Centre for Women’s Studies and Department of History, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad jointly organized a talk on the topic “Recasting the Courtesan”.

Professor Lalith Joshi, a Professor of History and Culture at the University of Allahabad was the speaker. Professor Joshi, a man with an interesting educational background, did bachelors degree in Sciences, joined Medicine but left it to pursue History as the subject of study. Having two decades of association with cinema, he has been a pioneer in introducing ‘Film’ to History students.

Professor Rekha Pande, Head CWS and Professor of History, introduced the speaker.

At the beginning of the talk Professor expressed that he would prefer to use the word ‘Tawaif’ instead of Courtesan. The Japanese calls their Courtesan as Geisha, The same way Tawaif is a colloquial term in northern India, it’s a local term. He talked of how writing of history silences the voice of minority, especially that of women. Something similar happened in the writing of Tawaif history. Many things were lost.

The talk took us through the journey of framing of a certain identity of Tawaif . How in the process of writing the History of the Tawaif institution so many aspects were erased. How with the passage of time the identity of Tawaif got repressed and was somehow begun to be equated with Prostitutes. One more problematic aspect was equating Tawaif as the binary opposite of Pardanashin women, the respectable household women.

Citing Tamkeen Kazmi’s work “Hyderabad Aisa Bhi ” it is suggested that Tawaif was a term strictly deployed for singing and dancing girls ,trained in the art of public performance and never for prostitutes. But today Tawaif or Kothawali very clearly implies women involved only in sex business. It was the breeze of British Puritanism and the Colonial gaze, which turned them and their profession into a totally different stream.

Think of the word “KOTHA” and the imagery that comes into your mind must be that of indulgence in pleasure by men, eroticism, singing and dancing. This is only one aspect of Kotha , a numerous other activities like Teaching literature and manners, writing poetry and ghazals , Mushairas were also a part of the Kotha Culture. But these aspects somehow were never highlighted and got sidelined. Has any movie ever shown a Tawiaf doing anything else except singing and dancing.

Though in the beginning Kotha served as the finishing school for men to acquire etiquette, but with colonial rule that image was tarnished. Tawaif were actually very good with literature and in composing Poetry. But there was no attempt by print or any media to project the literary talents of these women. Instead, the music and dance, which they had mastered was also slowly taken away from them. They were accused of eroticizing the music and Hindustani music needs to come out or rather rescued from the domain of Kotha.

It was colonial culture which can be held responsible for casting the Courtesan in a certain mould and propagating this image .How the advent of photography pushed this image further. When one looks at the photos of these Tawiaf they are seen gazing straight at the camera, which is perceived as an inviting gesture. This straight looking at the camera was something the household women or the Pardanashins restrained from. One should not take photography for real as photography is a staged act .These courtesans were all directed by the photographer to look in a certain way. Showing Tawaif smoking Hookah or gazing straight was a carefully crafted image of the colonial times.

When Britain was swept by the wave of Puritanism there was an attempt to put an end to the institution of Prostitution. The purification movement, the reformist movement were all responsible for downgrading Tawaif. The anti-nautch movement, the contagious diseases act and the creation of Laal Bazaar, the red light areas reduced the Tawaif to prostitutes.

Also one popular belief is the association of Tawaif business with the Islamic Society. Professor Joshi quoting Ruth Venita‘s book showed that courtesans didn’t belong to the Islamic world entirely.

Ending the talk, he pointed out how with changing times image of the space of Kotha as one which offered cultural education (Tehzeeb), now finds itself transformed to a professional space where the body is transacted mechanically for money. With the closure of traditional kotha, what has remained as the memory of Tawaif culture are the modern, erotic dance bars or the item numbers as shown in movies like Chandani Bar, Dedh Ishqiya, to name a few.

-Zeenat Shana, Department of Communication