They enchanted generations. They enticed through the ages. They were the centre of attraction, pulling the high and mighty of the society. They made and destroyed powerful people, princes and kings by keeping alive their voyeurism.
Until they met their nemesis!
They are the courtesans. They have had their presence in every civilization. They have had their presence in India. In history and literature pertaining to the northern and eastern Indian parts, they were known as the brides of the cities (नगर वधुएँ). With emergence of the princely states in the last chaotic days of the Mughal Empire, also called as golden period of the courtesans, they came to be known as Tawaifs (तवायफें), much in the line of their South Asian identity.
They had a history to tell. They have had a history to tell. It is the paradox in their lives, in every generation of their presence, which haunts. And this paradox became their nemesis once the British rule was officially and firmly established across the India after the 1857 Mutiny that declared their work illegal. The notion that it sent to posterity was that every courtesan was indulged in prostitution and it was doing great harm to the Indian culture and needed tough legal recourse to handle. The underlying reason for the British to do so was their belief that these ‘kothas’ played a part in the 1857 uprising by giving leaders of the mutiny places to meet and strategise as some historians put it.
That was the beginning of the end of the courtesans’ ‘कोठा’ tradition, signified by a place where the courtesans used to live and perform for their clientele. It could never be equated with the ‘red light area’ culture that prevailed later on where sex trade became the primary activity managed and ruled by criminals and pimps. That was the beginning of the end of their nemesis.
What the British began over a century ago has done this symbolic upheaval – the brides of the cities or the courtesans of the tawaifs of the yore are confused being from a tradition that gave rise to sex trade today. The aesthetics of the courtesan culture is wrongly seen in the context of dead walls of the red light areas now.
The high lives of historical figures in the courtesan-tradition were well respected and acceptable in the society. They were seen as the doyens of culture and heritage. They often doubled as the etiquette trainers of their influential clientele. Some even married to the princes and the kings (the patrons) they were in love with.
In-turn, the ivy-league courtesans acted as the patrons for their junior partners. It was a kind of umbrella that gave legitimacy to everyone in the tradition of courtesans, from the highly skilled singers and dancers who were selective in choices and maintained a single contact and who cost a fortune to the courtesans at the bottom of the occupation who were not so skilled, not acceptable socially and who indulged in sex trade to meet their ends.
So, the paradox of acceptability and deniability was well entrenched there.
HOW THIS PARADOX HAS PLAYED OUT WITH TIME?
It was just a matter of balance. And it was just about the time when the tilt started taking a negative turn – the beginning of the end.
With deteriorating number of patrons, as the Mughal Empire collapsed and the most of the princely states became dependent on the British aid with limited resources at their disposal, the big names of the courtesan tradition had to look for other options of survival. As they were highly skilled performers, they could find alternatives. Names like Rasoolan Bai or Jaddan Bai and many others became famed classical singers. They became contemporary celebrities and dominated the initial days of the All India Radio and gramophone in India.
But what about the majority lot who was not so skilled or who survived more on the urge of the opposite sex attraction than singing and dancing alone? They were not acceptable for socialization even before the beginning of this end. The beginning of this end led to their gradual exclusion from the society.
They were forced to accept that they indulged in something they needed to repent for. Alternatively, the miserable conditions of their survival pushed them to think it was due to the sins of their lives that had its genesis in their profession.
But not all of them slipped to the dark world of the prostitution. Many left singing and dancing, moved to places, killed their identities, tried to conceal their past and tried to become part of the society in general.
But what they really think of it? Do they reflect over it as a cultural tradition that was unnecessarily targeted?