Afternoons in the kothas of Lucknow

by: Veena Talwar Oldenburg

In the days when I was tramping around in the alleys of Lucknow trying to capture the ineffable essence of this multi-layered city, I was led to a small group of old and young courtesans in Gulbadan’s kotha near the Akbari Darwaza in Chowk. Over a decade (1976-1986), in more than a score of meetings, I came to appreciate these powerful, alluring, independent, bold, even wild women. In conversations that were as hilarious as they were informative, they dismantled the clichés and prejudices that informed my view of them. They managed to stand my conventional opinions of courtesans and wives, of ‘wicked’ and ‘normal’ woman in the ‘normal’ world, slowly but surely on their head. These extraordinary women unveiled the secrets of the kotha, sharing with me their clandestine, devious, and intimate ploys for survival and economic independence, challenging the very ‘respectability’ of society’s central pillar – marriage.

I pursued my fascination with the courtesans of Lucknow from their heyday at the Lucknow court, through the colonial period where they adapted and survived, to the virtual extinction of their profession for a lack of patronage in the seventies and eighties and competition from the song-filled creations of Bombay cinema.

Before I actually walked up the narrow stairs to the kotha, I came across the city’s famous courtesans in the civic tax ledgers of 1858-77 and in the related official correspondence preserved in the Municipal Corporation record room in Lucknow. Listed as ‘dancing and singing girls’, it was astounding to discover that they were in the highest tax bracket, with the largest individual incomes of any in the city! Their names were also on lists of property – houses, orchards, manufacturing and retail establishments for food and luxury items – confiscated by British officials for their proven involvement in the siege of Lucknow and the rising against colonial rule in 1857. These women, though patently non-combatants, were penalized for their clandestine instigation of and pecuniary assistance to the rebels.

On yet another list, some twenty pages long and simply titled ‘Loot’, were recorded the spoils of war seized from one set of ‘female apartments’ in Kaisar Bagh Palace, where some of the deposed king Wajid Ali Shah’s innumerable (the number varies from 80 to upwards of three hundred in various sources) consorts resided when the complex was seized by the British. It is a remarkable list and eloquently evocative of a very privileged existence: gold and silver ornaments studded with precious stones, embroidered cashmere wool and brocade shawls, bejewelled caps and shoes, silver, gold, jade and amber-handled fly whisks, silver cutlery, jade goblets, plates, spittoons, hookahs, and silver utensils for serving and storing food and drink, and valuable furnishings. The value of this extraordinary plunder was conservatively estimated at nearly four crore rupees (four million pounds sterling in 1857).

Courtesans dotted other colonial records as well. They appeared in frequent official memoranda written in connection with a grave medical crisis – that of rampant venereal diseases – that engulfed the military establishment in Lucknow, and all the 110 cantonments of British India. When European casualties during the mutiny and rebellion of 1857 were reckoned, it was discovered that more soldiers had died of disease than in combat. Compounding the shock of this discovery was the unspeakable horror of the fact that one in every four European soldiers was afflicted with a venereal disease. It quickly became clear that the battle to reduce European mortality rates would now be joined on the hygienic (read sexual) front, to ensure a healthy European army for the strategic needs of the Empire.

Ironically, it was the British soldiers who exposed these women (in their quarters in the Lal Bazaars of the cantonments) to venereal infections, like syphilis, that were previously unknown in India. Even more tragic, the medical establishment of British Raj never permitted a proper investigation into the cause of the venereal epidemic among European soldiers for fear of exposing the skeletons in their own closet. The doctors in-charge totally denied or hushed up homosexuality among the European soldiery. The brunt of this new war would be borne by the courtesans and prostitutes of Lucknow, along with those in the other cantonments in India. An omnibus law, enacted in 1864, made sure the profession was regulated and the women’s bodies (mind you, not the bodies of the soldiers who were their clients) were regularly inspected and controlled.

British political propaganda in the aftermath of revolt, however, did the greatest harm to the reputation of the kothas and its ‘nautch girls’ as they called them. The older tawa’ifs, who spoke keenly about contemporary politics, the law, and had connections among the local power elite, were equally well informed about the history of their city. In their view, the British had deliberately muddied the truth about their kothas in order to denigrate nawabi culture, and to gobble up Awadh. In a campaign waged against them to reduce their influence, the new government resumed control over much of the prime real estate given to them by the nawabs and other patrons. Yet, when it came to matters such as using these women as prostitutes for the European garrison, or collecting income tax, the eminently pragmatic Victorians set aside their high moral dudgeon, and decreed rules to enforce both.

