Courtesans can be compared to film stars of our times
It was around a decade back that Sufi Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi challenged herself to change the perception about tawaifs (courtesans). She felt these women great singers, dancers and poets. To bring alive dance and stories of women who were stigmatised by society, the renowned dancer brings the show, Uff Malka Jaan & the Velvet Courtesans, at Showsaa, Kingdom of Dreams, Gurugram, on September 30 and October 14.
Over to Manjari Chaturvedi to share her experiences about courtesans, their lives, the stigmas attached and more…
On the idea of changing the perception about tawaifs
Since 1998, I have been working on my spiritual and mystical dance form that people recognised as my own trademark style of dance. In 2009, I did a concert at Kamani auditorium in Delhi titled Nazo – An ode to the Courtesan wherein I had Zareena Begum from Lucknow come and sing some compositions of old style the mirasins and tawaifs in Awadh sang and I performed on them. But at that time I didn’t think much of changing the perception because I didn’t realise how deep-rooted the stigma was! Then later in 2014, I met Zareenaji again as she was unwell with a stroke that left her paralysed. (I have the Sufi Kathak Foundation through which I support old artistes by way of pension and medical support. So we extended her the medical support and I just went to see her.) During my conversation, she mentioned her desire to perform once again on stage in a Banarasi sari. With tears in my eyes, I returned from her place. I came back to Delhi and promised myself that I shall make it happen. Then when I went around asking for sponsors, I always felt a certain sniggering disdain people showed towards the performance art of tawaifs. It was always accompanied with an embarrassed laugh and I felt surprised that I, being a classical dancer in today’s time, respected for the art I perform and similarly, an artiste of yesteryear who sang dadra, thumri and ghazal – all popular formats – is sniggered at. That got me researching this further and ultimately, I just didn’t do a performance for Zareenaji, I also did a seminar on the art of the tawaifs and baijis titled The Last Song of Awadh. It was a houseful and she got a wonderful audience and a response. She cried on stage and went back to Lucknow happy!
However, this got me to start working on finding more about this disdain for the women performers and the more I found the more it shocked me that how in an extremely unfair record of history based on gender inequality, the men pursuing these arts became ustaads and the women pursuing the same arts became nautch girls. The current generations of the erstwhile male court dancers talk about the family lineage with a sense of pride extolling the greatness of their forefathers as dancers in the royal courts. At the same time the generations of the women court dancers live with a sense of shame never disclosing their lineage or any connection with the erstwhile courts.
Somewhere, the gender discrimination in the field of arts has existed and yet has never been addressed and consequently this sect of women were always ostracised from the society and considered “lesser” than their contemporary men.
Difficulties on introducing this change
My efforts are to remove the social stigmas associated with courtesans and give them their respectful place as artistes par excellence. I am a dancer with an academic mind hence. all my performance projects are well-researched. Among my various documentation projects, this one is the most difficult, the current series on research project, The Courtesan Project. Yes, this is an archival documentation project yet at the same time, a performing art needs to be performed to be shared with the audiences and to keep it alive.
Why I say it is difficult is because it involves a social stigma, “fallen women” discarded by society simply because of a mindset that hasn’t been thought of, questioned, discussed or debated as an artform. It has merely been shunned. Till date, we do not have any videos of the mujra performances by the courtesans, everything is available only as a Bollywood version and we all know how far that could be from the original. More so because our image of a courtesan is largely influenced by Bollywood and not by trained Kathak dancers to depict the expertise of an artform!
Anything new and pathbreaking is always seen with scepticism and there were so many people to deter me from the path that I intended to follow. They told me not to tread on new things and just stick to the tried and tested format !!! But again my stubbornness to do only what my heart wanted to led me to continue working extensively on this thought. I asked myself as to why we are so ashamed of our own history and why only vis-à-vis women, why not the men performers? How did gender become the judgement of an art?
This project predominantly has Darbari Kathak, a distinctive style of Kathak, performance by me. The performing art of the courtesan, Darbari Kathak originated in the royal courtrooms of a bygone era. Characterised by exquisite costumes, it relies heavily and vividly on the hands and the face for expressions. A unique style suited both for intimate settings and for larger-than-life royal courts, it is now, rarely performed by classical dancers. The courtesans or mehfil singers as they were later called, performed abhinaya seated on stage giving detailing to the verses sung as ghazal, thumri, dadra. The Performing Art of the Courtesan is a rich legacy, an invaluable heritage, deliberately lost and brushed away in view of the many social stigmas attached to it.
