The Courtesan of Deception

Published: August 14, 2013 - 12:59 Updated: August 14, 2013 - 13:04

The tawaif of Lucknow was a very respected woman with total control over her body and money

Mehru Jaffer Lucknow


The character in Umrao Jaan may well be a figment of filmmaker Muzaffar Ali’s imagination, but once upon a time the medieval institution of tawaif (courtesan) was a very beautiful reality. And because the tawaif was such a beautiful reality, a large majority of the female population naturally envied her and even tried to imitate her, inspiring Majaz, one of the city’s most mesmerizing poets, to note how the doe-eyed coquettes of Lucknow  were the envy of the women of Egypt, land of the legendary Cleopatra.

Much, much before Majaz, who died in 1955, and at the peak of feudal times, tawaif  — from the plural taifa, Arabic for a group of people or autonomous principality — was not another word for a prostitute. Instead, the very mention of a kotha, or the first floor salon of a tawaif, conjured up images of an existence overflowing with high culture.

That occasionally some also engaged in a little sex while in a kotha was just by the way. Here it was not lust or sex that attracted men to a tawaif but the anticipation of becoming part, even for a little while, of the sensual world of creatures who were considered to be an example of perfection in flesh and blood. Particularly in those bygone days, a tawaif was much more than just a female body available for the pleasure of any man for a price.

Much before Majaz, who died in 1955, tawaif was not another word for a prostitute. Instead, the very mention of a kotha, or the first floor salon of a tawaif, conjured up images of an existence overflowing with high culture

At that time the tawaif of Lucknow was a very respected woman with total control over her body and money. This phase lasted for at least 100 years, and throughout the 18th century. This tawaif of Lucknow was less like the weepy characters of Bollywood’s Umrao Jaan or Pakeezah who spent a great deal of their lives moaning and groaning about treacherous men who failed to reciprocate their genuine love for them. This is so saccharine. This is indeed the Bollywoodization of a tawaif whose view of the world in real life, first and foremost, revolved around her capacity to teach herself to change her fate.

Contrary to Umrao Jaan-like sentiments shown on the silver screen, the typical tawaif of Lucknow did not usually care if her customers loved her, or not. This was because of the rigorous training she received in the art of deception from childhood. Apart from learning to sing, dance, appreciate poetry and make conversation, a tawaif’s entire life was spent in mastering the secret of nakhra or play-acting. Part of the trick of a tawaif’s trade was to please and to entertain as many people as possible who were foolish of heart but wealthy of pocket. The tawaif was adept at making these fools believe that her very existence depended on their allowing her to adore them. By the time she was ready to face the first man in her life, the tawaif of Lucknow was already a wizard in pretence. She acted out her love for him with such perfection that he was always cajoled into parting with much more money and gifts than he would have liked to give.

A historian of Lucknow origin, Veena Oldenberg, writes in Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans that the avowed and unabashed purpose of a tawaif was to amass a tidy fortune as early in her career as possible so that she could invest the surplus income in properties or enterprises and retire comfortably by the age of 35  or so.

“To achieve their material ambitions they used, in addition to their exorbitant charges, an arsenal of devious routines that make up the hidden text of an evening’s entertainment. These are subtly deployed to bargain, cajole and to extort extra cash or kind from their unsuspecting clients. Some of these are learnt, some invented, some even improvised, but nuances are refigured with care to suit the temperament of a client or the mood of the moment to appear spontaneous. Repeated rehearsals by the trainee are evaluated by the adept tawaif, until no trace of the pretense is discernible,” writes Oldenberg, who interviewed about 30 tawaifs in Lucknow between 1976 and 1987.

It was always the tawaif who, after some intensive research, chose the men she thought were worthy enough for her to milk. Those men who did not qualify were not allowed into a kotha and the chosen ones were made into such pulp that poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz would later express the plight of a lover by pointing to the lonely man who was on his way to end a night of grief after having lost both the worlds in a game of love.

The powerless heart of the same poet would swell and surge, he says, after a chance glance carelessly thrown his way which was accompanied by her absent-minded smile. So out of his mind is poet Ahmad Faraz that he begs her to return anyway, even if it is to torment his heart. Just come, pleads the poet, even if it means to leave him once again. 

