In June 1857, when Indian soldiers laid siege to Cawnpore (now Kanpur), enclosing British East India Company officials, they were accompanied by a courtesan. In the midst of the confrontation, as shots whizzed around, the courtesan was seen by at least one eyewitness armed with pistols.

Azeezunbai’s fascinating story finds no mention in history textbooks. If it survives today, it is mainly in archival reports, local legends, and a paper written by Lata Singh, an associate professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Going through these resources can be like leafing through a flip book. Scattered across them is a picture of a woman who made a pivotal contribution to the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, at the forefront and behind the scenes, working as an informer, messenger and possibly even a conspirator in the Kanpur chapter of the rebellion.

A courtesan from Lucknow, Azeezunbai moved to Kanpur at a young age. There, as Singh writes, she grew close to the sepoys of the British Indian Army, particularly one Shamsuddin Khan. Testimony given to the British inquiry into the rebellion described Azeezunbai as being “intimate with men of the second cavalry” and “in the habit of riding” with armed soldiers on horseback. She was also spotted “on horseback in male attire decorated with medals, armed with a brace of pistols” during the mutiny.

Photo credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The tale of Azeezunbai is one of the many forgotten stories of India’s courtesans that were examined during a seminar held at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House on April 27. Tehzeeb-e Tawaif, organised by Manjari Chaturvedi’s The Courtesan Project, in collaboration with Avid Learning and the Royal Opera House, brought together historians, writers and researchers for a day-long symposium to discuss the legacies of India’s performing artists of the 18th to the 20th centuries. The panellists included Singh, historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg, musician Shubha Mudgal, cultural writer Veejay Sai, cinema scholar Yatindra Mishra, academic and political science professor Sanghamitra Sarker and bureaucrat-historian AN Sharma.

The event followed a similar iteration in Delhi in March and is one of many ways in which Chaturvedi, a Kathak dancer and founder of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, is trying to change the contemporary perception of courtesans.

Pushed to the margins

History has famously marginalised the voices of women, but even within that paradigm, India’s female entertainers have received a disproportionately bad rap.

Known variously as tawaifs in the North, devadasis in the South, baijis in Bengal and naikins in Goa, these professional singers and dancers were dubbed as “nautch girls” during the British rule, and their profession was conflated with prostitution in the late 19th century. As a result, their contribution to India’s classical arts was scrubbed out of the collective consciousness and their stories found little place, even in the margins of history.

In their glory days, the courtesans were at the centre of art and culture in India, proficient in both music and dance. Author and historian Pran Nevile, an authoritative voice on the subject, drew a link between these public entertainers and the apsaras of Indian mythology. In his book Nautch Girls of India: Dancers, Singers, Playmates, Nevile described how the tawaifs of North India enjoyed wealth, power, prestige, political access, and were considered authorities on culture. Noble families would send their sons to them to learn tehzeeb, or etiquette, and “the art of conversation”.

The tawaifs reached their zenith under the Mughal rule. “The best of the courtesans, called deredar tawaifs, claimed their descent from the royal Mughal courts,” wrote Nevile. “They formed part of the retinue of kings and nawabs...many of them were outstanding dancers and singers, who lived in comfort and luxury...To be associated with a tawaif was considered to be a symbol of status, wealth, sophistication and one considered her to be a bad woman or an object of pity.”

There is no definitive research on the extent to which sex was a part of what the courtesans offered. What is clear, however, was that their lives could not be covered by a broad brush stroke. These were women of wealth and agency, and any sexual relationship they may have had with patrons was likely consensual. Moreover, there were hierarchies within the performing artists, and the tawaifs were at the top, a class distinct from street performances and prostitutes.

The Tehzeeb-e-Tawaif symposium at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai.

With the arrival of the British began a gradual decimation of their livelihoods. Their royal patronage waned as the territory under the East India Company grew, but it wasn’t until the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny that the institution was eroded.