It became official policy to select the healthy, light skinned and beautiful ‘specimens’ from among the kotha women, and arbitrarily relocate them in the cantonment for the convenience and health of the European soldiers. This not only dehumanized the profession, stripping it of its cultural function, but made sex cheap and exposed the women to venereal infection from soldiers, and passing it on in turn. The collective impact of the new legislation, the loss of court patronage, the confiscation of their lands and orchards and the fines extracted from the tawa’if for their role in the rebellion, was a severe blow to the courtesans and signalled the gradual debasement of a vital cultural institution into common prostitution.

These new challenges provoked these women to mount a sly counter-offensive to keep out a meddlesome civic authority that taxed their incomes and inspected their bodies. With characteristic audacity they responded by keeping two sets of books on their incomes, to pay less tax; they bribed the local dai, or nurse, to avoid bodily inspections. They kept the local police-men ‘happy’ with sex and money to avoid arrest for selling liquor to the soldiers, or publicly refused to pay taxes even when threatened with imprisonment. These tactics were new but the spirit behind them was veteran.

Back in the archives my accidental discovery of a stash of documents led me to a group of courtesans living in Lucknow in 1976. These documents were the intercepted letters written by Wajid Ali Shah in exile. I engaged a young Persian scholar, Chhote Mian, (a pseudonym) to help me decipher these Persian letters. He not only provided the entree required to visit this group of courtesans, but also, quite fortuitously, the key to comprehending their world. They were the proud, albeit less affluent, descendants of those who had survived first the pressures of a century of systematic harassment by the colonial authorities, and then the abolition of zamindari in 1952 that tightened the fists of their best patrons, and finally the total ban placed on their profession by the puritanical, if not outright hypocritical, government of independent India in 1957.

Chhote Mian explained why he had only been given a pet name instead of a serious Muslim family name. He was the son of a courtesan and she had never revealed to him who his father was. Ironically, his sad life-story had all the elements of the upbringing accorded to a girl in a ‘normal’ household:

‘While I love and respect my mother and all my “aunts” [other courtesans] and my grandmother [a chaudhurayan], my misfortune is that I was born a son and not a daughter in their house. When a boy is born in the kotha, the day is without moment, even one of quiet sadness. When my sister was born there was a joyous celebration that was unforgettable. Everyone received new clothes, there was singing, dancing, and feasting. My aunts went from door to door distributing laddoos [a sweet traditionally distributed to mark an auspicious event]. The musicians were drunk and received expensive gifts.

‘My sister is today a beautiful, educated, propertied woman. She will also inherit what my mother and grandmother own. She will have a large income from rents; she doesn’t even have to work as a courtesan, if she so chooses. I am educated, but I have no money or property. Jobs are very hard to come by, so I live in a room and live on a small allowance that my mother gives in exchange for running errands for her and helping her deal with her lawyers. [She was trying to evict a tenant from a house she owned.] She paid for my education but a college degree is pretty worthless these days. My only hope is that I may marry a good woman who has money and who gives me sons so they can look after me in my old age, or find a way of getting a job in Dubai, as my cousin did. Otherwise my chances in life are pretty dim. Funny isn’t it, how these women have made life so topsy-turvy?’

This inversion in a society that blatantly favours sons over daughters left me bewildered, although the tawa’ifs had the answers.

The courtesans had established themselves as an influential group of women under the lavish patronage of the chief noblemen, merchants, and the official elite. Abdul Halim Sharar, a novelist and journalist who chronicled the history of the nawabs of Awadh and their cultural innovations, writes that in Lucknow, association with the courtesans started with the reign of Shuja ud Daula (reigned: 1753-74). It became fashionable for the noblemen to associate with some bazaar beauty, either for pleasure or for social distinction. A cultivated man like Hakim Mahdi, who later became Vazir (prime minister of Awadh), owed his initial success to a courtesan named Piyaro, who advanced her own money to enable him to make an offering to the ruler on his first appointment as Governor of a Province of Awadh. These absurdities went so far that it is said that until a person had association with courtesans he was not a polished man. At the present time (circa 1920) there are still some courtesans with whom it is not reprehensible to associate, and whose houses one can enter openly and unabashed. Although these practices may have a deteriorating effect on the morals, at the same time manners and social finesse improved.

Ensconced in sumptuous apartments in the bazaars of Chowk, and in the Kaisar Bagh, they commanded great respect in the court and in society, were frequent performers at the palaces of the nawabs and the nobility, and association with them bestowed prestige on those who were invited to their salons for cultural soirees. It was not uncommon for the young sons of the nobility to be sent to the best-known salons for instruction in etiquette, the art of conversation, appreciation of Urdu poetry, and even the finer points of love-making. They were the recognized preservers and performers of the high culture of the court and actively shaped the developments in Hindustani music and Kathak dance styles. Their style of entertainment was widely imitated in other Indian court cities, and their more recent influence on the Hindi films is all too patent. The popularity of Indian films rests chiefly on their songs and dances. The very notion of the romantic musical owes its inspiration to the style of entertainment at the kotha, and several tawa’ifs and their daughters, including Jaddan Bai and her later famous daughter Nargis, found work in Bombay in the budding film industry.

