beg, whose concept and script led to the production of the web series, in the Mughal era, the kothas were really as lavish as shown in the series. Heeramandi was also called Bazaar-e-Husn (market of beauty). Subsequent invasions and the weakening of the Mughal Empire, tarnished the cultural shine of Heeramandi.

During British rule, the area deteriorated into a hub for prostitution. Many tawaifs, who had lost their livelihood, became sex workers for English soldiers who had been stationed in the cantonment in the Anarkali Bazaar area of the walled city. The few old-style courtesans who remained had their royal patons replaced by rich businessmen. After Independence, even that cover of art was ripped off; instead of classical music, the mujras were performed to film songs. Still, an ancillary economy springs up around kothas, with flower sellers, paan, cigarette and booze vendors, not to mention the singers, dancers and musicians who make a living from the kotha.

Aashish Kochhar writes in peepultree.world, “The tawaifs of Lahore even found a place in the fiction and the popular narrative. One such story is of a tawaif of Mughal court in Lahore named Anarkali. It is said that she had an illicit relationship with the prince Salim (who was later crowned as Emperor Jahangir), the son of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The narrative describes how the old emperor was furious at the fact that his son, his royal heir, was captivated by the love of a woman of low class and status and thus how, on his orders, Anarkali was enclosed in a wall in the Lahore Fort where she died. Although there is no historical proof of Anarakali's existence, it's certain that because of her character, the tawaifs of Lahore had appeared in movies, books and fictionalised versions of history since the inception of this culture in the city.” Anarkali found her way into two Bollywood films — Anarkali and Mughal-e-Azam.

During General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, there was a crackdown on music and dance. People working in kothas were arrested, sex work was stopped in Heeramandi, and the old brothels converted to shops, restaurants and other businesses. But it is a supply and demand situation and trafficking of women for sex work goes on-- all over the world.

Louise Brown, a British academic who studies the sex trade in Asia, spent seven years off and on living in Heeramandi, and wrote the book The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District, charting the fate of the denizens of Heeramandi.

Xari Jalil writing in Pakistani publication Dawn, about the decline of the area, states, “Even today, the idea of Heeramandi remains as exotic as ever to most. Many believe that even now, they might catch a sight of some dancing girls or perhaps hear a mujra in the distance. It seems thrilling and adventurous, tinged with the secrecy of illicit excitement. But today, a trip down the lane opposite the regal Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort shows that the age-old culture of the bazaar has vanished. In its place now are shoe shops and warehouses, many of them manufacturing set-ups. All the buildings which once used to be kothas are now decrepit, dusty skeletons. The time-kamra (office) is now just home to piles of sawdust and leather.”

A local resident, Yousuf Salli, is quoted as saying, “Local culture and music are important for all civilizations. But the way ours was killed off, it is indeed a very tragic thing… Good singers are not easy to find any more.” Writes Jalil, “He talks of the great musicians who came out of this area, including Ustad Taafu, whose entire family still lives at Bhaati Gate — a place famous for musicians’ residences and music shops. There was Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Fateh Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan,” he says. Besides, there were some great gayikas (women singers) including Farida Khanum and Noor Jahan who received their training from the ustads here.

A performer named Jugnu laments, “Today men — who are our market — do not want art. They do not wish to woo the women here in the grand old tradition. Today all they look for is instant sexual gratification, and that is what has resulted in a desolate Heera Mandi. (Our clients) used to come only to be in our company, to see an art being performed live.”

A former Heeramandi denizen sums it up as: “Heeron ka bazaar aaj mochion ka bazaar ban gaya hai (The bazaar of diamonds has been turned into a bazaar of cobblers).” Now Sanjay Leela Bhansali has waved his magic wand and restored, at least on screen, the glory of the tawaifs of Heeramandi.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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