Tawaifs and Hindi Cinema

Nihira discusses the history of tawaifs in India, their relationship with Hindustani music and Hindi cinema.

9 min read

Gauhar Jaan’s announcement of her own name remains etched into public memory. But the memory is incomplete. At the end of Maike Piya Bina, a thumri she recorded in Raag Sohini, Gauhar can be heard saying “My name is Gauhar Jaan. Yeh thumri Bhaiyya Rao Sahab Ganpat ki [This thumri is Bhaiyya Rao Sahab Ganpat’s].”

Lineage isn’t an accurate word. But it is significant to the current of Hindustani music she situates herself in. Bhaiyya Ganpat was the illegitimate son born in 1852 to Jayarao Scindia and Chandrabhaga Bai, a tawaif who had become the Gwalior ruler’s concubine. She herself was an accomplished singer and dancer. Ganpatrao was introduced to and taught the intricacies of music, especially dadra and khayal, by Chandrabhaga. Little is known about her. Ganpatrao, on the other hand, is prolific as a pioneer of the harmonium and its use in thumris.

While in Calcutta, Ganpatrao was also one of the many teachers to Gauhar Jaan. Another student of his in the port city was Jaddan Bai, a trailblazing tawaif born in Banaras to an Allahabadi courtesan family. Jaddan became an important singer, actress, and director in Bombay. She was also the mother of acclaimed star Nargis. She established Sangeet Movietone, a production company which launched icons like Suraiya (Madam Fashion, 1936).

It is the Bai attache in Jaddan’s name that first signals her position as a courtesan. She was not alone. Early Bombay cinema was studded with the stars and smoke of Hindustani music. What becomes difficult is to discern whether courtesans, women who were foundational to the fledgling industry, were the stars or the smoke.

A poster of Madam Fashion (1936) | Source: Reproduction

Not every tawaif was invariably concerned with pursuing cinematic projects. Neither Gauhar Jaan nor her contemporary Zohra Bai Agrewali lent their voices to productions. Conversely, not every woman in the industry was necessarily from the tawaif tradition. Saraswati Devi (Khorshed Homji), recognized as one of the first women composers in Bombay along with tawaifs Bibbo and Jaddan Bai, arrived in cinema by performing on All India Radio. Interestingly, it is Saraswati who composed one of the most melancholic songs of Hindi films, Koi Humdum Na Raha, first sung by Ashok Kumar in Jeevan Naiya (1936) and later in an altered version by Kishore Kumar in Jhumroo (1961).

However, one cannot talk about the growth of the music that completes Bombay cinema without speaking of the tawaif. In the 19th century, criminalization of itinerant groups and rising hostility from the native middle-classes led to the displacement and impoverishment of many talented girls and women. Gauhar Jaan too passed away, reduced to penury while at the court of Mysore. There was a more complicated relationship between sex work and singing-dancing than both the detractors and celebrators espouse. One can point to archives of the Lucknow Municipal Board which show how wealthier men in Lucknow provided for nautch girls and tawaifs, in the form of money, jewellery, and houses, enough for them to have the highest incomes. Although their labour practices do not translate exactly to the model of commercial sex work that emerged later due to industrialization, there were sexual relations between some women and their patrons. Rapid urbanization in the 20th century led to the emergence of kothas across Bombay, especially in the Girgaum-Kamathipura-Khetwadi area, where hereditary singers, dancers, and musicians became engaged in cultivating Hindustani classical music, while also functioning as intermediaries for men looking for sex. The British enacted several laws such as the Contagious Diseases Act and the Criminal Tribes Act, that disenfranchised these women and significantly altered their labour conditions. This is not to repeat the romantic pre-Raj myth regarding ‘public women’.

Caste, to a large extent, shaped the continuance of nautch and other cultural work then, in the way it shapes sex work across South Asia today. Looking toward historical sources, there are mentions of nomadic communities (Hindu and Muslim) who were not allowed to have other means of survival. Nat, Gaunharin, Mirasi, Ramjana, Kathain, Kathak, Bedia, Bahrupiya, Pamaria are some of the many groups listed under the ‘hereditary musician-dancer’ section of Matthew Sherring’s 1872 ethnography of Banaras. This is not an exhaustive list. Several of these castes were gradually forced into pastoral and/or agriculturalist lifestyles—many remain landless and impoverished till today. Yet without them the course of music and dance in north India would have remained vastly underwhelming.

