“Tawaifnama” by Saba Dewan


Dressed like Rajput princesses in bangles, rhinestones and brocade tightly fitted over their svelte bodies, the young women created a stir when they entered the elevator of our nondescript apartment block in Singapore. Only later did I learn that these were bar dancers, dispatched by their needy families in rural Bihar to earn 200 hundred dollars a week in the clubs on Circular Road. 100 years earlier these women might have aspired to become elite entertainers, tawaifs, for the aristocrats of Benares or Lucknow. Saba Dewan’s magistral work explains the decline and fall of this storied tradition.

The accomplished documentary filmmaker spent 19 years researching this book. The result is a tour de force of cultural history, sociology and biography. To make her erudition more accessible, Dewan adopts a unique narrative approach—to address the retired tawaif in the second person. “You are” a middle-aged woman from Benares with a hidden past as a tawaif. Dewan takes us deeper into the story of the tawaif as “You” take her deeper into your confidences, your multi-generational family secrets, shames and glories.

I assume that the “You” are a composite of several women who opened their homes in Benares’s chowk district to the filmmaker. One assumes a fair amount of narrative license but this approach enables Dewan to focus on flesh and blood people, rather than depend on the jargon-rich language of gender studies. Noting the book’s genesis, it is not surprising that it seems like a prose emulation of a film documentary.


Tawaifnama, Saba Dewan (Context/Westland, July 2019)
Tawaifnama, Saba Dewan (Context/Westland, July 2019)

The institution of the tawaif is fundamental to understanding Indian cultural history. The classical Sanskrit work, Natyashastra, claims that divine courtesans, the apsaras, brought musical entertainment down to mortals. The apsara’s human successors entertained maharajas and adorned temple festivals. Muslim sultans attracted Hindu musicians and dancers to their courts. The last Nawab of Lucknow danced and sang with them to his own compositions. This tawaif culture wound up being the repository of Hindustani musical traditions, and with the advent of new recording media, the origins of Bollywood-style cinematic entertainment.

Tawaifnama explains the remarkable “through the looking glass” world of the tawaif matriarchy. In tawaif families the birth of daughter was celebrated, the birth of a boy regretted: exactly the opposite from a “normal” family. Women earned money, inherited property, and took key family decisions. These women’s goals, though, were no different from that of the non-tawaif families:  to rise up in the social order from lowly village entertainer to palace intimate. This required hard work and rigid adherence to a clan code of honor. The many shades of gray between the numerous clans of entertainers and their almost epic struggles for social recognition makes Balzac’s Human Comedy seem like a kindergarten in comparison.

Dewan links the decline of the tawaifs to the Raj-era criminal code, which, though not targeting tawaifs directly, caused collateral damage to their quest for social recognition. Paradoxically, the decline of female seclusion and the education of middle class girls also damaged the tawaifs standing, as if the two categories of empowered females could not coexist. As Dewan explains, “You” are investing in your daughters’ education so they can become “normal” middle class women.

The most elegiac element in Tawaifnamah is its evocation of Hindu-Muslim syncretism. This was a world where Muslim women wore bhindis on their foreheads, where Hindu women prayed at the shrines of Chistiyya Sufi saints, where a family raised the daughters as Muslims and the sons as Hindus. Dewan, who is politically active in defense of minorities in India, notes with sadness the increasing orthodox rigidity of both Hindus and Muslims in modern India.

At 600 pages, this work can be exhausting as it is exhaustive in its treatment of Hindustani music, of India’s independence movement, of social impacts of modernization, and more intimately, of family emotions and rancors nursed over several generations, but this reviewer found it ultimately rewarding. Tawaifnama contains a lot, in the largest sense, of what makes us human.