Press Release: Singing & Dancing Girls Had The Highest Incomes

Idea of being a community is absent in today’s musicians, at-least in the world of Hindustani music- Shubha Mudgal

Press Release
3 min read
Hindi Female

Press Release:

The Singing And Dancing Girls Had The Highest Incomes Of Anyone In The Colonial Era – Veena Talwar Olderburg

The idea of being a community is absent in today’s musicians, at-least in the world of Hindustani music – Shubha Mudgal

Ace documentary film-maker Saba Dewan released her maiden book Tawaifnama in Delhi in the presence of Shubha Mudgal – noted exponent of Hindustani music, Veena Talwar Oldenburg – Professor Emirata, Baruch College and the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York and Shohini Ghosh – Sajjad Zaheer Professor, AJK MCRC, Jamia Milia Islamia. The book is published by Westland Publications (an Amazon company) under their literary imprint – Context.

In an interesting dialogue between the author and the panel, Veena Talwar Oldenburg revealed that after the revolt of 1857, when the Britishers re-instated the important people of Lucknow back in the city, their register mentioned the singing and dancing girls as being the highest earners in society. The jewellers, the doctors, teachers and other professionals all earned less money than the tawaifs. She further added that it was the Britishers who converted tawaifs not only in name, but in substance from being carriers of cultures dance, music cuisine into practising prostitutes.

Building more intrigue, Shubha Mudgal shed light on how the tawaifs lived as a community, having a responsibility towards each-other. There was a sense of togetherness in matters that were deeply personal; such as bringing up female children, adopted daughters or children or looking after each other when one is sick and helpless; something which she finds missing among musician’s these days. She said, “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 is perhaps 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 or even in the kind of politics of the kind of discipline you are practising?”

Expressing her delight and talking about her latest release, Saba Dewan spoke about the scenario of the Tawaifs during the late 19th century. Delving deep into this, she commented, “Colonial law making from 19th century itself started impinging upon the lifestyle of not just the Tawaifs, but communities of women who stood outside martial sexuality. From 1820’s there was a steady erosion of Taiwaifs and an onslaught upon the community practices.” She further mentioned and shared her thoughts about the history of tawaifs and how we end up by either victimising or valorising them.

The book is a history, a multi-generational chronicle of one family of well-known tawaifs with roots in Banaras and Bhabua. Through their stories and self-histories, Saba Dewan explores the nuances that conventional narratives have erased, papered over or wilfully rewritten.


About the book:

In a not-so-distant past, tawaifs played a crucial role in the social and cultural life of northern India. They were skilled singers and dancers, and also companions and lovers to men from the local elite. It is from the art practice of tawaifs that kathak evolved and the purab ang thumri singing of Banaras was born. At a time when women were denied access to the letters, tawaifs had a grounding in literature and politics, and their kothas were centres of cultural refinement.

Yet, as affluent and powerful as they were, tawaifs were marked by the stigma of being women in the public gaze, accessible to all. In the colonial and nationalist discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this stigma deepened into criminalisation and the violent dismantling of a community. Tawaifnama is the story of that process of change, a nuanced and powerful microhistory set against the sweep of Indian history.


About the author:

Saba Dewan is a documentary film-maker. Her documentaries have focused on issues of gender, sexuality and culture. This is her first book and has emerged from her trilogy of films on stigmatised women performers: Delhi–Mumbai–Delhi (2006) about the lives of bar dancers; Naach (The Dance, 2008) on women dancers in rural fairs and The Other Song (2009) about the art and lifestyle of the tawaifs or courtesans. The research and writing of the book was supported by a fellowship from the New India Foundation.


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