Weaving a story of familial history in Tawaifnama, writer Saba Dewan details the history of a tradition long maligned on the Indian subcontinent: that of tawaifs. While providing glimpses from multiple generations of courtesans in rural Bihar – a world gone-but-not-entirely – the work also sheds light on the luminous centre of the Bhojpuri speaking region: Banaras.

Reknowned as a documentary filmmaker, Dewan steps into territory familiar from her previous films on challenges in the life of women who perform for a living. The topic of the tawaif has, of course, long been a subject of interest in India, most notably the series of films based on Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada.

But therein lies the catch.

Tawaifnama trains its lens not on the much-discussed land of Awadh and its legendary capital Lucknow, but on an area defined in the popular imagination more by lewd songs and crime than by anything else. The neglected rural district of Shahabad in Bihar is the locale for some of the key characters and elements in Dewan’s book. From Jagdishpur to Chainpur, from Bhabua to Banaras, this family chronicle of sorts takes us through a gritty landscape which, perhaps unexpectedly, houses a unique musical culture attributed to the patronage of the rural nobility as well as of wealthy urban traders.

Time progresses with alacrity, and yet maintains a refined stateliness in the tale of Dhamman Bibi, Sadabahar and their numerous descendants. We see the declining wealth of a quasi-medieval nobility, followed by the fires of 1857, before quickly progressing to the age of gramophones and the appearance of Gandhi.

A multi-generational family portrait

Narrated in the form of the account of Dewan’s unnamed friend, the grand tale begins with the travails of Dharmman Bibi, the lover of the famed Rajput landlord of Jagdishpur, Kunwar Singh. Trained in the musical arts, Dharmman gives birth to twins whom she must leave in the shelter of her sisters so she can join her beloved in the saddle against the East India Company.

One of her twins reaches the heights of musical achievement – the angelic Sadabahar (forever-spring), who supposedly has the power to tame even the most poisonous of snakes with her voice. We then come to the unhappy existence of Teema, a poor child who pays for the survival of her family through a sacrifice of her own childhood and familial love.

The generation of Bindo, Asghari, Phoolmani and Pyaari bring further fame to the clan in the waning years of tawaif patronage in the lively city of Banaras, where their lives are set against the backdrop of Gandhi’s denouncement of their tradition as immoral and inhumane. The unnamed narrator remains the last of her illustrious clan, born long after her already reknowned sisters, blazing as a candle does in its last moments of existence.

Banaras, Bhojpuri

With the story of Dharmman Bibi and her descendants woven into the narrative, a crystallised biography of sorts of Banaras and its larger cultural sphere in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh is born. The locales of Nariyal Bazaar and Dal Mandi are full-fledged characters in themselves in Dewan’s narrative, along with the people who inhabit them and visit the kothas of the tawaifs. From the time of Sadabahar to that of the generation of our narrator, we see the slow changes that affect the city – much like a microcosm of the country at large at the same time.

Along with the cultural context of the era, Dewan’s storytelling skilfully portrays the musical traditions of Hindustani classical mausiqi, of which the tawaifs were traditional guardians. Received from the best masters and sarangi accompanists, the rigorous training of a courtesan ensured – as the book points out – that the very first gramophone artists and radio singers of the age belonged to tawaif backgrounds. Singers dear to admirers of ghazal gayaki and thumri appear as lifelike yet historical characters throughout the journey of the book, Begum Akhtar and Rasoolan Bai being just two of the many mentioned.

The lost age of radio singing and the mehfils that dotted Banaras in its heyday appear in all their splendor – even the fine details of the ragas most commonly sung with entire passages dedicated to “Bhairavi mehfils” as well as the lyrics of almost-forgotten thumris that fire the imagination and pushes the reader towards actual recordings of Rasoolan Bai and her peers. In a sense, the book functions as a way to lure the modern urban Indian into exploring the erased heritage of the tawaif community – and to realise that Bhojpuri as a language is far more than recent titillating songs might suggest.

The erasure of the tawaif

Beyond the simple narrative of a family of musicians and entertainers, Dewan works against the current established by decades of nationalist thought, in turn influenced by the Victorian ideas of morality exported to India by the Raj. The leading lights of community once known for being a school for noblemen to learn tehzeeb, tawaifs, it is emphasised, faced difficulties from the outset being women in the public eye – unlike the purdanasheen wives and mothers of the nobility.

It is precisely this reason that this work presents itself most poignantly. With a scathing gaze directed at the actions of the colonial government, the book is harshly critical of the Bhatkhande reforms which disowned the tawaif community from its centuries-old inheritance in an obvious attempt to brahminise public spaces – rendering them “pure” so as to not corrupt the minds of the newly “modernised” generation of married women which had earlier been restricted to the domestic sphere.

“To make music acceptable in the homes of the middle classes, Bhatkhande also several suitably spiritual and morally uplifting khyal bandishes in an attempt to offset a body of earlier khyal lyrics that were perceived to be obscene and offensive to respectable sensibilities.”

And so Tawaifnama also emerges as a harsh critique of the narrow definition given by the nationalist movement to several traditions which it saw as either “un-Indian” or “Indian” – primarily illustrated by a conscious effort to exclude classical compositions that did not conform to Bhatkhande’s śāstric definition of Hindustani music, such as compositions in Persian and Urdu.

The book ends at a most appropriate time, with the election of a certain candidate from the Parliamentary constituency of Banaras in 2014 and the tides of change that come with it. Remarkably, Dewan manages to connect a time often associated with the distant past – the 19th century – to one that is all too familiar to the subcontinental reader. At no point does the text feel bogged down by excessive detail; on the other hand, it compels the reader to dive deeper into the tale of Sadabahar and Dharmman. It can only be hoped that this is the first book in a series of narratives brought to the forefront after being erased by centuries of brahmanical scholarship.


Tawaifnama, Saba Dewan, Context.