Guldbadan’s kotha was bustling with life when I arrived. I was shown around, and my queries and silences were met with loquacious explanations. The owner and manager of the kotha was the chaudharayan, or chief courtesan, an older woman who has retired to the position of manager after a successful career as a tawa’if. Gulbadan had acquired wealth and fame, and she recruited and trained the girls who came for their various reasons, along with the more talented daughters of the household. Typically, a wealthy courtier, (and during the nawabi, often the king himself), began his direct association with a kotha by bidding for a virgin whose patron he became with the full privileges and obligations of that position. He was obliged to make regular contributions in cash and jewellery, privileged to invite his friends to soirees, and to enjoy an exclusive sexual relationship with a tawa’if. His guests were expected to impress the management with their civilities and substance so that they would qualify as patrons of the women who were still unattached, or at least as ‘regulars’ of the kotha.

The chaudharayan always received a fair chunk of the earnings to maintain the apartments, pay to hire and train other dancing girls, and attract gifted tabla and sarangi players, chefs, and special servants that such establishments employed. Many of the musicians belonged to famous lineages and much of late-nineteenth-century Hindustani music was invented and transformed in these salons, to accommodate the taluqadars and new professional men who filled the patronage vacuum in the colonial period.

Other women, called thakahi and randi, were affiliates of a kotha but had little or no prestige. Their less remarkable appearance and talent restricted them to providing sexual services in their spartan quarters down-stairs. Secretly associated with the establishment were khangi, or women who were married and observed strict purdah, but who, for financial or other reasons came to the kotha for clandestine liaisons; the chaudharayan collected a fee from them for her hospitality. A large number of men were also employed as doormen, watchmen, errand boys, tailors, palanquin carriers and others, as was her grandson, Chhote Mian, who had brought me there. They lived on the lower floors of the house or in detached servants’ quarters and were also often kinsmen who screened suspicious characters at the door, acted as protectors of the house, and spied on the activities of the police and medical departments. Pimps or other male agents came into existence in the colonial period, but Gulbadan had managed to keep them at bay. She also disabused me of some entrenched myths about the kotha.

The notion that the chaudharayan’s recruitment practices were and are shady and unscrupulous has become well-established over time. It is popularly believed that the most common mode of recruitment was, and still is, kidnapping; that the tawa’ifs were linked to a large underground network of male criminals who abducted very young girls from villages and small towns and sold them to the kothas or nishat khanas (literally, pleasure houses). Lucknow’s famous poet and litterateur, Mirza Hadi Ruswa, romantically fuelled, if not actually generated, this belief in his Umrao Jan Ada. The novel first appeared in 1905 and was an immediate best seller; the fictional Umrao Jan became the quintessential tawa’if of Lucknow. Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, it is a melodramatic story of Umrao Jan, who as a beautiful child of five is kidnapped and sold to a tawa’if in Lucknow, where she trains and becomes, after a few complicated twists and turns in the plot, a renowned and much sought-after courtesan. Ruswa uses the classic ploy of writing an introduction wherein he explains that he is merely recording the true story of Umrao Jan, told to him by the protagonist herself. His use of the first person in the ‘memoir’, in which the courtesan frequently addresses him by name, makes it all the more convincing.

The myth about kidnapping was stoutly punctured as I conversed with roughly thirty women, whose ages ranged from thirty-five to seventy-eight, and a more nuanced picture emerged. The compelling circumstance that brought a majority of them to the various tawa’if households in Lucknow was the misery they endured in either their natal or their conjugal homes. Four of these women were child widows, two of whom hailed from the same district and had lost their husbands in a cholera epidemic; three were sold by their parents when famine conditions made feeding these girls impossible. Seven were victims of physical abuse, two of whom were sisters regularly beaten by their alcoholic father for not obliging him by making themselves sexually available to the toddy-seller. Three were known victims of rape and deemed unmarriageable; two of them had left their ill-paid jobs as municipal sweeper-women, because they were tired of ‘collecting other people’s dirt’, two were battered wives, one had left her husband because he had a mistress, and one had run away for her love for music and dancing that was not countenanced in her orthodox Brahmin home. Three said they had left their husbands without much ado, seeing the advantage of earning their own living and being at liberty to use their resources as they wished, and did not want to have children. The remaining four were daughters of other tawa’ifs. Not one claimed that kidnapping had been her experience, although they had heard of such cases. This assortment of refugees from the sharif, or respectable, world gave a completely ironic slant to the notion of respectability.

