top of page

A Tawaif’s “Place” in the Culture of Shahjahanabad

tawaif dancing in old delhi
Charles Shepherd/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]

The Mughals have often been credited for bringing about a certain cultural effervescence in India that was not only aesthetically beautiful but was also a representative of the image of an “enlightened monarchy” itself. It was within this space that the tawaif culture of Shahjahanabad could become a symbol of cultured grace, poise and civility, a champion of the very values that were synonymous with the times. The word tawaif is a derivation of the Arabic tawaf or the ritual of circumambulation around the Kaaba. The term can also be used to denote frequent visits to one’s beloved, thus emanating familiar Sufi ideas of intense love in conjunction with absolute devotion to the Almighty.

Tawaifs were female performers or courtesans largely attached to the gilded courts of aristocrats and most importantly, the royal court at Shahjahanabad. These women were also often called nautch girls by later British colonialists, although this seems to be a broader term as not all nautch girls were tawaifs. They were highly educated and professionally trained as classical singers, dancers and even poetesses. Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar is said to have taken a courtesan, Piram Jan as his pupil showing the degree of her poetic talents and status within the Mughal court. They lived in opulent kothas that lined the Chawri Bazaar area upto Jama Masjid, a street colloquially referred to as the bazar-e-husn (market of beauty). Some of these kothas still stand today and can be distinguished by the atariya (balcony) on the first storey. Tawaifs could be seen as occupying positions within the sought-after female elite of the capital and even becoming politically influential, as seen in the case of Begum Samru and Mah Laqa Bai Chanda.

A day in the life of a tawaif would begin with morning riyaz, followed by spirited conversation with fellow courtesans in the kotha and ending the afternoon with a trip to the market, mosque or temple. As preparations for the evening mehfil were underway, they would dress up in magnificently crafted anarkalis and chudidaar, expensive zari belts lodged with precious stones around the waist, a body hugging angarakha worn on the upper body and several ghungroos on the ankle. The attire of the tawaif played a significant role in her performance as the carefully placed pleats on her anarkali skirt opened up as a blooming flower enhancing her graceful whirls on the mehfil floor, the stones on belt illuminated the room as it reflected the light of the oil lanterns and the sound of the ghungroo resonated through the evening. A truly alluring scene, reminiscent Rekha’s Umrao Jaan as she sings:

“Iss shaam-e-faroza ke parvaane hazaron hai

Inn ankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaron hai

Inn ankhon ke vaabasta afsaane hazaron hai”

Throughout the evening, illustrious visitors kept pouring into the kothis in their decked-out palanquins, as multiple paan sellers gathered on the roads outside. With the prohibition of alcohol in the mehfils, the paan was generously laden with afim (opium) that gave a kind of high that slowly rose with the frequency of the ghungroos and the sound of the tablas. The clientele were seated comfortably on soft gaddis or cushions, smoking hookahs and revelling in the truly mesmerising visual feast. For the men, the companionship of the knowledgeable and culturally refined courtesan was more desirable as compared to the dull traditionalism represented by their wives who were merely the seed-bearers of their progeny. The company of the tawaifs were not only a means for entertainment but an important lesson in the virtues of adab manners, etiquette and the appropriate way of bearing oneself. In fact, the kothis also served as a kind of “finishing schools” where tawaifs instructed high ranking and aristocratic Shahjahanabadi men on the subtle art of tehzeeb.

In the 19th century, David Ochterlony was placed as Delhi’s first British Resident and subsequently several male officers (women hardly came to Indian postings at this time) of the East India Company set up residence in the cantonments. Initially they adopted the native way of life, thus also whole-heartedly accepting the tawaif culture that was an integral part of Delhi’s upper- class sophistication. The multiculturalism that was so widespread in the cantonments also saw several tawaifs becoming bibis (semi-permanent native wives) of prominent British individuals. Yet, British multiculturalism did not indicate an interpretation of the tawaif’s world in the context of its artistic excellence and intrinsic social implications, but as an expression of sensual pleasure.

