Tawaifnama: An Excerpt

An exclusive introduction to the excerpt from the critically-acclaimed book Tawaifnama, by Saba Dewan:

Dharmman Bibi finds no mention in the meta narrative of Indian history. A famous tawaif, courtesan, in 19th century district Shahabad in Bihar, Dharmman was not only a highly skilled musician and dancer but also adept at wielding the sword and horse riding.  She rode in battle against colonial forces alongside her patron Babu Kunwar Singh and took active part in the revolt of 1857.  While Babu Kunwar Singh’s contribution to India’s freedom movement has been duly noted and extolled -  the Republic of India issued a commemorative stamp on 23 April 1966, and Veer Kunwar Singh University named after him was established in Arrah in 1976 - Dharmman Bibi’s role in the uprising of 1857 remains unrecognised. She finds only a passing mention in some biographical notes about Kunwar Singh as his ‘concubine’ who joined him in the war against the British.

Dharmman is not alone in being relegated to being a footnote in history. Tawaifs as a community have always stood on the margins of patriarchy and, therefore, necessarily its historiography. The last century and a half have in particular been relentless in rendering them invisible. Colonialism and nationalism have both in equal measure stigmatized tawaifs as ‘immoral’ and ‘obscene’ and attempted to erase their contribution to the shaping of northern India’s cultural, social and political life.

Tawaifnama is a history of Dharmman Bibi and the women across generations in her family living and working in western Bihar and eastern U.P and Banaras. Ranging from itinerant entertainers to elite courtesans, the lives of these self-made women throw light to the contribution made by tawaifs to the making of modern India – as practitioners of music and dance, in particular of thumri, dadra and ghazal singing, and kathak dance - and from the late 19th – early 20th century onwards as first generation female performers of newly emerging technologies of mass entertainment such as the theatre, gramophone recordings, cinema and the radio. Many tawaifs were highly educated in the letters and part of the literati in their cities and towns.  Several wrote poetry while some others were active participants in literary and philosophical societies.  Besides their involvement in the  arts and letters, tawaifs played an active part in anti-colonial movements, be it the revolt of 1857 or in participating in the later nationalist struggles such as the Non - Cooperation and the Quit India movements, this despite the shrill condemnation they faced from nationalist leaders including Gandhi.  The stories in Tawaifnama spanning a period from early 19th century to the present are a testimony of the everyday struggles waged by tawaifs to survive and to practice their arts in an increasingly hostile environment.

Excerpt from Tawaifnama

You now narrate what you confess is amongst your favourite stories about Dharmman Bibi: ‘Kunwar Singh had once organised at his fort in Jagdishpur a mehfil, as he was wont to do, in honour of a visiting gora sahib, a white official.’

On account of his lineage and eminent position, Kunwar Singh was well known and respected in the colonial circles of Bihar. A generous host, he would entertain often and lavishly, inviting colonial officials to sumptuous feasts and spectacular nautches. The celebrations would be remembered for months on end in British and Indian circles for their splendid extravagance.

‘On this occasion too he had arranged for some of the finest tawaifs in Arrah to come and entertain his guest with music and dance,’ you say. ‘Dharmman Bibi was staying at Jagdishpur at that point. She was not scheduled to perform in the evening’s mehfil because Babu Kunwar Singh did not wish to have his publicly acknowledged mistress dance in his home in front of strangers, including a gora sahib. In our parts, although there was no formal rule against it, it was considered bad form to do so.’

Everything seemed to be going well. One well-known tawaif after the other sang, danced and cast a spell on everyone invited to the mehfil—everyone except the gora sahib, who looked out of sorts and bored. Concerned, Kunwar Singh enquired if something was amiss. The official replied that he had heard much about Dharmman Bibi and had hoped to see her perform that evening. He was a bit disappointed that she was not part of the mehfil. Kunwar Singh was now in a fix. He did not wish to ask Dharmman to sing and dance for the Englishman’s entertainment, and yet how could he refuse a guest?

Rajputs prided themselves on their hospitality, for treating their guests like gods. Moreover, this guest was a representative of the colonial government. Kunwar Singh needed to keep officers like him happy. There was no way he could allow the Englishman to leave his home disappointed. So, he sent word to Dharmman Bibi to get ready and join the other tawaifs in the mehfil.

Dharmman, though surprised, realised that her babu sahib must be under some pressure. Without fuss, she quickly changed into a peshvaz, the elite tawaif’s ceremonial dress for performance, comprising a long-sleeved, close-fitting bodice that flared out into a full skirt reaching almost to the ankles, traditionally made out of cloth woven with threads of gold or silver metal and silk. Its weight and emblematic importance would be often likened by tawaifs, semi-jokingly, to the metal-plated body armour worn by the elite soldiers of the Mughal army. To don a heavy peshvaz and dance in it with the swiftness of an eagle and grace of a deer, as if it were made of gossamer, needed arduous training and practice.

That evening, Dharmman wore a beautiful, green, yellow and gold peshvaz, paired with green silk pyjamas. As she lined her large eyes with kohl, her two personal maids dressed her thick, lustrous hair in a long plait, adorning it with freshly made gajra of sweet-scented flowers. Next, they applied delicate patterns of red alta on Dharmman’s feet, as she selected the ornaments that would complement her costume. Much of her jewellery had been gifted by Kunwar Singh; the rest she had either received from former lovers or bought out of her own earnings.