The problem, according to Saira Jan, a plump, good-looking woman in her early forties who recounted her escape from a violent and alcoholic husband with humour, was that there were no obliging kidnappers in her muhalla (neighbourhood). ‘Had there been such farishte [angels] in Hasanganj, I would not have had to plot and plan my own escape at great peril to my life.’

This catalogue reflects the wide range of unfavourable, even dangerous, circumstances from which these women had escaped. Desertion has been traditionally resorted to by those trapped in situations they had no other effective means of fighting or changing. Gulbadan, who had become the chaudharayan in her late thirties (she claims she was born in c. 1900 and initiated – nath uteri – when she was thirteen years old), had been the niece of a tawa’if and was raised in the household she now managed. She spoke of the kotha as a sanctuary for both men and women; men escaped the boredom of their domestic lives and women found in it a greater peace and freedom than in the normal world. She reminded Saira that she was a miserable, underweight, frightened wretch when she had first appeared at her doorstep.

‘She was thin as a stick, her complexion was blotchy, her eyes sunk in black holes, and she had less than two rupees tied to the end of her sari. Even these she had to steal,’ explained Rahat Jan, Gulbadan’s ‘partner’ (her term). ‘Now look at her, we call her our hathini [female elephant], who eats milk and jalebi [syrup-filled, deep fried sweets] to keep herself occupied between meals, although she argues it is to keep her voice melodious.’

Most women told stories of their prior lives without inhibition. They had wanted to escape ‘hell’ (the word jahannum, the Islamic hell, was frequently used to describe their earlier homes) at any cost. The rigours of learning professional skills, chaste Urdu, and earning their own money helped them develop self-esteem and value the relative independence they encountered in Gulbadan’s and Rahat Jan’s kotha. Here they could be women first, and Hindus and Muslims in a more mutually tolerant way, since the culture of the kotha represented elements of both, and was acknowledged as a true example of the Ganga-Jamni tahzeeb.

The story of one of the Hindu child widows, Rasulan Bai, 35, is especially compelling because it exposes the ineffectiveness of the 150 years of social-reform legislation and the lack of options for young childless widows even today. While it is the story of a seasoned rebel, it also explains why a courtesan does not consider herself complicit in bolstering values that keep other women in powerless positions:

‘I was married when I was ten in a land-owning Rajput family where my mother did not work. Born in Lucknow, I attended three years of school but I barely knew how to recognize the letters that spell my name. My gauna ceremony occurred just three months after I began menstruating. I remember arriving at my husband’s house with my dowry, and plenty of gifts for my in-laws. That summer [1960] there was a very big flood, which drowned most of the city, destroyed our house, livestock and our food reserves. While my husband was out with his brothers trying to salvage some of the food stored in earthenware jars, he drowned. I survived but I often wished I were dead.

‘The local Brahmin said that my ill-starred presence had brought flood and death to the city. My jewels, clothes, and the few silver coins which I had hidden away, were forcibly taken away from me, and I became a widow in white who did all the nasty, heavy chores for the household. I was thrown scraps when I cried out in hunger. You talk about the laws that were passed by the British to prevent child marriage, you talk of the rights we won [the Hindu Civil Code, 1956] but I scoff at all that. I had no recourse to laws or to lawyers, only to my wits sharpened by adversity. I first tried to get back at them with sly acts of sabotage. I did the washing-up indifferently, leaving a dull film on the metal platters and the pots. For this my mother-in-law thrashed me. I would sneak into the kitchen when my sister-in-law had finished cooking and add a heavy dose of salt to the lentils and vegetables. I would hide my smile when I heard the yells and abuse heaped on her by the men folk. She caught me and thrashed me till I was unconscious.

‘Life was unbearable but I was trapped; there was nowhere that I could go. My parents, who had come for the funeral, were distressed but they did not offer to take me back because they still had my younger sisters to marry. Fights, violence erupted all the time. Finally, when they found out that I stole money to buy snacks from the vendor, they threatened to burn me alive. I wanted to run away but didn’t know where I would go, except to the Gomti to drown myself. Eventually, I found shelter with a troupe of itinerant performers after I told them my troubles and showed them the bruises on my body. They smuggled me out of that hell, gave me bit parts in their dramas, and finally brought me to the lap of Bibi Khanum [another tawa’if] in Lucknow, and I have never looked back. I had no option but to run away. Tell me, sister, what would you have done in my place?’

There were many stories, each with its own flavour of horror, and of courage.