On successfully managing to remove the social stigmas attached with tawaifs
I am delighted that for the last five years I have been consistently either performing the dance of the tawaifs/ courtesans or giving talks on this subject. Increasingly, I see people coming up and saying, “Oh! we didn’t think about this. No one told us about these incredible performers…” The stories narrated and anecdotes from the life and times of a few famous courtesans are a part of the concert. We have seen enough fiction based on the lives of courtesans, most of it suited for sheer entertainment. Nothing about their exploration of the arts, the music and dance. This is a narrative that is as per the documentation of their lives available in various historical records. Many preconceived notions about courtesans, often misconstrued, such as their sensibilities, lifestyles, emotions, disposition and ethos would be challenged as light is shed upon numerous lesser known aspects of their lives.
I have made a huge start and the fact that I am relentlessly invited for a performance and talks at various platforms on this subject means we are on the way to change this stigma! At least artistes now feel it is ok to say the word tawaif or baiji. I have deliberately always used the word tawaif and courtesan for each of my performance and talk, one day we shall soon have people knowing more about these incredible women.
On research about tawaifs
The tragedy is that not much has been documented about courtesans in India, especially their performing arts and of course, we have no videos on how they performed Darbari Kathak. And hence the primary research became an exemplary book by Pran Nevile, The Nautch Girls Of India that gives details about courtesans and how these brilliant performers were wrongly relegated to being nautch girls. Nevile has done this huge work on documenting the works of the courtesans and other performers twenty years back when his book was published and I have deep respect for his book. The pages of India’s rich cultural history are replete with arts.
Ironically, one section that has perhaps suffered at history’s cruel hands has been the community of ‘courtesans’ in north India who were an integral part of the Indian society and are forgotten now. By excluding the courtesans, in their true sense, from history, we have also excluded the rich ocean of arts – the poetry, music and dance, which the courtesans have been said to excel in. Poetry, with interlacing Persian and Awadhi language, influences that touched the soul, music – ghazal, dadra and thumri gaayaki where each note resonated the singer’s emotions and never failed to captivate the audience, and the dance, with delicate movements and expressions, manifesting the poetry through the language of the body were all lost with the decline of the courtesan. In a heartening piece of restoration, the regal Darbari Kathak – a more embellished form of Kathak, has been brought alive by this endeavour
On missing the chance to meet a courtesan
Unfortunately, I am 20 years too late. Most of the tawaifs are long gone and their families feel too ashamed to even acknowledge their grandmother or mothers were tawaifs so there are very few women alive now. Partly, it is through research with individuals who are now in their late 80s and 90s who have seen the art flourish pre-Partition and have memories of the same. Also, through books and paintings from the British era. Some families have spoken and some music I have taken form Zareena begum also with whom I did many shows and made a film on her and recorded her music so there was a long association.
On getting drawn towards a courtesan
I am drawn to each and every one of them, the 200-odd whose name I have researched and brought out. I feel them strongly on stage with me breathing, performing, at every step, telling me how to dance and emote. If you choose to believe it believe, if not don’t! I believe it. It is their stories, their dance so they have to tell!
On Bollywood’s role in the characterisation of courtesans
Bollywood has done both. It has brought the tawaifs to the cinema screen as entertainers which is good, but then again, they have been largely used as a form where the term is interchangeable with a sex worker. This has been a let-down where their art has been overshadowed by the need for building a “masala” to tell a story. The courtesans were style icons of their times and wore jewels and clothes customised for them! They entertained at a time when there were no films, no television and no multimedia. These women hence are the equivalent to the film stars of our times so this brings to my point that we idolise the current film stars and yet we term the courtesans derogatory. This is sheer injustice to these women artistes.
Today, most people would invite a film actress to their forum with pride and at the same time, an erstwhile courtesan will be considered inappropriate. Why this inequality for performing artistes? We must think about this. Today, ad campaigns and ad companies line up and flock after film stars… If we had ad campaigns hundred years back, the only people endorsing the different products would have been the celebrated courtesans. Hence, it is imminent that we tell their brilliant stories to the world and show their art, music, dance to the world.
As shared with Saurabh Tankha