Her hair, forehead, ears, nose, neck, waist, forearms, wrists, fingers, ankles and toes glittering with precious stones inset in gold, Dharmman now covered her head and draped her shoulders in a long, golden-yellow, semi-diaphanous scarf woven from the finest silk. She made a dazzling entry into the ceremonial audience hall where the mehfil was underway, and offered her salaams to the English guest, who looked delighted by her appearance.

Dharmman Bibi began her performance with dance as was the norm. Every time she completed a circle, the visitor would offer her money, insisting that she herself take it from him. He would then try and grab her hand. Dharmman seethed silently. This firangi, foreigner, was behaving as if she, the leading tawaif of Shahabad, was a humble nachaniya, a low-placed dancer, or worse, a poor prostitute selling sex to English soldiers.

In her early days as a tawaif, when she visited cities like Banaras and Calcutta to perform for the local elite, Dharmman had noticed the crowds of women, young and old, with faces pinched and stomachs hungry, that arrived there daily from villages in search of work. Mainly artisan women pauperised by the arrival of cheap British imports into the Indian market, or wives and daughters of peasant families facing destitution because of the high rates of revenue extracted from them by the colonial state, many of them drifted into selling sex in fast-expanding cities like Calcutta.

Several women were recruited into chaklas, or brothels, set up at the behest of colonial authorities in the Lal Bazaar area of cantonments, designated for regimental prostitutes. Engaged by the military establishment to provide sexual services exclusively to European soldiers, these women were registered by the Cantonment magistrate and issued licences to live and work there. Even their fee was fixed by the military authorities. Besides brothels, the Lal Bazaar also housed the lock hospital, a venereal disease ‘hospital’, where prostitutes who were considered diseased would be forcibly sent for treatment and detained until ‘cured’.

Outraged at being treated no better than the unfortunate denizens of the Lal Bazaars, Dharmman suppressed her urge to plant a slap across the face of the boorish visitor. Several English officers kept courtesans as mistresses, and many more were routinely invited to nautches such as this one. All of them were aware of the decorum to be observed with elite courtesans. Was this offensiveness a deliberate attempt to humiliate Dharmman’s patron?

Under normal circumstances, Dharmman would have stopped performing in protest against the insulting behaviour of the firangi. This mehfil, though, was not routine. Heavily in debt, Kunwar Singh desperately needed to keep English officials on his side. Even though the total annual income of his large estate was about Rs 300,000, out of which he paid an annual revenue of Rs 148,000, the burden of debts that he had inherited from his father had over the years grown to an astronomical sum of Rs 1,300,000. He had made applications for a remission of his dues to the state revenue board. The only card he had in hand was the friendship and goodwill he enjoyed with the colonial officers in Shahabad. They could help put pressure on the state revenue board to bail him out of a situation where he stood in danger of losing his estate and his title.

Dharmman Bibi saw the helpless rage in Babu Kunwar Singh’s eyes, his clenched fists. She knew of his difficult financial position. She realised too that the status she enjoyed as an eminent tawaif was linked directly to the patronage she received from babu sahib. Besides, she had come to respect and even love Kunwar Singh for the kindness, generosity and consideration he extended not only towards her but to all those who served him. His actions inspired loyalty, and Dharmman was not one to betray a benevolent patron. Swallowing her pride, she ignored the leering white guest’s clumsy advances and continued her dance with a smile on her lips. She had been trained to perform in the most adverse circumstances, and today she put those long years of learning to good use.

As Dharmman Bibi danced, she became increasingly aware of the hungry look in the Englishman’s eyes. She knew exactly what the foreign visitor would expect when he retired to bed that night under babu sahib’s roof. She did not fancy the thought, and worried too that the request would put her patron in an intolerable situation. A refusal would result in alienating the firangi. And yet she knew that it would be impossible for babu sahib to agree to let his guest sleep with his mistress. It would compromise completely the old Rajput’s sense of honour, his masculinity.

So, swirling faster and faster as the dance piece drew to an end, Dharmman Bibi thought of a way out. It was quite a simple plan actually. For the rest of the evening, she kept pouring wine in the gora sahib’s glass and encouraging him to drink up quickly. Soon enough, she had him completely drunk. When the evening drew to a close, a stumbling sahib had to be helped to his room by Babu Kunwar Singh’s staff.

Meanwhile, Dharmman Bibi retired quickly to her quarters and changed out of the peshvaz and jewellery that she had been wearing that evening. Giving these to her personal maid who resembled her in height and build, Dharmman requested her to go in her stead to the gora sahib that night. The maid covered her face with Dharmman’s scarf and slipped into the Englishman’s room.

The officer took his leave the next morning. Pleased with his hazy recollections of the previous night’s encounter, he never once realised that he had been fooled. Kunwar Singh bade goodbye to his guest with a sense of relief. His mistress’s quick thinking had saved what could have been a truly humiliating situation for him. He felt a new respect for her intelligence, resourcefulness and, most importantly, her loyalty towards him and his honour. Standing on the terrace, as she watched the Englishman depart, Dharmman Bibi felt only a cold, hard rage well up in the pit of her belly and reach her heart. She would neither forget nor forgive the firangi’s insulting behaviour.


Excerpted with permission from Westland Books, from the brilliantly well-researched book - Tawaifnama by documentary filmmaker and NIF Fellow Saba Dewan. The book is available on Amazon.

The New India Foundation