‘Many women flee their homes in the villages, and come to the anonymity of the city to work as domestic servants, as ayahs or maids, or cooks,’ said Gulbadan as she tucked another paan into her mouth. ‘Some join road gangs run by government or private building contractors only to break bricks into small pieces with a hammer, all day in the sun, and earn in a month what we make in a few hours of passing the time in civilized company. To make ends meet they have to sleep with their employers and the dalals [middlemen], who found them their jobs, and get beaten up by their husbands when they find out. A woman compromises her dignity twenty-four hours of the day when she has no control over her body or her money.’ This response was peppered by the remarks of the others, who agreed that women are always vulnerable to the exploitative demands of men in the outside world.

The women who said that their own parents had sold them when they were unable to feed them, let alone set aside money to pay for a wedding and a dowry, felt that their parents were forced by circumstances to take such a heartless decision. Now they sent money home every month to take care of their impoverished families, which was gratefully received, and whatever resentment they may have felt for being abandoned as children had dissipated through understanding the limits imposed on women in this world. Gulbadan, who spoke more aphoristically than the others, said she had grown old and withered in her three score and ten years but the scope for women to change the lives they grumblingly led was minuscule.

What they couldn’t change they called their fate, their kismat, their naseeb. Here, in our world, even though things are not as good as they were before the angrez came, women change their fate. Even philosophers and poets will tell you that no one can change their kismat. Ask these women, who have lived and worked together for more than twenty years, whether or not they think that I taught them how to mould their own fate like clay with their own hands.

I did, and they agreed, with laughing nods, while they celebrated Janam Ashtami (birthday of the Krishna, the divine patron of Kathak) and the Muslim festival of Eid on the third floor of Gulbadan’s impressively large building.

Gulbadan had tossed this off as she sat on the large platform covered with an old Persian rug and worn velvet-and-brocade bolsters that propped her up. Watching her deft fingers prepare a paan, or betel leaf, with its half dozen nut-and-spice fixings, I felt I was in the presence of an alchemist who had transformed base fortunes into gold. She, along with her septuagenarian friends, had inherited a way of life and struggled to preserve it, quite selfishly, in the face of an increasingly hostile future. Their business was neither to exploit women, nor to transform the lot of the generality of womankind, but to liberate and empower themselves and those with whom they were associated.

The high level of camaraderie, banter, and affectionate interaction that I observed and participated in on several visits to their apartments over eight years affirmed this impression repeatedly. The chaudharayan enacts several roles, the most challenging being to inspire, in the women who come to them, a confidence in their own ability and worth, restore shattered nerves and set about undoing the inferiority they had internalised. Saira helpfully explained:

‘The problem was to forget the meaning of the word aurat [woman] that had been dinned into my mind from the day I was born. Fortunately I was still a child [eleven or twelve] so forgetting was not as difficult as it might have been even a few years later. I forgot my misery upon arriving in a house where a different meaning for that word was already in place, where Amina Bai and Zehra Jan [Gulbadan’s granddaughters] were acting out those meanings for us all.

‘They did not fear men because they were admired and praised by men; nor had they dealt with nagging mothers and aunts about not doing this, or that. They never worried about not being able to get married, nor scolded or slapped by their fathers for being “immodest”. The shadow of dahej [dowry] had never darkened their lives. I resented them to begin with, thought them spoilt and selfish, but slowly I began to realize that they were of a different ilk. I would have to break my own mental mould and recast myself. I got a lot of love from Gulbadan, Rahat Jan, and Amiran. They would listen to me, and I would regurgitate all the sorrow, pain, and poison I had swallowed, again and again. Now when I tell you my story, it is as if I am telling you another’s tale. Really, I didn’t know that I was capable of doing anything, being anyone, or owning my own building and employing seventeen carpenters in a charpai karkhana [wooden cot workshop]. I had the mentality of a timid and ugly mouse; now I am accused of being too arrogant, and am envied for the property I own.’

The self-fashioning ethos of the kotha, quarrels and jealousies notwithstanding, makes it possible for them to assimilate their newly revised perceptions and behaviour patterns. They mostly agreed that living among a host of nurturing women (and even with some who were not) without the dread of men, and freedom from the pressure of the ‘marriage market’ where grooms were ‘for sale’, gave them the inner courage to develop their skills and perceive themselves the equals of men.

There are other therapeutic devices invented over the ages that are still in use in these salons. The novices assimilate a secret repertoire of satirical and bawdy songs, dances, mimicking, miming and dramatic representations, aimed at the institution of marriage and heterosexual and homosexual relations that are privately performed only among women. These ‘matinee shows’, as they call them, help ‘the newcomers to discard the old and internalize the new meaning of being an aurat.’ I recognized this, when in answer to one of my early (and very naive) questions I was treated to a improvised vignette, ‘Shaadi ya barbaadi?’ (marriage or disaster?).

VTO: Gulbadan, since you are a handsome woman, so well educated, with all this money and property and jewels, why didn’t you marry a well-to-do man and settle down to a life of respectability?

