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The life of tawa’ifs beyond Bhansali's Heeramandi

Much has been said and discussed about the recent release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s "Heeramandi," which allegedly chronicles the lives of Lahore courtesans from the 1920s to 1940s. Bhansali’s extravagant drama has elicited a range of responses from viewers. Blurring the lines between fiction and reality is a frequent criticism Bhansali faces, and "Heeramandi" is no exception. However, in "Heeramandi," the basics of the time period, setting, and historical context are not accurately portrayed. While Lahore was predominantly a Punjabi-speaking area, the show rarely features the courtesans, or Tawa’ifs, speaking Punjabi. The show exoticizes the idea of Muslimness, if I may put it simply. It is also important to remember that the Tawa’ifs were not exclusively Muslim. Although this is a popular belief, perpetuated and reinforced by Bollywood, there were also Hindu courtesans.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Heeramandi

What Bhansali depicts in his show is neither historical nor accurate. He does not get anything right, from the way they lived to their attire or even the language. However, I agree that there are some good dialogues. We need to realize that he is a filmmaker, and he will focus on aspects he believes will profit him. He is not a gatekeeper of history,” says Rani Khanam, a senior Kathak performer from Lucknow. She has been performing on stage for the past 30 years. She also describes how various kinds and genres of music were part of what the Tawa’ifs used to perform.

Rani Khanam, Source:

One can have differences of opinion on the craft of the creation, but it is a disservice to history and the people on whom he bases his fictionalization. The exoticization here is not only of the lives of the courtesans but also of their pain—a grief that is perpetual and cannot be dealt with easily but is endured and lived forever, up until one’s death, as we see in Lajjo’s death. We need to ponder what it means to discuss the culture rather than just throwing around dialogues with words like ‘tehzeeb.’ This romanticization of the Tawa’ifs’ lives is far from reality. Their role in the independence movement was different.

1952, Lahore, Pakistan, Hira Mandi, dancers'area. Photographed by Frank Horvat
1952, Lahore, Pakistan, Hira Mandi, dancers'area. Photographed by Frank Horvat

Articles chronicle the present state of Heeramandi and how it has become the red-light area of Lahore. The place holds significant history, and its metamorphosis from an area of ‘respected’ courtesans to that of ‘disrespected’ sex workers reflects how women are treated, what respectability means in the context of women, and how it is gendered. How did the line between the gatekeepers of art and culture become so dismembered that it turned into the ‘bazaar’ of love? Historians attribute this distortion to the arrival of the British and the decline of the Mughal Empire. While the British brought their ideas of Victorian morality, the patrons of these courtesans slowly disappeared as the British took over Delhi and Lahore. This endangered the lives of the Tawa’ifs and their legacy, as we see today. Lahore, and Heeramandi in particular, saw a decline in cultural activities with the invasion of Afghan monarch Ahmad Shah Abdali in the 18th century. Thus, the Tawa’ifs of Heeramandi did not lose all their patrons suddenly; it started well before the British took control of this region of the then-Indian subcontinent. Slowly, patronage shifted from the Nawabs to wealthy affluent families, unlike what we see in Bhansali’s "Heeramandi." The 1857 mutiny changed more for the Tawa’ifs of Lahore.

Tawa’ifs had started to move out of Lahore and Delhi to Lucknow with the decline of the Mughal Empire well before the 1940s. Courtesans were involved in the struggle against the British during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. One such example is Azeezunbai, a courtesan who worked as an informant and messenger for the sepoys in Kanpur. Little is written or recorded about her in history. However, after the mutiny, the system of the courtesans slowly faded as the British cracked down on them. In "Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India," Veena Talwar Oldenburg details the struggles of courtesans during and after the Sepoy Mutiny. She writes about how there were many courtesans who were not ranked as highly as the Tawa’ifs but were involved in the war against the British. The queen of Awadh, the wife of the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, seized Lucknow and declared her son, Birjis Qadr, as king with help from the rebels. However, once the British took over, she had to seek asylum in Nepal.

The Sepoy Mutiny, World History Source: Encyclopedia

The British were a bigger threat to the lives and livelihoods of the tawa’ifs after the Sepoy mutiny. They doubled down on the courtesans by placing them under the high tax bracket, segregating them spatially, and launching the anti-nautch movement. They also categorized the courtesans to divide them based on caste and religion.  The empire passed the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864, which mandated regular health examinations for prostitutes and courtesans to keep their army safe. This came in the aftermath of a lot of European soldiers dying because of diseases than of fighting in the war. This was one of the beginnings of grouping ‘prostitutes’ and courtesans together. This grouping was harmful to the tawa’ifs. 

Painting of a group of courtesans, 19th century | Wikimedia Commons

The courtesan culture was one of hierarchy. In this hierarchy, tawa’ifs were at the top who enjoyed the most respect, and remunerations. Bhansali blurs the lines between the ‘role’ of a tawa’if beyond the stage. He does not indulge in establishing this hierarchy which was monumental during the period the show is set in. The courtesans weren’t street performers or prostitutes. Oldenburg notes how sex perhaps was not an active aspect of the courtesan culture. And even if it was involved, it would have been albeit consensual. Thus, the clubbing of prostitutes and courtesans together, made lives difficult for the tawa’ifs. They had to be involved in sex work and other means to be out of these examinations by the British. As Oldenburg puts in her article, ‘The imposition of the contagious diseases regulations and heavy fines and penalties on the courtesans for their role in the rebellion signaled the gradual debasement of an esteemed cultural institution into common prostitution.’ However, there did exist women in the same ‘kotha’ where the tawa’ifs resided. Some women were called ‘thakahi’ or ‘randi’ who were ranked lower and were offered sexual services in ‘more austere quarters’ of the kotha. 

With the increase in British control over the country, the preservation of the art and culture of the Tawa’ifs was lost, and the courtesans had to take unusual means to survive. "The Tawa’if culture saw its end at that time itself, with the British taking over," says Khanam. The courtesans were merely reduced to providing sexual pleasure to the soldiers in cantonments. In each regiment, twelve to fifteen native women were "placed." They were housed in places known as chaklas. These women were not necessarily courtesans. Recent narratives of the last living Tawa’ifs of the era show their fall from a life of luxury and the apathy shown by the state. There are no records of help for these courtesans once the British gradually evacuated them from their cantonments. This also gradually erased them from history. It is also necessary to note that the era in which Bhansali set his story was a time when courtesanship was almost non-existent. They had been changed into nautch-girls, which helped the British consolidate their power over the Indian subcontinent by vilifying these women. Courtesans now existed merely as sexual objects—a dehumanized version of the once-respected guardians of high culture.

Returning to Bhansali’s narrative, one cannot separate the politics of his work from the work itself. The Tawa’ifs were not rebels because of epiphanies; they were equally exploited, if not more, by the British. There was little confusion about the place of a Tawa’if in society, as they were artists according to the hierarchy. There were no blurred lines between "pushtaini fankaar" and "jismani taluqat" as depicted in his drama. Fiction necessitates being set in historical truth for it to be realized to its full potential. When a depiction highly disregards the foundations on which the story should have been built, it becomes a distortion of history nonetheless.

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