By this time, the Mughal empire had already been in decline for decades. Leaving Delhi behind, many tawaifs had moved to Lucknow in Oudh State, where the nawabs still supported their art. But it didn’t take long for their fortunes to turn even in Lucknow. The British annexed Oudh State in 1856, and suddenly the tawaifs found themselves in an ideal vantage when the mutiny started brewing. Discontent against the East India Company was growing, and the tawaifs responded by playing an active role in the revolt from behind the scenes. Their establishments called kothas became meeting zones and hideouts for rebels. Those who had accumulated wealth provided rebels financial support.

The power and influence they exerted are detailed in Veena Talwar Oldenberg’s essay Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow. Her examination of civic tax ledgers from 1858 to 1877 shows that the tawaifs were in the highest tax bracket, with the “largest individual incomes of any in the city”. The essay also notes the systematic crackdown on the institution following the mutiny. Oldenburg writes:

“The courtesans’ names were also on lists of property: (houses, orchards, manufacturing and retail establishments for food and luxury items) confiscated by British officials for their proven involvement in the siege of Lucknow and the rebellion against British rule in 1857. These women, though patently noncombatants, were penalised for their instigation of and pecuniary assistance to the rebels. On yet another list, some twenty pages long, are recorded the spoils of war seized from one set of ‘female apartments’ in the palace and garden complex called the Qaisar Bagh, where some of the deposed ex-King Wajid Ali Shah’s three hundred or more consorts resided when it was seized by the British. It is a remarkable list, eloquently evocative of a privileged existence: gold and silver ornaments studded with precious stones, embroidered cashmere wool and brocade shawls, bejeweled caps and shoes, silver-, gold-, jade-, and amber-handled fly whisks, silver cutlery, jade goblets, plates, spittoons, huqqahs and silver utensils for serving and storing food and drink, and valuable furnishings.”

During the symposium in Mumbai in April, Oldenberg shed more light on the British retaliation against courtesans. “They got warrants for [searching the kothas] and would destroy them, break the furniture, pull down the curtains,” she said. “That’s how the tawaif culture was actually, physically, dismembered.”

Decline of the art

In the amnesic annals of history, another little-appreciated name is Begum Hazrat Mahal. The wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, Hazrat Mahal was, according to some accounts, a courtesan before marriage. During the mutiny, while her husband was in exile, rebels under her leadership briefly seized control of Lucknow and her son, Birjis Qadr, was named the king. When British forces recaptured Lucknow in 1858, Hazrat Mahal sought asylum in Nepal and lived there until her death in 1879.

Over in Cawnpore, there were murmurs of another courtesan playing a role in the 1857 rebellion, in connection with the infamous Bibighar massacre, in which more than 100 captive British women and children were killed. Some accounts identify the conspirator as Hussaini, who Singh believes was a courtesan lower in the hierarchy of tawaifs. She writes that apart from Hussaini and Azeezunbai, “there are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of these women in the Rebellion”, most of which have gone unrecorded. She mentions, for instance, “unsubstantiated accounts of girls taking to the streets in a battle with British soldiers”.

The mutiny was a turning point for the British empire in India – and the death knell for courtesans’ art. The administration came directly under the British crown, bringing with it the Victorian-era morality project, which placed a premium on women’s chastity and domesticity. As public performers, courtesans were equated with prostitutes and their kothas, where they had entertained wealthy men for decades, were branded as brothels. Laws such as the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, which was originally aimed to curb the spread of venereal diseases among British troops, allowed the Crown to monitor, control and stifle the earnings of courtesans by clubbing them with prostitutes and subjecting them to strict regulations.

Christian missionaries and Indian reformers launched the anti-nautch movement in the late 19th century, and public opinion started to weigh heavily against courtesans and dancers. With their livelihoods wrecked, some of them turned to sex work to make ends meet, further cementing their association with prostitution.

A recording of Gauhar Jaan, one of the most successful performing artists of her time.