Gulbadan (first frowned pensively, and then laughingly said): We first thought you were a jasoos [spy] for the government or the Christian missionaries; Chhote Mian tells me you visit their offices all the time with your notebook. Par aap to bilkul nadaan [naïve] hain. You ask strangely ignorant questions, which you call doing Amriki [American] research. Is marriage ‘respectable’ in Amrika? Are women not abused there? Do they not divorce? Well let us show you what marriage is before you wish it on an old and respectable woman like me, or any of us here. Let us dispel the darkness in your mind about the nature of marriage.

Of what they then played out for me, I can only offer a prosaic summary, because it is difficult to capture the visual thrill of the half-hour-long satirical medley of song, dance, dialogue and mime that followed: A wailing sarangi was the perfect substitute for the sound of an unhappy wife. Rasulan immediately took her dupatta (long scarf) and wound it around her head as a turban to play the husband. Elfin Hasina Jan took her cue as the wife; others became children and members of the extended family, while Gulbadan remained on her settee amid the bolsters, taking occasional drags from the hookah, presiding, as a particularly obnoxious mother-in-law, on a scene of domestic turmoil.

Hasina Jan playing wife and mother first surveys the chaos: the children meul, ask for food and drink, and want to be picked up. The mother-in-law orders that her legs, which have wearied from sitting, be massaged; the husband demands food and undivided attention; the father-in-law asks for his hookah chillum to be refilled, and a sister-in-law announces that she cannot finish doing the laundry, nor knead the chapati dough because she is not feeling too well. Hasina is defeated, harried, and on the brink of a nervous breakdown. While muttering choice obscenities under her breath she begins, in a frenzied way, to do the job of a wife. She lights the coal stove, dusts and tidies the room, cooks, presses the legs of the mother-in-law who emits pleasurable grunts, carries live coals to replenish the hookah, tries to soothe baby who is now snivelling, puts plates of food in front of the demanding husband. She nearly trips another bawling child. She finally collapses, striking her brow with her hand as she croaks a ‘hai tobah’ (‘never more’).

A little later the din subsides and she, choked with sobs, says that her kismat is terrible, that she will jump into the well to escape her fate. She is chained to this frightful life, all for the sake of money to fill her stomach and for shelter. The rest of the household snores noisily. Her husband, who is belching and hiccupping after his food and drink, makes a lunge at her for some quick sex. She succumbs, and after thirty agitated seconds of his clumsy effort, she asks him for money for household expenses. He grudgingly parts with twenty rupees, reminding her that she needs to restock his supply of the local brew. She complains that the money is just not enough even for the groceries, for which she receives a slap, tearfully renders an accounting of the money she spent last week, cries some more and finally falls asleep, wretched and hungry. ‘So wives don’t do it for money,’ Saira giggled, giving me a nudge in my ribs, ‘they are selflessly serving society.’ There is not a dry eye in the audience; we have tears of laughter streaming down our faces. So, jested another in English: ‘Will you be a wife or tawa’if?’

They had transmuted grim reality into parody. The thankless toil of an average housewife, including her obligation to sexually satisfy a sometimes faithless, or alcoholic, or violent husband, for the sake of a very meagre living came across vividly. ‘Was not the situation of the housewife tantamount to that of a common prostitute, giving her body for money? It is we who are brought up to live in sharafat [genteel respectability] with control over our bodies and our money and they who suffer the degradation reserved for lowly [neech] women,’ Saira added, lest I, poor naïve thing, had missed the whole point of their theatricals.

Such vivid irony is a stock idiom in their speech and song. Male in-laws, particularly fathers and brothers-in-law, are caricatured in countless risqué episodes enacted regularly and privately among women. As things got more raucous I began to think that even their refined speech – begamati zubaan – seemed to be an affect. They ridiculed the aggression and brevity of sexual arousal in men, even as they amuse, educate, and edify the denizens of the kotha. These routines, embellished with their peculiarly rude brand of humour, irreverent jokes and obscene gestures, are performed like secret anti-rites, distilled and transmitted from generation to generation as their precious oral heritage.

I had also seriously questioned the courtesans’ use of the burqa. This cloak, usually black or white, is worn over regular clothes and covers the wearer from head to foot, extending the seclusion of Muslim women, who observe purdah outside the home. The wearers see the world through a small rectangular piece of netting that fits over the eyes, while they remain hidden. Indubitably an artefact of a male-dominated society, where men dictate that women keep themselves covered so as not to provoke lewd comments or lustful aggression. I was baffled at why tawa’ifs not only used the burqa to move around when they went visiting or shopping since injunctions about female modesty did not apply to them, but also insisted that I should wear one as they led me to other kothas in the vicinity.

