The woman who wants to change the biased narrative of the ‘tawaif’

NICHOLA PAIS meets Manjari Chaturvedi, who is seeking to change the biased narrative of the tawaif through the Courtesan Project, part of the upcoming Tehzeeb-e-Tawaif symposium

Zareena Begum, an erstwhile mirasin, a traditional caste of singers from Lucknow, lay ravaged by age, poverty and paralysis. Yet when asked what it was she desired, she whispered, ‘Bitiya, ek baar Banarsi saadi pehenkar stage par gaana hain’. “That moment just moved me… Zareena Begum could have asked for anything — all she wanted was another chance to perform,” recalls Manjari Chaturvedi, a leading proponent of classical dance in India, and founder of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, which supports similar research and encourages marginal artists to participate in dissemination of their art. The attempt to give Zareena Begum what her heart desired, set Chaturvedi off on what was to become a mission to give the much discriminated against tawaifs, their due dignity.

“When I sought sponsorships in Delhi, I had a few people turn around and tell me, ‘Oh Manjariji, your concerts make for good branding; but now do we have to honour tawaifs?’ I, a dancer sitting across the table, is worthy of respect because I am articulate, I can speak English, I belong to today’s world. At the same time, another woman performer from another time, you ridicule her,” she points out.

The woman who wants to change the biased narrative of the ‘tawaif’

Along the way, she became increasingly aware of the enormous stigma attached to the world of begums and baijis, the tawaifs of yore. “I realised that there wasn’t enough research material, because these women were not documented well. I was horrified about what we had done to them. I realised that we made the men into Ustads but the women we conveniently termed as ‘nachnewaali-gaanewali’. In the documentation of history, we didn’t even give them space. If you read about the biographies of kathak dancers, it’s largely men who feature. I will not get to read about Mallika Jaan, Gauhar Jaan, or Nanhi Begum because they were tawaifs.”

Manjari is resolute about tawaifs being seen for what they were —entertainers, who sang and danced. “In our world, tawaif and mujra are bad words. Today we have entertainers, the film actors, who sing and dance. Those women did classical art forms — Kathak, Ghazal, Thumri, Dadra, which are today very respected art forms — not the Bollywood jhatka-matka. These women kept these art forms alive for almost 400 years, yet today we write them off. Today you would go to a PVR, pay ‘x’ amount of money, watch a film, get entertained and come back. Go back 200 years, there were no films, so what did people do? They went to a kotha, where artistes would perform live, they would be paid money — if you see it in today’s terms, what was so wrong about it?”

The only way to demolish this stigma is to offer an alternative true narrative, which a symposium like the upcoming Tehzeeb-e-Tawaif, an evening of stories, music and dance, seeks to present. “There was a lot of resistance initially but faced with solid reasoning, it has started to change,” Manjari shares, adding, “Don’t just blacklist a certain section of women because you can get away with it. They are no more and we have succeeded in making their families so ashamed that they don’t want to acknowledge or associate with it, and they stay silent. Let’s question, let’s debate, let’s discuss. If there was something wrong, let’s address it. But if it wasn’t then don’t put it in that category. I’m not saying that we need to have the tawaif culture back; I’m saying respect the performers for the times that they lived in. Give them that dignity of respect as a performer.”

The woman who wants to change the biased narrative of the ‘tawaif’

She also believes that an art form so beautiful must be recreated. “We don’t need to set up a kotha; we can recreate it on our famous stages. It was a beautiful art form.”

In the process, more records are being set straight — evidently as per the British records, the tawaifs were the highest tax payers. “They were individual high-earning women; in times when women were in purdah, they roamed about freely,” Manjari points out. The tawaif was no ‘bechari aurat’ yearning for salvation via marriage, as Hindi films were wont to portray her. Sometimes she even had the honour of becoming India’s first supermodel, as in the case of Jahanara Kajjan, the actress daughter of a courtesan who was so beautiful her face was used to sell a talc in London!

Coming back to Zareena Begum, yes the Sufi Kathak Foundation did manage to give her her heart’s desire. She sang on stage for one and a half hour at the concert attended by the then Culture Minister, which was covered by 32 publications in Delhi. Facing the houseful auditorium, she wept on stage and whispered, ‘Log humse abhi bhi mohabbat karte hain?’ “She passed away last year but she lived her dream,” muses Manjari. Yes, even erstwhile tawaifs are entitled to that…

Begums and Baijis of Bollywood

6:30 pm – 8:00 pm, The Royal Opera House,

Saturday April 27, 2019

Tehzeeb-e-Tawaif : An evening of stories, music and dance

A symposium on courtesan culture and women performers in India from 18th — 20th century, this day-long event will explore the role and significance of women artistes, and how they irrevocably influenced dance and musical legacies, of the Indian tradition. Conceptualised by kathak dancer and founder of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, Manjari Chaturvedi, and presented by the Royal Opera House and Avid Learning, this symposium will be divided into sessions that re-tell stories, reaffirm histories and address issues related to these exemplary performers.

The symposium will include a panel discussion on Courtesan: Women Performers and Male Gaze, a presentation on Tawaif: The Muse in Cinema, panel discussion on Performance Art of the Tawaifs and Baijis, a panel discussion The Tawaif’s Song: Journey from Life Performer to Recording Artiste and a documentary film screening of Anwesha, culminating in a kathak performance A Tribute to Begums and Baijis of Bollywood by Manjari Chaturvedi. This theatrical dance production traces the initial history of Hindi cinema through the lives of four incredible women — Jahanara Kajjan, Mukhtar Begum, Jaddan Bai and Begum Akhtar, who were the first stars of Hindi cinema.

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