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The Brave Women Musicians of India's Freedom Struggle

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Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre where the boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense

The word ‘tawaif’ carries a bad rap in today’s times. But that wasn’t always the case.

The word ‘tawaif’ carries a bad rap in today’s times. But that wasn’t always the case.

The ‘Tawaifs’ Are Not Prostitutes

The word ‘tawaif’ carries a bad rap in today’s times. But that wasn’t always the case.

Today a tawaif is used to depict either a prostitute or the ‘other woman’ or a ‘woman of low morals’ who breaks families for her personal benefit. And unfortunately, in modern times, their portrayal as seductive girls, singing and dancing to double meaning songs meant to titillate the customer has further damaged their reputation

Unfortunately, the reality of their profession is far different from their reputation. In pre-independent India, they were artists of the highest caliber, trained in different forms of music, and enjoying an elevated status in society. The tawaifs were not only well respected but were also strong-willed independent women who owned lands, properties and were one of the highest taxpayers in British India.

But their only mistake was that they went against the British in the Indian rebellion of 1857 and the British made them pay a terrible price for it by destroying their reputations and making them prostitutes for the British soldiers.

"Dancing and singing girls" as the British called them were the primary recipients of their wrath as they confiscated all their properties, labeled them as prostitutes, and send them to British garrisons to ‘service’ the troops there. Overnight a rich cultural heritage of music and dance was reduced to flesh trade as their ‘kothas’ (dancing halls) were degenerated to brothels run by pimps.

Today, forgotten and pushed away in the dusty annals of history as women of disrepute, no many know that they played a stellar, pivotal role in India’s freedom struggle against the British.

The tawaifs were not only well respected but were also strong-willed independent women who owned lands, properties and were one of the highest taxpayers in British India.

The tawaifs were not only well respected but were also strong-willed independent women who owned lands, properties and were one of the highest taxpayers in British India.

The Story of the Tawaifs

Unlike other freedom fighters whose names prominently feature in India’s history, the names of tawaifs hardly feature in any recognized works and are mostly denigrated to footnotes as an afterthought.

One such name that comes, again and again, is Azeezunbai. She was a tawaif in Kanpur, who fought against the British in the 1857 uprising and was later executed by the British.

That Azeezunbai was fearless would be an understatement. She was instrumental in ensuring that the Indian rebels get the right information about the British movements and can be prepared with their strategies. She was said to have deep contacts within the British army that helped her to spy details and pass them on to the rebels.

And during the peak time, her house or ‘kotha’ was the meeting point for rebels. She had created groups of nurses using her own money to attend to the wounds of the rebels and distribute arms and ammunition to far-flung areas.

She not only played a supporting role but also led from the front, traveling on horseback, dressed in military attire, and armed with pistols. She was also solely responsible for motivating the army and leading them to initial victories against the British.

But unfortunately, she was the only one such case who was noticed. As per Lata Singh, a professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, a lot of tawaifs are not even known now by names as she writes.

“There are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of women like Azizun in the Rebellion, but most of these seem to have gone unrecorded. In Lucknow, their role is documented as ‘covert’ and ‘generous financiers’ of the Rebellion.”

And the interesting thing to remember was that the tawaifs were all strong-willed independent women who funded the revolution using their own money and employed other people who can help raise funds for the revolutionaries. They were not just repositories of art and culture, but they were the powerhouses who drove India’s freedom struggle in full fervor.

After the rebellion was crushed, the British took terrible revenge on them by completely obliterating their names and reputations from history. A culture was destroyed, and an era of classical dancing and singing was deliberately smudged with prostitution, flesh trade, and lewdity that unfortunately exists even today.

The tawaifs were not just repositories of art and culture, but they were the powerhouses who drove India’s freedom struggle in full fervor.

The tawaifs were not just repositories of art and culture, but they were the powerhouses who drove India’s freedom struggle in full fervor.

Even Today Things Have Not Changed

Nearly 300 years later, only the audience of the (remaining) tawaifs has changed. Instead of knowledgeable patrons appreciating classical music and dance, the tawaifs of today dance to lewd Bollywood songs and suggestively gyrating moments catering to a male audience who is either too drunk or debauched.

Most of them have left the profession and the few who are still there are struggling to identify their rich legacy that has got obliterated over the years.

As Shubha Mudgal a famous Hindustani classical singer rightly says about their lost art.

“There is an unjust stigma attached to them – a stigma that continues to haunt the daughters and sons of courtesans. What we are left with then are gramophone records of their music, history (oral and written) and questions about how their legacy ought to be remembered.”

The tawaifs deserve to get our respect because they are no less than the other heroes of our Independence struggle against the British.

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 28, 2021:

But they are not create as such. Its the envy of the men because of they success.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 28, 2021:

Thanks Flourish for your comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 28, 2021:

Strong women are often vilified and denigrated as morally decrepit.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 27, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 27, 2021:

I have not heard about the brave women musicians. Sounds like you have been doing a lot of research on this topic. Informative and lots to ponder on here in the history of India,.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 27, 2021:

Thanks, Vidya for your comments

VIDYA D SAGAR on May 27, 2021:

Well researched and informative article. Sad that their powerful role in India's struggle for independence was never recognized or acknowledged. Thanks for bringing to light this valuable information.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 27, 2021:

Thanks Chitrangada for your comments

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 27, 2021:

Well written and informative article about the brave women musicians, who had an important role in the freedom struggle of India. You have done a wonderful job by bringing this to light.

Thank you for sharing this.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 27, 2021:

Thanks Umesh

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 27, 2021:

Very interesting. Well analysed.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 27, 2021:

Rajah, I hope so too. You're welcome.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 27, 2021:

Thanks, Misbah for your comments.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on May 27, 2021:

Ravi, Thanks for this article. The lives of tawaifs have been the subject of fascination, fiction and academic interest but no one knows their ground history. Though popular culture and Victorian morals led many to believe they were the "other woman" or women of "bad character" who broke up marriages and tempted men, their tale is far more complicated. I knew nothing good about the tawaifs until one day while watching a movie my mom told me about them. This is an excellent article.

Thanks for sharing.

Blessings and Peace

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 27, 2021:

Thanks, Miebakagh.The contributions of many such women stand forgotten in history simply because nobody took the pain to give them their rightful due.Let us hope we bring these unknown women in the foreground.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 27, 2021:

Ravi, I have read a lot about the Indian independece struggle. What I read is mostly about men and no women mention. All said that the British destroy the taiwaif reputation as highly respected citizens of Indian, the question is: why did not the Indian government remember such characters at independence celebrations? With a center of women studies open in a university, and still no need to remember them? Shame to all Indian political class. The read is interesting. Much thanks.

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