It was precisely because they were not required to be in purdah, they reasoned (in another classic reversal of patriarchal logic), that they chose to block the gaze of men. It was an extension of the autonomy they enjoyed in their living space and their jism (bodies), unlike ‘normal’ women whose bodies were considered the property of their husbands. They were forced to remain in seclusion to maintain (and increase) khaandaani izzat, or family honour; for them to show their faces in public would bring disgrace to their families. ‘Ah, but our case is just the opposite,’ said Saira. ‘Men long to see our faces. If they could brag among their friends that they had seen Gulbadan or Amiran in the bazaar without a covering, they would go up in the esteem in which their friends hold them. We are not in the business of giving them cheap thrills. While we walk freely and anonymously in public places, looking at the world through our nets, they suffer deprivation because we have blinkered them. As you know by now, we do not bestow anything on men without extracting its price.’

I would have disputed this had I not experienced the temporary freedom the burqa gave me to walk along the winding alleys in a very old-fashioned and gossip-filled city, where I formerly never passed without being accosted with vulgar taunts from the idle youth who mill on the streets. These women had appropriated the power of the gaze while eluding the leer of sexually frustrated men. Playing by the rules of strict segregation practised in the old parts of Lucknow to keeps strangers from being aroused at the sight of ‘respectable women’, the tawa’ifs find the burqa liberating instead of restrictive, and are aggressively invisible to all those who wish to behold their faces. They know they can discard the burqa at will, as some of the younger women in the outer world are doing in defiance more and more, but they choose to use it as a perforated barrier between the world and them. Yet its use remains an indictment of male behaviour and culture.

While I had heard about the rigorous training and education courtesans undergo to ultimately please and entertain their patrons, I was to learn, for the first time, of their secret weapon – the art of nakhra, or pretence. Courtesans master the skill of duping their patrons in order to spare no opportunity of coaxing money out of them and their friends. In addition to their exorbitant rates, they subtly deploy an arsenal of devious ‘routines’ that make up the sly subtext of an evening’s entertainment, to bargain, cajole, and extort extra cash or kind from their unsuspecting patrons. Some of these are practiced, some invented, but nuances are refigured with care to suit the temperament of a client or the mood of the moment to always appear ‘spontaneous’.

These well-rehearsed ploys – the feigned headache that interrupts a dance or a song, pretend sulking and pouting, an artificial limp that prevents a dance, tears, a jealous rage – have beguiled generations of rais, the rich, to transfer their wealth to these women. The tawa’ifs refusal, at a critical juncture, to complete a sexual interlude with a favourite patron is a particularly profitable device, because affected coital injuries or painful menstrual cramps involve expensive and patient waiting on the part of the patron. Gulbadan said she often carried the game a step further by ‘allying’ herself with the patron against the ‘offending’ courtesan to lend credibility to the scene. She would scold and even slap her until the patron begged her not to be so harsh. Gulbadan was the privately acclaimed champion of these more serious confidence tricks, and others cheerfully confessed to having blackmailed, stolen, lied and cheated for material gain as soon as they acquired competence in this art. They invest their gains shrewdly to retire comfortably at the age of thirty-five – when beauty begins to fade and thicker midriffs make dancing an unpretty sight.

The formula, Gulbadan confided, is to win the complete trust of the man. This they do by first mastering all the information about the man – his public reputation, his finances, his foibles and vanities, his domestic relationships and any embarrassing secrets: ‘Then,’ giving me a naughty wink and making a grasping gesture, ‘you have them by their short and curlies.’ She continued:

‘Not many come here openly any more because our salons are regarded as houses of ill-repute in these modern times. Most come only to drink or for sex, both in short supply at home. We know how to get a man drunk and pliant, so that we can extort whatever we want from him: money, even property, apologies, jewels, perfume, or other lavish gifts. Industrialists, government officers, other businessmen come here now; they have a lot of black money [undeclared cash] that they bring with them, sometimes without even counting it. We make sure that they leave with very little, if any. We know those who will pay large sums to ensure secrecy, so we threaten them with careless gossip in the bazaar or with an anonymous note addressed to their fathers or their wives.

‘We do not act collectively as a rule but sometimes it may become necessary to do so. We once did a drama, against a moneylender who came and would not pay us the money he had promised for holding an exclusive soiree for him. So when a police officer, who had fallen in love with me, came by, we all told him tales of how the wretched man would not return jewels some of us had pawned with him. We filed a police report, he was arrested, and some of the pawned items (which the jeweller had taken from some of our recently straitened noble patrons) were made over to us by the lovelorn officer; others of his debtors sent us gifts and thanks for bringing the hated Rastogi to justice.

