The female body has been the unfortunate subject of the unabashed male gaze which was encouraged by the age-old institution, patriarchy. Sigmund Freud’s dichotomy, ‘The Madonna-Whore Complex’ is an accurate summary of the two lenses through which women are perceived, particularly in Bollywood. According to Freud, he had observed two primary perceptions of women formed by his male patients. On one hand, we have the ‘Madonna’; the pure, chaste and flexible (read: obedient) woman who is at the constant beck and call of the central man in her life. The other is the promiscuous and vile ‘Whore’ who brazenly voices and explores her desires. This dichotomy is reflected in the way female artists and entertainers used to, and continue to, be regarded.

Tawaifs are performers whose mentions are whispered in hushed tones. If the time period is taken into consideration, these women were equipped with a considerable amount of body autonomy. They could abstain from marriage or maintain sexual relations with their patrons. But ultimately, their identities were reduced to their sexuality and their cultural contribution was overshadowed by the one pole of Freud’s dichotomy, which was greeted with derision.

Tawaifs — courtesans who lived in North India — were proficient in music, dance, theatre and Urdu literature. They rose to prominence under the Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries. As the empire started to decay in India, a large proportion of the derawali tawaifs, the best of the courtesans, moved to Lucknow and Oudh where their patronage was flourishing. The 17th and 18th centuries saw them at the peak of their popularity, with their audience comprising of nawabs and the highest nobility. Their coffers were filled to the brim with gold, silver and jewellery, gifted by patrons and admirers alike. Young nawabs were sent to these courtesans to learn ‘adaab’, ‘tehzeeb’ and ‘tameez’, the art of conversation and etiquette. Their kothas – home of the tawaifs – used to host extravagant soirees, attended by admirers and royalty. Mehfils organized in these kothas included shairi (poetry readings). dance performances and singing of ghazals.

Being a tawaif meant that you were greatly skilled in the performing arts and had extensive knowledge of Urdu literature. They were connoisseurs of their art who are credited for the forms of Kathak and Thumri which we are familiar with today. If a poet was successful in having his work performed by a courtesan, it meant that his verses would live for generations to come. According to hearsay, Mirza Ghalib had asked the Nawab of Rampur if a reputed tawaif from the nawab’s court would be willing to recite his sher.

As opposed to the current media which shows dancers as a ‘deer caught in the jaws of a lion’, their performances were not meant to cater to the ‘male gaze’. Her choice and consent dictated who would get to be a spectator of the audience. The East India Company’s arrival in the port of Surat in 1608 was accompanied by a sense of foreboding for the subcontinent. There was not a single sect of society that wasn’t affected by the establishment of the colonial government; the monarchies, the nobility, the proletariat, and the artisans were no such exception. As the company grew in importance, the acclaim for this institution observed a downward trajectory. The “goras” viewed tawaifs with a critical eye. Christian missionaries in particular frowned upon these performers. They were labelled as the ‘immoral other women’, who would entice married men and disrupt marriages. Masters of vernacular languages and performing arts, they were deemed to be a lowly ‘nautch girl’, a dancing girl. Not only were they categorised as homewreckers, these women were said to pose a threat to society, in terms of health and hygiene. Parallel to the tawaifs’ downfall, British soldiers started getting infected with venereal diseases. Thus, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed in 1864 which gave municipalities sweeping powers to evict tawaifs from their own land or to forcibly make them undergo physical examinations to determine whether they were vectors or not. Subsequently, as their patronage declined, tawaifs were forced to blend in with the same society which leered at them.

And now, Bollywood sees a victim of its circumstances in these women and social reformists see a menace to civilized society. Their two dimensional existence is defined by the hero and the tawaif’s existence doesn’t extend beyond the fact that she’s a courtesan. Movies show these performers as innocent victims who have a pure heart and aspire to be ‘The Decent Woman’. Or, when they’re not being portrayed as aspirants, they are fetishised in a more direct form by casting characters like Sheila, Munni and Laila; women with flimsy morals dancing in flimsy clothes around ‘The Virtuous Hero’ who will turn to these women for one night and return to his saintly wife the next morning.

– Vasudha Sharma, Amity International School, Noida


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