Sumanta Banerjee, in his radically informative book ‘Under The Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal’, discusses the formation of chaklas, which were demarcated zones for sex work established by the British army within their cantonments, specifically for the burgeoning number of young British (both foreign and native) sepoys. It is interesting that Gerry Farrell in his article titled ‘The Early Days of the Gramophone Industry in India: Historical, Social, and Musical Perspectives’ specifies these chaklas as being integral to musical activities. He also states how men who were professional musicians frequented these sites in order to learn from the women living and teaching there. Geeta Thatra echoes this ignored aspect of musical history by elaborating on the tradition of jumme ki bhaitak in Bombay’s kothas. Her piece on ‘Tawaifs and Congress House in Contemporary Bombay’ explores how figures like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan could not have attained the perfection they did without the teaching and support of tawaifs such as Ganga Bai.

This brings me to the first song still alive in public memory that one can trace to this particular ‘lineage’ of tawaifs. Thumris were historically the domain of women. Ustads (until Ganpatrao) considered the arrangement to be beneath them and refused to perform it publicly. The disdain some Ustads had for thumri was to the extent that they would pointedly distance themselves from it by dismissing it as “tawaifon ki khadi thumri” [khadi could mean ‘raw’ and ‘impure’; therefore, the raw and impure thumri of the tawaifs]. Bound up in the notion of ‘respectability’ is the intentional erasure of women.

Exceptions, of course, exist. One such is Maujuddin Khan’s rendition of Piki Boli Na Bol from 1908. Soon after discovering this in The Record News published by Society of Indian Record Collectors, I came across another rendition by Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan and his son Munawar Ali Khan. There has also been use of this thumri in Hindi films although the lyrics differ. Suraiya sings it in 1947’s Parwana. Shamshad Begum, who hailed from Lahore but frequented Bombay’s tawaif kothas (at the time concentrated near Congress House), sung a version different from Suraiya’s for Dulari in 1949. Lata Mangeshkar too has given voice to a Boli Na Bol in 1956 for the film Aan Baan.

Of Maujuddin, Bharati Ray mentions in a footnote in ‘Women of India: Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods’ that he often took issue with women singers.

It is not disrespectful to say then that Piki Boli Na Bol might also be traced to tawaifs given Monjuddin (as he is listed on several records) had a tendency to utilize songs performed primarily by women. Thumri pre-dates both Maujuddin Khan and Ganpatrao. Even though they certainly did add to its legacy, it was nautch girls and tawaifs (baijis, begums, jaans, naikins) who were experimenting, crafting, and perfecting the style. What we preserve depends on what we pay attention to. Who we put time into speaks to who we think deserves that time. Would it be incorrect to say that without Chandrabhaga Bai, the courtesan mother of Bhaiyya Ganpatrao, an entire river of music may not have flowed the way it did?

It wasn’t only that tawaifs were entering the industry with a large repertoire of music that was directly transferred onto the screen. These women were also adept at playing with the craft and exploring new forms. How else would Jaddan Bai compose a song for Moti Ka Haar, a film she produced and directed in 1937, that opens with English lyrics! They also inspired songs as seen in this 1939 song from the film Gareeb Ka Lal titled Tujhe Bibbo Kahoon Ke Sulochana [Should I call you Bibbo or Sulochana] which provides a repository of actors-actresses active in Bombay cinema at the time. Its list of women includes Bibbo (Ishrat Sultana, daughter of the famous Delhi tawaif Hafeezan Bai), Sulochana (Ruby Myers, the accomplished actress born to a Baghdadi Jewish family in Pune), Jahanara Kajjan (daughter of Lucknowi tawaif Suggan Bai), Mehtab and Zubeida (two of the four illegitimate daughters of a Nawab in Surat who abandoned their tawaif mother, Fatma Begum, herself an actress and Bombay cinema’s first woman director), and Jaddan Bai. If this song seems familiar, it may be because Manna Dey revamped it for the Balraj Sahni starrer Ek Phool Do Maali’s Tujhe Suraj Kahoon Ya Chanda.