‘But our biggest nakhra of all is the game of love that makes these men come back again and again, some until they are bankrupt. They return every evening, like the flocks of homing pigeons, in the vain belief that it is we who are in love with them.’

Umrao Jan, Ruswa’s alleged confidante, presents this particular nakhra insightfully:

‘I am but a courtesan in whose profession love is a current coin. Whenever we want to ensnare anyone we pretend to fall in love with him. No one knows how to love more than we do: to heave deep sighs; to burst into tears at the slightest pretext; to go without food for days on end; to sit dangling our legs on the parapets of wells ready to jump into them; to threaten to take arsenic. All these are parts of our game of love. But I tell you truthfully, no man ever really loved me nor did I love any man.’ (Emphasis added.)

A discussion of this last nakhra, which occurred only after several visits, brought perhaps their most startling secret to light. It was difficult to imagine that these women, even though they were economically independent, educated, and in control of their lives, would spurn the opportunity for real intimacy and emotional and sexual fulfilment. Everyone agreed that emotional needs do not disappear with success, fame, or independence; on the contrary, they often intensify. Almost every one of the women with whom I had private conversations during these many visits claimed that their closest emotional relationships were among themselves, and eight of them reluctantly admitted that their most satisfying erotic involvements were with other women. They referred to themselves as chapat baz or lesbians, and to chapti, or chipti, or chapat bazi, or lesbianism (after Shaikh Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, an Urdu poet from Lucknow, 1749-1809, wrote in rekhti, his now famous Chapti Namah). They seemed to attach little importance to labels, and made no verbal distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual relations. There was no other ‘serious’ or poetic term for lesbianism, so I settled for their colloquialisms.

Their explanation for this was that emotions and acts of love are gender free. Normal words for love such as mohabbat(Urdu) or prem (Hindi), or love (English) are versatile and can be used to describe many kinds of love, such as the love of man or woman, the love for country, for siblings, parents of either sex. There was, in their view, no need to have a special term for love between two women, nor was there a need to flaunt this love in any way. There are words that suggest passionate love, like ishq; and are used by either gender. Although their bisexuality was a strictly private matter for them, the absence of a specialized vocabulary reduced it to a simple fact of their liberal lives, like heterosexuality, or the less denied male homosexuality. The lack of special vocabulary can be interpreted as the ultimate disguise for it; if something cannot be named it is easy to deny its existence. Urdu poetry, too, is often ambiguous about gender, and homosexual love often passes for heterosexual love. Many poems really express homosexual love, of the persona of the poem for a young boy, who is described in the idioms for feminine beauty.

The frank discussions on the subject of their private sexuality left some of my informants uneasy. I had probed enough into their personal affairs, they insisted, and they were not going to satisfy my curiosity any further; they were uncomfortable with my insistence on stripping bare their strategic camouflage, by which they also preserved their emotional sanity. Their diffidence to talk about their lesbianism underscores their quiet but profound subversion of social values. It became clear that for many of them heterosexuality itself is the lajawab nakhra, the ultimate artifice, credibly packaged with contrived passion and feigned orgasms. My ardour for precise statistics faded as the real meaning of their silences and their disguises began to sink in.

‘I know, I know,’ continued Afsar Jan, impatiently, ‘we are blamed for enabling men to maintain their double moral standards and destroying happy marriages. Must we betray our own interests for the dubious cause of women who suffer such men as husbands, fathers, and brothers? Today, things are grim; Lucknow’s landed gentry lost their power after zamindari was abolished, and our profession is now illegal; there is hardly a handful of kothas in operation. Has this helped the cause of women or only made life harder for us? Are men treating their wives better? Beating them less? Only we have been silenced and we are now invisible in Lucknow society.’

In fact their silence is so well held that, for all official intents and purposes (such as taxation), the prudish administration’s own nakhra is that it has abolished the world’s oldest profession. Yet, climbing up the rickety stairs of the now seedy kothas in the alleys of Lucknow’s Chowk are the new patrons, petty shopkeepers and a large number of public officials, not for an engaging cultural soiree but for some furtive, loveless sex. For the tawa’if it is a mixed outcome: it is a small triumph, because their incomes, although barely adequate, are no longer taxed; it is a larger defeat because officialdom can piously claim that it has banned female sexual exploitation.

This completed the century long process of converting a proud cultural institution into a species of ‘vice’ and Lucknow’s celebrated kothas into musty dens for furtive sexual encounters.


Abridged and without footnotes, this essay is an excerpt from my ‘Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow’ in Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia (Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) pp. 23-61. The names of the courtesans were changed to protect their privacy.

The author’s works include The Making of Colonial Lucknow 1856-77, Princeton University Press, 1984 and Shaan-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow, Penguin, 2007.

Credits : Vena Talwar Oldenberg