The Courtesan of Deception
The tawaif of Lucknow was a very respected woman with total control over her body and money
Mehru Jaffer Lucknow
The character in Umrao Jaan may well be a figment of filmmaker Muzaffar Ali’s imagination, but once upon a time the medieval institution of tawaif (courtesan) was a very beautiful reality. And because the tawaif was such a beautiful reality, a large majority of the female population naturally envied her and even tried to imitate her, inspiring Majaz, one of the city’s most mesmerizing poets, to note how the doe-eyed coquettes of Lucknow were the envy of the women of Egypt, land of the legendary Cleopatra.
Much, much before Majaz, who died in 1955, and at the peak of feudal times, tawaif — from the plural taifa, Arabic for a group of people or autonomous principality — was not another word for a prostitute. Instead, the very mention of a kotha, or the first floor salon of a tawaif, conjured up images of an existence overflowing with high culture.
That occasionally some also engaged in a little sex while in a kotha was just by the way. Here it was not lust or sex that attracted men to a tawaif but the anticipation of becoming part, even for a little while, of the sensual world of creatures who were considered to be an example of perfection in flesh and blood. Particularly in those bygone days, a tawaif was much more than just a female body available for the pleasure of any man for a price.
Much before Majaz, who died in 1955, tawaif was not another word for a prostitute. Instead, the very mention of a kotha, or the first floor salon of a tawaif, conjured up images of an existence overflowing with high culture
At that time the tawaif of Lucknow was a very respected woman with total control over her body and money. This phase lasted for at least 100 years, and throughout the 18th century. This tawaif of Lucknow was less like the weepy characters of Bollywood’s Umrao Jaan or Pakeezah who spent a great deal of their lives moaning and groaning about treacherous men who failed to reciprocate their genuine love for them. This is so saccharine. This is indeed the Bollywoodization of a tawaif whose view of the world in real life, first and foremost, revolved around her capacity to teach herself to change her fate.
Contrary to Umrao Jaan-like sentiments shown on the silver screen, the typical tawaif of Lucknow did not usually care if her customers loved her, or not. This was because of the rigorous training she received in the art of deception from childhood. Apart from learning to sing, dance, appreciate poetry and make conversation, a tawaif’s entire life was spent in mastering the secret of nakhra or play-acting. Part of the trick of a tawaif’s trade was to please and to entertain as many people as possible who were foolish of heart but wealthy of pocket. The tawaif was adept at making these fools believe that her very existence depended on their allowing her to adore them. By the time she was ready to face the first man in her life, the tawaif of Lucknow was already a wizard in pretence. She acted out her love for him with such perfection that he was always cajoled into parting with much more money and gifts than he would have liked to give.
A historian of Lucknow origin, Veena Oldenberg, writes in Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans that the avowed and unabashed purpose of a tawaif was to amass a tidy fortune as early in her career as possible so that she could invest the surplus income in properties or enterprises and retire comfortably by the age of 35 or so.
“To achieve their material ambitions they used, in addition to their exorbitant charges, an arsenal of devious routines that make up the hidden text of an evening’s entertainment. These are subtly deployed to bargain, cajole and to extort extra cash or kind from their unsuspecting clients. Some of these are learnt, some invented, some even improvised, but nuances are refigured with care to suit the temperament of a client or the mood of the moment to appear spontaneous. Repeated rehearsals by the trainee are evaluated by the adept tawaif, until no trace of the pretense is discernible,” writes Oldenberg, who interviewed about 30 tawaifs in Lucknow between 1976 and 1987.
It was always the tawaif who, after some intensive research, chose the men she thought were worthy enough for her to milk. Those men who did not qualify were not allowed into a kotha and the chosen ones were made into such pulp that poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz would later express the plight of a lover by pointing to the lonely man who was on his way to end a night of grief after having lost both the worlds in a game of love.
The powerless heart of the same poet would swell and surge, he says, after a chance glance carelessly thrown his way which was accompanied by her absent-minded smile. So out of his mind is poet Ahmad Faraz that he begs her to return anyway, even if it is to torment his heart. Just come, pleads the poet, even if it means to leave him once again.
The way we know the ghazal, or the Persian love song, today, is largely due to the tawaif and her contribution in shaping the culture of the courts she was so closely associated with. She used the Indian language of Urdu to entertain instead of Persian. And, inspired by her presence, the ghazal written in Lucknow even took on a very local colour and held much more meaning for the emotions and lives of people living here.