We find tawaifs in many Hindi songs. Mughal-E-Azam came out in 1960, featuring the song Mohe Panghat Par, which can be dated to at least 1930 with this recording by Indubala. Madan Mohan’s Jhumka Gira Re in 1966 made Bareilly evergreen and Sadhana a dancer. Six years later, Inhi Logon Ne came to personify both Pakeezah and Meena Kumari. Both songs are of the kotha tradition that not only have a longer history in music but also within cinema itself. While Shamshad Begum gave voice to a film version of it in 1947, a tawaif named Miss Dulari left behind a recording of this song in 1932. Discogs has a short list on some of her other records here.

Inhi Logon Ne’s past can be proven to be far longer. Shamshad decorated this lilt almost four decades before Lata Mangeshkar in a film named Himmat. One can also find a parody version of this song picturized on Yakub, one of yesteryear’s stellar villains, in the 1943 production Aabroo. It is unsurprising to see Shamshad Begum remain a fixture in songs such as these. Her inseparability from the world of Bombay kothas, her rising mainstream popularity, and a markedly nasal voice made her an excellent choice for the integration of ‘courtesan music’ in Hindi films. She also sang Katiya Karoon back in 1963 for the film Pind Di Kudi, most recently used in Rockstar (2011).

The first known recording of Inhi Logon Ne, however, is a dadra rendition by Miss Akhtari Jaan of Lucknow from 1918. There is a chance that Akhtari Jaan is the same as the wife of Sadat Ali Khan, a legendary sursingar player from Awadh who went by Chamman Sahab. Apparently, she played the harmonium exactly like Bhaiyya Ganpatrao.

The fact that Ganpatrao makes an appearance is not accidental. The document states that both Chamman “and his wife Akhtar Jaan” were Ganpatrao’s students. Seeing how the transliteration of ‘Maujuddin’ was inconsistent even during the time the musician was alive, it would not be off the mark to think that Akhtar Jaan and Akhtari Jaan were the same. Regardless, there is no definitive evidence for this theory yet. There is a chance Akhtar Jaan was not her and yet her voice means she was someone. Naushad is rightfully remembered as an illustrious musician. Miss Akhtari Jaan of Lucknow and Miss Dulari are wrongfully not.

These women were learned and knowledgeable. Their grasp on literature, poetry, and music was impeccable. Yet, rarely are gharanas remembered through the names of Bai Jis that brought them into the mainstream. Dhrupad did not find a place in the world of gramophone and cinema the same way that thumri did. Could this be because the declining safety and benefits of courtesanship forced its women practitioners to resort to other means of stability? What these songs make clear is that the tawaif tradition was also one of oral circulation. Songs were carried as they travelled. How did Madan Mohan find out about Jhumka Gira Re in the 1960s sitting in Bombay, when Miss Dulari recorded it in Peshawar in 1932? The words of writers would be lost to time were it not for these women. But what stops us from believing that it was these women who were the writers; that not only did they glamourize these timeless songs but also invent them?

Further Reading

[1] Gauhar Jaan: The Forgotten Doyen of Hindustani Music. Written by Tanya Jha, published in FII on August 22, 2018. Accessed on October 26, 2020.

[2] Ruby Myers: The Jewish-Indian Mega Film Star We Don’t Remember. Written by Anindita Chowdhury, published in FII on February 14, 2020. Accessed on October 26, 2020.

[3] The early days of the gramophone industry in India: Historical, social and musical perspectives. Gerry Farrell. Published online May 31, 2008. Accessed on October 26, 2020.

[4] Contentious (Socio-spatial) Relations: Tawaifs and Congress House in Contemporary Bombay/Mumbai. Geeta Thatra. Published in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies on May 23, 2016. Accessed on October 26, 2020.

[5] Women of India: Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods. Edited by Bharati Ray. Sage Publications, 2005.

[6] Under the Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal. Sumanta Banerjee. Monthly Review Press, 1998.

About the author

Nihira is a freelance writer, editor, sound designer, and radio producer. She is interested in South Asian histories and ecologies. Her personal interests lie with Hindustani music, nautanki theatre, and the women that cultivated these artistic practices. The only ice-cream she eats is plain chocolate; she maintains that Kishore’s Tum Bin Jaoon Kahan was better than Rafi’s. You can find more about her work here.

Featured image by Fatima Baig

About the artist

Born in Hunza, North Pakistan, Fatemah Baig moved to Rawalpindi with her parents when she was 6. She has loved drawing and painting since childhood. She completed her bachelor’s degree in design at National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2008. She is currently based in Lahore where she now works as a freelance graphic designer. Her art can be found on Instagram.

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