Cityscapes

A search for tawaifs in Old Delhi reveals a present that’s not always comfortable with the past

Courtesans were once celebrities who quietly shaped socio-political discourse, forming influential relationships with members of the nobility.

Masjid Mubarak Begum in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazar is named after the wife of David Ochterlony, Delhi’s first British resident. Mubarak Begum was a dancing girl, and it is her background that lends this early 19th century mosque its colloquial name, Randi ki Masjid, or prostitute’s mosque. The mosque’s caretakers try hard to shrug off the name, going to the extent of having painted the “correct name” of the mosque on its façade in Roman letters.

A stone’s throw away from the mosque lies the Chawri Bazar metro station, one of the capital’s deepest metro stations. Ascending to the surface – past scrubbed grey tiles and gleaming escalators into a world of Mughal ephemera – is not unlike time travel.

The entrance to the metro station is a meeting point for the walks that history researcher Gaurav Sharma conducts in Old Delhi, as part of his work with an immersive tour company. Last month, he led groups on two walks tracing the journey of the tawaif or courtesan from her origins in Old Delhi, to the modern-day brothels of Garstin Bastion Road.

Masjid Mubarak Begum. Photo credit: Ranjana Dave.
Masjid Mubarak Begum. Photo credit: Ranjana Dave.

Chapat bazi

The tawaifs make for a mysterious and alluring pursuit. In the 1970s, the historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg patiently befriended a group of courtesans in Lucknow as part of her research on the social consequences of colonial urbanisation. The courtesans she met were independent, rich and educated. Their patrons were the new nobility – high-ranking government officials and businessmen. Their closest emotional and romantic liaisons were with each other, which they referred to as chapat bazi in their conversations.

In present-day Delhi or Lucknow, one is unlikely to encounter the kothas or tawaifs that Talwar Oldenburg describes. They have left residual and often highly romanticised traces, like the decorative itr bottles that shopkeepers say belonged to them, or the well-preserved arch of an old haveli, where they lived a century ago.

Our walk takes us down Chawri Bazar on the road leading to Jama Masjid. In a performative past, Sharma tells us, the street was known as Bazar-e-Husn, a marketplace of beauty. Now its wares are less sentimental – taps, tiles and wedding cards.

While the market has always had shops at street level, the courtesans and public women resided upstairs. Sharma explains how different categories of public women had parts of the street apportioned to them. They offered sex, dance, music and refinement, among other things. Most of the balconies, with their delicate pillars and latticed arches, have disappeared. They’ve been enclosed by rectangular panes of dusty glass and swallowed into existing rooms.

Intricately carved arches adorn a balcony. Photo credit: Ranjana Dave.
Intricately carved arches adorn a balcony. Photo credit: Ranjana Dave.

Above the offices of Lachhman Dass and Co, a signboard engraving firm, a small section of the original balcony remains intact. A wide central arch is framed on either side by four smaller arches of varying girth. The intricately carved arches bear hints of a previous coat of blue paint. In his 2011 book, Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District, journalist Mayank Austen Soofi traces a similar path down the streets of Chawri Bazar, wondering if this was the place where girls stood and looked down on their customers. He interviews Ronald Vivian Smith, a 1960s journalist who tells him about the four categories of women – the domni, bedni, tawaif and randi. The randi stood at the top of this hierarchy, forming monogamous relationships with members of the nobility and teaching etiquette to rich young men.

“When a randi took a tonga ride in Daryaganj, people would swarm to the roadside to have a look at her,” Smith recounts to Soofi. Courtesans were celebrities, famed for their wealth, influence, and idiosyncrasies. In Lucknow, the courtesans Talwar Oldenburg met insisted on wearing a burqa to preserve their anonymity in public spaces, arguing that they did not “bestow anything on men without extracting its price”.

In chronicles of 19th century life, the courtesan counts Mughal nobility and officials of the East India Company among her clients. Tales of her eccentricity abound. In The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple writes about Ad Begum, who was known to turn up naked at social gatherings, cleverly decorating her body with drawings that simulated clothing and jewellery.

True courtesans

A walk up Chawri Bazar, beyond Ajmeri Gate, deposits us at GB Road, New Delhi’s current red-light district. For the residents of Old Delhi, the events of 1857 put an end to the Mughal Shahjahanabad they knew. The poet Mirza Ghalib bore witness to the sudden shifts in power, with the residents of the old city finding themselves homeless and penniless. The courtesans were relocated – the subtle differences between the nature of what they offered becoming increasingly irrelevant – to GB Road, beyond the city limits of Old Delhi.

As we walk down GB Road, our group is interrupted twice by the police. A constable tells us it is unsafe for women to walk around the area, while a more persuasive sub-inspector stops to have a long conversation about the merits of conducting guided tours in red-light areas.

In the layout of many GB Road kothas, Soofi notices spaces earmarked for dancing and singing. Until some decades ago, GB Road was still home to tawaifs like the famous Maya Devi, who studied Kathak with Acchan Maharaj and Hindustani music with masters of the Kirana gharana. In 1983, the British docudrama The Courtesans of Bombay focused on Pavan Pul, a Mumbai compound inhabited by women who worked as courtesans and in the entertainment industry. The women danced and sang accompanied by their musicians, in unremarkable tube-lit, terrazzo-floored living rooms, where they also raised their children by day. Pavan Pul is no longer traceable on a map.

Films such as Pakeezah (1972) or Umrao Jaan (1981) are recognised as classic courtesan films for the wealth of visual and cultural detail they offer. Revisiting a 1983 interview with Maya Devi gives us occasion to reflect on how the past slips away. Acknowledging that her days were numbered, Maya Devi told her interviewer, “Your children may never see a tawaif; they will have to make do with silly movies like ‘Umrao Jaan’.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.