WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER
To know how our society changed, one only needs to read this history of a tawaif family
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