A tawaif was a highly sophisticated courtesan who catered to the nobility of the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the Mughal era. The tawaifs excelled in and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition, and were considered an authority on etiquette. Tawaifs were largely a North Indian institution central to Mughal court culture from the 16th century onwards and became even more prominent with the weakening of Mughal rule in the mid-18th century. They contributed significantly to the continuation of traditional dance and music forms and then emergence of modern Indian cinema.
The patronage of the Mughal court before and after the Mughal Dynasty in the Doab region and the artistic atmosphere of 16th century Lucknow made arts-related careers a viable prospect. Many girls were taken at a young age and trained in both performing arts (such as Kathak and Hindustani classical music) as well as literature (ghazal, thumri) to high standards. Once they had matured and possessed a sufficient command over dancing and singing, they became a tawaif, high-class courtesans who served the rich and noble.
The tawaif's introduction into her profession was marked by a celebration, the so-called missī ceremony, that customarily included the inaugural blackening of her teeth.
It is also believed that young nawabs-to-be were sent to these "tawaifs" to learn "tameez" and "tehzeeb" which included the ability to differentiate and appreciate good music and literature, perhaps even practice it, especially the art of ghazal writing. By the 18th century, they had become the central element of polite, refined culture in North India.
These courtesans would dance, sing (especially ghazals), recite poetry (shairi) and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often incidental, it was not assured contractually. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose among the best of their suitors.
Some of the popular tawaifs were Begum Samru (who rose to rule the principality of Sardhana in western Uttar Pradesh), Moran Sarkar (who became the wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh), Wazeeran (patronised by Lucknow's last nawab Wajid Ali Shah), Begum Hazrat Mahal (Wajid Ali's first wife who played an important role in the First War of Independence), Gauhar Jaan (a notable classical singer who sang for India's first-ever record), and Zohrabai Agrewali.
The annexation of Oudh by the British in 1856 sounded the first death-knell for this medieval institution. It soon was not favoured by the British, and the women were branded as prostitutes to defame them. Social reformers opposed them as social decadence. The institutions survived until India's independence. Some of the famous tawaifs include:
- Malka Jaan, and daughter Gauhar Jan (1873–1930) who created the very first Indian song recording in 1902.
- Jaddanbai (1892–1949) – a master music composer, singer, actress, and film maker.
- Begum Akhtar (1914–1974) Padma Bhushan
- Zohrabai Ambalewali (1918–1990)
- Binodini Dasi (1862–1941)
- Fatma Begum (1892–1983) and daughter Zubeida (1911–1988), who acted in the first Indian talkie movie Alam Ara (1931)
- Rasoolan Bai (1902 – 15 December 1974)
- Roshan Ara Begum (1917 – 6 December 1982) Sitara-e-Imtiaz
- Zareena Begum of Lucknow (1947 – 12 May 2018)
They used to be the only source of popular music and dance and were often invited to perform on weddings and other occasions. Some of them became concubines of maharajas and wealthy individuals. With the emergence of movies and record industry, however, they lost popularity.
The image of the tawaif has had an enduring appeal, immortalized in Bollywood movies. Films with a tawaif as a central character include Devdas (1955), Sadhna (1958), Pakeezah (1972), Amar Prem (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981), Tawaif (1985), Pati Patni Aur Tawaif (1990), Devdas (2002), and Umrao Jaan (2006) and documentary film, The Other Song (2009). Other films depict a tawaif in a supporting role, often in situations where a man in a loveless marriage goes to her.
- Similar professions in other nations
- Almeh, a similar profession in the Middle East
- Ca trù, a similar profession in Vietnam
- Geisha, a similar profession in Japan
- Kisaeng, a similar profession in Korea
- Oiran, a similar profession in ancient Japan
- Nagarvadhu, a similar profession in ancient India
- Shamakhi dancers, a similar profession in Azerbaijan
- Yiji, a similar profession in China
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