Soon a change of guard in the Company’s administration saw Hasting’s orientalist regime come to an end and now there was a greater shift towards Christian “morality” which started in an ideal English “household”. With the entry of the British memsahib into the colonial landscape a new gender dynamic emerged in the city as colonial women grew increasingly wary of the influence of a tawaif. British women were visibly horrified at the culture of kothas and mehfils that had drawn their men into a cesspool of apparent debauchery and sin. They saw the nautch girl at the centre of this degeneracy, whose demonic charms set out to destroy the sanctity of the British family that was built so lovingly by the righteous British wife.

When the possibilities of a revolt became imminent in 1857, kothas often doubled up as secret meeting places of rebels from all walks of Iife, under the overt protection of popular tawaifs in their dominion of the bazar. George William Forrest even commented on the 1857 rebellion being an “instigation of a courtesan”. Colonial authors like Flora Annie Steel and Rudyard Kipling frequently used idiomatic references such as “taunt from a pair of painted lips”, “we of the bazar”, “kiss no cowards” to show the incorrigible spirit of the courtesan classes in being the torch-bearers of dissent in these tumultuous times.

When British forces finally managed to sack the most crucial sepoy stronghold in Delhi, they did not spare a single soul and the tawaif was no exception. As the old vestiges of Mughal court culture crumbled around them, they seemed to have lost every ounce of their social prestige and honour almost overnight. Not only were they cruelly fined and their kothas foreclosed upon by the new Raj, but they were also subject to insulting medical examination as a part of the Contagious Diseases Act to check for venereal diseases. This completely tarnished their image and destroyed their former glory with the tawaifs themselves being treated as any dirty prostitute, a blot on the face of civil society.

As India raced towards “modernity” at a break-neck speed, the newly emergent Muslim middle class sought to preserve their traditional values by ironically espousing distinctive Victorian social codes of conduct. The Muslim reformist class felt that the only way to maintain social orderliness was educate their women into the mould of the ashraf home-maker and systematically liberate the zenana of ignorant “gossip-mongering” and other counter-productive activities by firmly placing wives under the control of the husband. There was no place for the tawaif in this new world as she was not confined to the prescribed domain of marriage and instead occupied the public space, that was now clearly becoming the monopoly of men.

Moralistic literature such as Mirat ul-Arus (The Bride’s Mirror) created a clear myopic distinction between “the women of virtue” (sharif) and the ill- reputed “women of the bazar”, in a very Sense and Sensibility kind of way. Simultaneously another discourse, also dominated by men, called for the “rescue” of the women of the bazar who had fallen victim to social censure and moral tyranny. In any case, feminist historians argue, the tawaif was largely robbed of her agency and relegated to just a “commodified body” that needed to be shunned or saved by society.

Abdul Ghaffar’s Laila ke Khutut (Laila’s Letters) speaks of one such courtesan stuck in the crosshairs of moral policing in 19th and 20th century India. She charges at the alien world of social pretence that gave a free hand to the expressions of male sexual proclivity while completely ostracising the tawaif as a peddler of carnal sins, in full disregard of the rich cultural heritage of which she was probably the last remaining representative. By now the Umrao Jaan image had been duly shed and the tawaif increasingly appeared as the prototype of Meena Kumari’s Sahib Jaan in Pakeezah, confessing her “shame” at being a fallen woman, just a cheap prostitute. The courtesan was thus forever interred into the archives of history, a memory of a vibrant past that could not survive narrowly constructed boundaries of the seemingly “modern” world.


  • Sarah Waheed, “Women of 'Ill Repute': Ethics and Urdu Literature in Colonial India

  • Ruchika Sharma, ”The Indian Nautch Girl in Early Colonial Travel Writing

  • Shweta Sachdeva Jha, “Tawa’if as Poet and Patron: Rethinking Women’s Self Representation

  • Debashish Das, “Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals

  • William Dalrymple, “The Last Mughal


bottom of page