To know how our so­ci­ety changed, one only needs to read this history of a tawaif fam­ily

India Today - - BOOKS - —Rakhshanda Jalil

Their art usurped by con­cert per­form­ers from ‘sha­reef ’ fam­i­lies, their lives dis­torted when not marginalis­ed, their stories pa­pered over, their con­tri­bu­tion, to not merely the de­vel­op­ment of Hin­dus­tani mu­sic but also pop­u­lar cul­ture, ef­faced, the tawaifs have been the worst vic­tims of an overzeal­ous mis­sion­ary im­pulse in mod­ern In­dian so­ci­ety. Saba De­wan at­tempts to cor­rect an old wrong in her col­lec­tion of stories, all from one fam­ily of pro­fes­sional singer-dancers with roots in Ba­naras and Bhabua (in Bi­har).

‘Feted as artistes and

sought af­ter as lovers, elite tawaifs en­joyed ac­cess to high prestige and con­sid­er­able wealth. Yet their non­mar­i­tal sex­u­al­ity and the stigma at­tached to women who were in the pub­lic gaze, ac­ces­si­ble to all, placed them on the mar­gins of “re­spectable” so­ci­ety; nei­ther to­tally con­tained within pre-colo­nial pa­tri­archy nor en­tirely out­side it. It was this lim­i­nal space that I was in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing,” she writes.

Hav­ing made three doc­u­men­taries on stig­ma­tised women per­form­ers, De­wan brings a store of knowl­edge, em­pa­thy and wry hu­mour to the task. In the process, she also le­git­imises many ‘self-his­to­ries’—the stories of Dharam­man Bibi who fought the an­grez in the re­volt of 1857, Bul­lan and Kal­lan who took on the colo­nial enterprise, as well as As­ghari, Phool­mani, Teema, Bindo, Sul­tana, and their sis­ters, cousins and aunts, who, in dif­fer­ent ways and to vary­ing de­grees, try (and oc­ca­sion­ally fail) to live up to the legacy of their fore­moth­ers. Many in the present times strug­gle to hold on to mid­dle-class no­tions of re­spectabil­ity against the back­drop of poverty.

Men and boys have no role in these stories and when they do ap­pear, as lovers or pa­trons, they are in­ci­den­tal to the plot. De­wan also ex­plores the na­tion­al­is­tic dis­course and how the tawaifs fared within it, oc­cu­py­ing a space on the cross-sec­tion of Hindu and Muslim cul­tural prac­tices. The tawaifs and their (of­ten) Muslim us­tads were seen as ‘in­ter­lop­ers’ in an oth­er­wise sa­cred mu­sic tradition, by ‘cul­tural na­tion­al­ists’.

‘Na­tion­al­ism’, De­wan writes, ‘had brought with it the need for mu­sic that was spir­i­tual, clas­si­cal, morally up­lift­ing and re­flec­tive of In­dia’s an­cient Hindu her­itage’. Pushed out of royal palaces and baithaks of rasik mer­chants, and purged from cen­turies-old in­ner-city quar­ters dur­ing ‘clean-up’ drives by civic-minded cit­i­zens and po­lice­men, some found fame and for­tune in the film in­dus­try and, later, dance bars. But many fell by the way­side.

De­wan re­trieves their stories and fore­grounds them against the ebb and flow of grand his­tor­i­cal forces.

Tawaif­nama, then, is not the story of a tawaif and her ex­tended fam­ily; it’s a sweep­ing nar­ra­tive of the forces of so­ci­etal change. ‘Sab time-time ka khel hai,’ an age­ing tawaif and the main nar­ra­to­rial voice tells the au­thor. ‘It is all a play of time/ fate’. ■

TAWAIF­NAMA by Saba De­wan CON­TEXT `899; 606 pages

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