By the time mass resistance to British rule began through the Swadeshi and non-cooperation movements in the 1900s, the social status and financial position of most courtesans was a pale shadow of their clout in 1857. Still, examples of their support for, and assistance to, the nationalist cause can be found in historical records.

Gauhar Jaan, a celebrated courtesan who found immense success as a recording artist in the 1900s, was approached by Mahatma Gandhi to contribute to the Swaraj Fund to support the freedom movement. She agreed to organise a fund-raising concert on the condition that Gandhi would attend her performance. Gandhi was unable to make it, and Gauhar Jaan sent just Rs 12,000 of the Rs 24,000 she managed to raise, as Vikram Sampath writes in My Name is Gauhar Jaan, his book on the musician’s life.

During the Gandhi-led non-cooperation movement from 1920 to 1922, a group of courtesans in Varanasi formed the Tawaif Sabha to support the independence struggle. According to Singh, Husna Bai, who chaired the sabha, urged members of the group to wear iron shackles instead of ornaments as a symbol of protest and to boycott foreign goods. Singh is documenting the role of tawaifs during the later stages of the nationalist movement in an upcoming book.

Amritlal Nagar’s Ye Kothewalian (1958), an account of the life of tawaifs, included a letter from a courtesan, Vidyadhar Bai, on her meeting with Gandhi in Varanasi. On his suggestion, she wrote, some courtesans had decided to start their musical performances with renditions of nationalist songs. One such song written by her, Chun Chun Ke Phool Le Lo, was included in the letter.

That song lives on today – it was included in singer Shubha Mudgal’s 2008 album Swadheenta Samar Geet, a collection of songs from the freedom movement. The music was composed by her husband, Aneesh Pradhan. In 2011, the couple collaborated with theatre director Sunil Shanbag on a musical drama Stories in a Song, one episode of which recreated Gandhi’s encounter with the Tawaif Sabha.

Mudgal said, “The idea of artists asking for political and social change” was what drew her to Vidyadhar Bai’s song. “[The song] is quite a reminder that this is not something new being done. The political class was including them in discussions on a more long-term basis and not just as an election strategy. They were being asked to take part in the movement and in public life at a grassroots level.”

In other parts of the country too, former courtesans and prostitutes sought to participate in the freedom movement. Gandhi met a group of prostitutes in Barisal (in present-day Bangladesh) and Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh), who expressed the desire to join the Indian National Congress. Gandhi urged them to give up sex work and start spinning the charkha instead. “My whole heart is with these sisters. But I am unable to identify myself with the methods adopted at Barisal,” he wrote in an editorial in Young India, his weekly publication, in June 1925. “...I am firmly of opinion that, so long as they continue the life of shame, it is wrong to accept donations or services from them or to elect them as delegates or to encourage them to become members of the Congress.”

This social ostracisation may have restricted the extent of tawaifs’ involvement in the freedom struggle, says Singh. “Even the middle-class women who were participating in the movement said they do not want to be seen around them [the courtesans]. Being with them [and] being seen with them was also creating anxiety among the middle-class bhadra mahila [educated woman].”

These disparate anecdotes, when put together, create a rough picture of the ways in which courtesans tried to contribute to the freedom struggle. Chaturvedi says many of these stories have been lost because “we never thought that tawaifs were important enough to document. But [the stories] are very well known in the oral narrative”.

Chaturvedi’s The Courtesan Project has been working to bring these contributions to light through dance performances and seminars like the one in Mumbai. She is also working to consolidate all her research through a documentation project, which will involve a book and a web interface.

“We snatched away everything from them, their music, dance, poetry,” she said. “But we’ve never given credit to them. We must respect them. We must know about them, and I hope to be able to do this in my lifetime.”

Manjari Chaturvedi performs at Tehzeeb-e-Tawaif at the Royal Opera House.

Also read: Mayalee: The story of an Indian dancing girl who stood up to the British Raj

Begum Samru: The 18th century dancer who grew to rule a principality and rescue the Mughal emperor

How courtesans paved the way for women in Indian showbiz