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The Tawa’if, the courtesans of Mughal India, were figures who embodied a world of refinement through their mastery of poetry, music and dance. Celebrated by the Mughals for their intellect, talent and beauty, the Tawa’if were considered authorities on art, etiquette and culture. Yet today, tawa’if is the common word in Hindi for prostitute. Who were these women, once held in such high esteem, now remembered only as sex workers?

An unconventional female figure in 19th Century India – their education meant that tawa’if existed outside the patriarchal fold. At a time when women were confined to their homes, the tawa’if enjoyed rare access to public life, owning land and property, making them some of the only women of the time who paid taxes. In addition to this, their high social status as noble women of the court, combined with their liminal status outside the normal restrictions of patriarchy, made marriage or a life of independence both viable options. Considered authorities on the high arts, the tawa’if were also treated like muses and feature in many paintings throughout the Mughal period. The tawa’if were central figures in the court of the last king of India, Wajid Ali Shah, accompanying him in exile to Calcutta. Here in the city – artists, dancers, poets, musicians and courtesans came more and more into contact with British residents.

Whilst mixing socially and culturally with Indians was commonplace for much of Company Rule in India, following India’s First War of Independence in 1857 and the dissolution of the East India Company, mixing socially with Indians became increasingly frowned upon. Those who continued to fraternise with Indians, in particular courtesans, were accused of ‘going native’. Victorian Britons disdained the courtesans, viewing their performances as scandalous, ostracising the Tawa’if from the courts where they were once held in high esteem. This contempt for courtesans was compounded by the growing movement for Indian independence – many Indian rebels often took refuge in the houses of Courtesans – known as kothas.

Moreover, British residents who did interact with the tawa’if increasingly treated them as prostitutes. As more Englishmen became clients of the courtesans, isolated English only “courtesan factories” became popular. Courtesans were forbidden from entertaining Indian clients under the guise of protecting English customers from disease. This thinking was reinforced by laws such as the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, which forced all sex workers and courtesans, but not British servicemen, to have regular sexual health examinations, those women who were found to have a venereal disease were imprisoned.

By the late 19th century the Anti- Nautch Movement, which aimed to eradicate the culture of courtesans and dancing girls from India, was well underway. Caught in the tide of a fast changing India at the dawn of the 20th century, the tawa’if once again found themselves as liminal figures. They were hated by the British, yet not fully accepted the by the Victorian educated bourgeoisie leaders of the Indian Independence movement. Though their art was seen as of great cultural value by many of the Indian middle class, the tawa’if themselves were still dismissed as prostitutes at worst, or as relics of a feudal past at best.

Pushed out of the palaces of Mughal onto the streets, many courtesans did become sex workers. Much of what remained of their culture of music, poetry and dance became ‘mujra’ which was viewed as sordid, provocative performances. Even as their numbers dwindled and many found themselves forced into sex work, the tawa’if fought to save their rich cultural traditions. Some became household names, the equivalent of modern A-list celebrities. For some the arrival of a new invention on the shores of India would change their lives and immortalise their art – the Gramophone.

In 1902 Gauhar Jaan, a Tawa’if became the first ever Indian recording artist. Already famous for her mastery of the arts, records of her songs sold well. At the height of her career she was so wealthy it was rumoured she never wore the same jewels twice. Often without families, already regarded with scorn as debauchers, the social stigma associated with performing on screen or on stage did not apply to tawa’if. Their prospects limited by the destruction of the salons, the tawa’if were amongst the few women in India free to follow in the footsteps of Gauhar Jaan. The unique liminal status of the tawa’if once again allowed them a freedom other women did not have. Many went on to become the first Indian recording artists and movie stars, paving the way for modern Bollywood heroines.

This September for the first time in London, a new exhibition will explore the life and art of these forgotten women. Presented by the Asian Music Circuit as part of their ongoing Lost Traditions season of events, Tawa’if, explores the life, art and fall from grace of these truly extraordinary historical and cultural figures. An audio visual experience, the exhibition follows the story of the tawa’if from the cultural renaissance of the mid-19th century to their modern day incarnation in the dancing bars of Dehli and Kolkata.

Open from 4th-6th September at the Royal Geographic society in Kensington, on the 5th September, the exhibition will host an open forum on Women in Entertainment featuring talks by field leading researchers, Dr Anna Morcom (Royal Holloway) and Dr Richard Williams (Oxford University). A unique view into the forgotten past of Indian and Britain’s complex cultural history, Tawa’if breathes life into a bygone era through early paintings, photographs and sound recordings of these forgotten female artists.


4th – 6th September 2015
10am – 5pm
Royal Geographic Society
1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AR


Saturday 5th September 2015
Education Room, Royal Geographic Society
1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AR

For more on AMC’s Lost Traditions Season please visit: