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'Wrong Portrayal of Tawaifs Damages Women's History': A Kathak Dancer Speaks Out

From Pakeezah to Heeramandi, Manjari Chaturvedi discusses the representation of tawaifs in Bollywood and its impact.

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Video Editor :Kriti Saxena
When we don’t see the real aspects of tawaif culture, it leads to an incorrect representation of those women.
Manjari Chaturvedi, Indian Kathak Dancer

It’s been more than 20 days since Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi was released. This Netflix original series of eight episodes has been the talk of the town, not just about the extravagant costumes or grand settings but also about its inaccuracies and factual errors around the tawaif culture and representation.

For the last 15 years, Manjari Chaturvedi, an Indian Kathak dancer from Lucknow gharana has been working on the stories of tawaifs, about their dance, music, and performance art, under her project called The Courtesan Project.

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"Heeramandi depicts the tawaif culture as women fighting for power or against each other, rather than showcasing the culture where women share and discuss ragas, ghazals, or poetry. Addressing these misinterpretations in the series, Manjari stated, “Heeramandi reduced tawaif culture to mere titillation. You can't transpose Lucknow or Awadh traditions onto Lahore and expect authenticity. While there are inaccuracies, one may justify them as artistic license, but the issue arises when it's presented as historical truth."

Regarding the responsibility to accurately portray history, Manjari explained, "Twenty-five or thirty years from now, if someone conducts research on tawaifs, they may use your work as resource material. Inaccuracies in such works could then be accepted as factual, potentially distorting women's histories rather than enriching them."

"While Heeramandi is the latest Bollywood production depicting the inaccurate portrayal of tawaif culture, various movies throughout the history of Indian cinema to the present day have presented both accurate and inaccurate representations of this culture."

Representation of Tawaifs in Bollywood Through Time

Talking about the initial time of Hindi cinema, the ones who contributed as actors—for songs and music, dancing, and even directing—were the tawaifs who graduated from kothas to Parsi theater and entered Hindi cinema. Manjari emphasized that the foundation of Hindi cinema was laid by the work of tawaifs.

"Hindi cinema and Bollywood are the gifts of tawaifs to us. Initially, until the 1980's, every film had a tawaif," said Manjari.

When it comes to the representation of tawaifs in Hindi cinema, Manjari started by saying, 'Bollywood or Hindi cinema is not our history chapter. It is a medium that is for entertainment.'

As movies are made for commercial purposes, the character of tawaifs differs in terms of what sells. If a movie requires a tawaif as a villain or a seductive character, they will portray them accordingly, as it will sell. Tawaifs have been shaped into many different characters in Hindi cinema, making these representations a subject of knowledge for most people.

'Bollywood shows tawaifs as bosom-having and hip-shaking dancers, upon whom money is thrown, and this portrayal has been ingrained in public memory,' said Manjari.

Pakeezah (1972)- The Art Of Tawaif

One of the most relatable representations of tawaifs in their culture and art in Hindi cinema is Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah. 'It took 15 years to make Pakeezah. Now, which commercial director would spend that kind of time and money to make a film? So it was a film that was made more out of passion,' said Manjari.

Manjari shared that initially Pakeezah was a flop film, but it was only after the death of its actress, Meena Kumari, within a month of its release that everyone wanted to see her last film, and that's how it became a hit.

The movie, which tells the story of a tawaif, also features songs performed by tawaifs. For example, the song 'Thare Rahiyo,' a mujra in the movie, was originally a dadra sung by the tawaifs and Baijis of Banaras.

When it comes to understanding tawaif culture post-independence, it comes down to the old tawaifs to tell the story about their culture and art as the kothas were not there anymore. "The tradition of Kothas slowly vanished post-independence," said Manjari.

And when it comes to women's history,

We saw history from men’s perspective, including women’s history. History per se has been only written by men. So, we don’t have the perspective of the woman.
Manjari Chaturvedi, Indian Kathak Dancer
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Tawaifs Are Not Sex Workers

There are many stereotypes that surround the tawaifs, or the word tawaif. One of the most common is that tawaifs are considered prostitutes. "Tawaif has been interchangeably used as prostitutes to the extent that tawaif is considered an abuse," said Manjari.

The start of this comes as the British didn't understand the grades like Bhand, Nakkal, Mirasins, or Tawaif, so they clubbed everyone under the category of 'Nautch girls', which even included prostitutes.

"It is very ironical that women who were the most educated, the well-read women, who excelled in dance, in rag, in taal, in music, who were the doyens of their art, are today seen as an abuse," said Manjari.

During her research, Manjari found that, in 1960, the tawaifs held a conference in Delhi called the 'All India Tawaif Conference', and one of the agenda items on their list was that the tawaifs are not sex workers; they are artists and musicians.

Under Manjari's The Courtesan project comes her live performance, Main Tawaif, which questions the role of society in creating the stigma for the word Tawaif and for the women performers. "I realized that to keep their songs alive, I had to present them in different formats," said Manjari.

"So Main Tawaif questions how, as a society, we saw the women as different artists and the men as different artists and how we regarded art from the lens of gender and not from the lens of art," Manjari added.

Video Editor :Kriti Saxena
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