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Life of Tawaifs – Nautch Girls

Credits : Pran Nevile / Nautch Girls of the Raj

Volume: 11, No: 04 ; April-2017

Brought down to earth from the heavens, the divine art of dancing, over the centuries, became a ritual observed in temples to please the deities. In another form it acquired the overtones of a favourite diversion for men. The practitioners of dance, known for their talent and beauty, were much sought after by the religious minded as well as by the secular. The transformation of dancing into a profession was marked by the advent of devadasis in South India, Naikins, who traced their origin to the Apsaras and the Gandharvas, on the West Coast, and Nautch girls in North India in their various forms – the tawaifs, nautchinis, or nautchwalis and the street dancers, who catered to men of all social classes.

Nautch girls were a product of Mughal times; they spread their wings during the Nawabs and British Raj later they survived until the beginning of the twentieth century. There was hardly any town in the country without its own troupe of nautch girls to provide entertainment at ceremonial functions and festivities.

A symbol of oriental luxury, the nautch girl embodied in herself so much of India’s past and present that a study of her life and importance would unfold not only her contribution to preserving the classical arts of dance and music but also the social milieu in which she flourished.

Over the years, Lucknow in the north and Tanjore in the south emerged as the dominant centres of dance and music in the country. The Nautch girls of Lucknow were generally known as tawaifs. The tawaifs of Lucknow had well-organized establishments, which were centres of musical and cultural soirees, attended by the most eminent of poets and scholars. These were presided over by the chief tawaif or the chaudrayan, who was usually a person advanced in years but endowed with wealth and fame acquired in the prime of life through her accomplishments in dance and music. She would recruit beautiful young girls with melodious voice and well-formed hands and feet. She looked after their training, discipline and welfare.

Good-looking ‘with large sparkling eyes, regular features and an intelligent pleasing appearance’, these girls started their training from the age of five or so. Before sunrise they received lessons for an hour each in singing and dancing and this exercise was again repeated in the afternoon. These girls were taught to read and write, appreciate poetry, participate in polite conversation and have refined manners. They were given intensive training in dancing and singing from their early childhood by experienced teachers. After a three-year training they were allowed to give a public performance but their training and practice continued throughout their career.

In their dress and attire, the nautch girls favoured rich and gorgeous costumes embellished with heavy gold work and embroidery. They adorned themselves from head to toe with a wide variety of jewels and ornaments of gold, diamonds and pearls. Their dress was modest itself and nothing but their faces, feet and hands were exposed. Some wore ghagras (long skirts) and saris; other boleros and pyjamas held at the waist by a zarbandor silk cord studded with pearls. The ordhni or dupatta (veil or covering cloth) ‘transparent and soft as the web of the gossamer spider’ was the most graceful part of their costume. Their ungeah (bodice) which was of varied texture and decor was made to fit the bust. It was fastened at the back with silk cords.

Tawaif of Lucknow (by Daroga Abbas Ali)

Tawaif of Lucknow (by Daroga Abbas Ali)

According to Grose, the nautch girls had perfected a peculiar mode of preserving their breasts. They enclosed them in a pair of perfectly fitted hollow cups or cases of very light wood linked together and buckled at the back. These cases prevented the breasts from growing ‘to any disgustfully exuberant sizes’ but being smooth and supple, the cases played freely with every motion of the body and did not crush the exquisitely tender texture of the flesh in that part, like the stiff whalebone stays in use among Europeans. Their outside covering was of thin gold or silver plate studded with stones or gems. This formed the richest part of their dress.

They use to tint their fingertips, palms of the hand, toes and soles of the feet with henna. The lips were stained. Red and powdered saffron was used to add a golden hue to the skin. Among the marks of beauty, much appreciated were the natural dimple on the cheek and the black dot at the most precise spot in the face. The inferior edges of the eyelids were rubbed with soorma (antimony powder) and the eyelashes and brows were darkened with kajal (lampblack) which served to accentuate the size of the eyes and gave them a languishing softness and a lustrous appearance. Sometimes, the skin at the corner of the eyes was cut in childhood to increase their length and give them more room to display wantonness in the rolling of the eyes. Their black hair, smoked with fragrant incense and parted in the middle, was combed back and usually twisted into a single plait, ornamented with jewels and sweet-scented flowers. Not only locals but European also were spectators were greatly impressed by the glittering robes and ornaments worn by the nautch girls.

They made extravagant use of scents and perfumes. Much in favour were the heavy perfumes of jasmine, frangipani, attar of roses, sandalwood and musk.

These votaries of pleasure were indeed the most fashionable class of the age. They acquired refinement and glamour for the benefit of their profession and so took great care in enhancing the charm of their appearance.

In their daily lives they had some diversion or the other. They rose late and spent the long afternoons either in chatting with the musicians or going out for shopping in the bazaars. The usual topics of conversation were about the rivals in the profession and the changing fortunes of the patrons. Fond of chewing betel, they kept their paan boxes tidy and regularly replenished with ingredients that were rolled into the betel leaf. They would sing and dance until late hours of the night. It was a life of quiet ease, leisure and indolence in a way, but by no means one of dissipation. They were religious minded and devout in their observance of rituals and generous in making donations to mosques and temples and officiating priesthood. They also composed verses which they recited at mushairaas (poetry symposiums).

It was a matter of prestige and pride for a tawaif to belong to an established khandani (aristocratic) household. At times young girls for the profession were enticed away or even bought by procurers, who went around the countryside for this very purpose. Every establishment had its own team of proficient male musicians belonging to prestigious gharanas (musical lineages).

Sadly today this institution does not exist anymore in Lucknow, and then the forms of entertaining too have changed, not leaving any chance for such an institution of art to be appreciated and respected by us now in this era, but as a part of Tornos’ Heritage Walk that takes you through the lanes and by-lanes that were once filled with sound of music, giggles of beautiful young tawaifs and scent of flowers and attar. This walking tour and another one, Wajid Ali Shah Walk explains this institution in detail taking you back into the bygone era of the Nawabs and the Raj.


An epic film Umrao Jaan by Muzaffar Ali is a befitting tribute to this institution and portrays a life of a Tawaif from her childhood days till the prime. We at Tornos as a part of our Wajid Ali Shah Walk take you to Muzaffar & Meera Ali’s Lucknow home, the Kotwara House where our guests not only enjoy a refreshing cup of tea, go around the house, appreciate the home décor, but also have an opportunity to watch a clip from this award winning period film ‘Umarao Jaan’ at Muzaffar’s personal theater within his house. If Muzaffar & Meera are in residence they are always happy to meet. Muzaffar & Meera Ali’s home can also be visited through us, independent of any walking tour under Kotwara Insight.

Credits : Pran Nevile / Nautch Girls of the Raj


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