The way we know the ghazal, or the Persian love song, today, is largely due to the tawaif and her contribution in shaping the culture of the courts she was so closely associated with. She used the Indian language of Urdu to entertain instead of Persian. And, inspired by her presence, the ghazal written in Lucknow even took on a very local colour and held much more meaning for the emotions and lives of people living here.

In the Persian ghazal, the poet adopts the feminine gender to address the beloved who is male. Rivetted by the knowledge, wisdom and beauty of the tawaif, the Lucknow poet returned to making woman the object of his passion and to praising the one he loves.

Gulbadan, a chaudharayan or head of a kotha, told Oldenberg that the well-practised ploys of a tawaif included a feigned headache in between a dance or a song, feigned anger for having been neglected, a sprained ankle, tears, a jealous rage that managed to beguile generations of men into losing thousands in extra money or gold coins to these women.

This may sound more like self-enrichment rather than resistance, but, because society has virtually denied women control over wealth or property, it is essential to establishing a counter-cultural way of life,
concludes Oldenberg.

These women made it to the rank of a deradwar tawaif and went on to influence language, literature, Hindustani music and Kathak dance. They were highly respected for their etiquette and art of conversation

The world of the Lucknow tawaif was complex and hierarchical. It was similar to the society of that time. There was the chaudharayan who was head of the fraternity. The deradwar tawaif or main door courtesan with her looks, knowledge and sophisticated ways was the creme de la creme amongst the community of all female professional entertainers.

This establishment was run by a host of other women performing different jobs. The thakahi and randi ranked lower to the deradwar tawaif due to their lack of talent and looks. Their job was to mainly provide sexual services and their lifestyle was more humble when compared to the lavish living quarters of the deradwar tawaif. The khangi was a married woman who was allowed by the tawaif to use a kotha to earn extra money from men looking for sexual favours.

Being the flag-bearer of the oldest profession in the world, the tawaif with a different name has always existed in society. The institution of the Lucknow tawaif was probably born of a long tradition of courtesans patronized at all Hindu and Muslim courts in the many kingdoms that had dotted South Asia from times long forgotten. The tawaif came to the Awadh court in the 18th century under the lavish patronage of local noblemen and merchants.

Not much is known about the ways of the tawaif before the arrival of Shia Muslim rulers of Persian origin in Lucknow who held a sword in one hand and a pen spouting poetry in the other. Over a period of about 130 years, between 1722 and 1857, these rulers had transformed the rural environs of a hillock called Lakshmanpur into the glittering capital of Lucknow. Travellers of yore recall Lucknow as a city more beautiful than the Istanbul of the Ottomans, more magnificent than the Florence of the Medicis, and the Athens of the ancient Greeks. It is possible that the tawaif is another variation of the devadasi tradition that took in talented girls at a young age to give them rigorous lessons in religious dance, music and recitations for performing in Hindu temples.

In the Lucknow of the 18th century, the institution of the tawaif was allowed to flower unfettered and to spread its unique fragrance far and near. But it was not possible for just any woman to become a tawaif. A woman had to be first and foremost talented and flexible as far as ideas of sexuality were concerned. This chosen group of women made it to the rank of a deradwar tawaif and went on to influence language, literature, Hindustani music and Kathak dance. They were highly respected for their etiquette and art of conversation.

To enjoy the company of these exceptional women, members of the ruling elite willingly lavished upon them prime property in the heart of the city’s main Chowk Bazar and in the walled city of Kaiser Bagh, or emperor’s palace, built as a sprawling replica of paradise on earth.


In 18th-century Lucknow, the elite was extremely wealthy, making nothing impossible for those who had money. At this time there was an aesthetic explosion in architecture, music, dance and poetry. The elite was economically secure and unafraid to be liberal socially and culturally, providing the tawaif with options that were generally denied to most other women. She enjoyed a profession and an income, and virtual monopoly in artistic matters.

If one of them wanted to marry, she could do so. If she desired an independent lifestyle, this too was possible as she often owned property and paid tax. For a brief period in history, the life of a tawaif was truly the envy of other women in society; because, in a sea of illiteracy, she was literate.

She had education, an independent income and self-confidence. She reached this very special position in society after the decline of Mughal rule in the mid-18th century when many looking to earn a living elsewhere had gravitated to Awadh.

Here, the most favoured of tawaifs was parked on prime property within the Kaiser Bagh palace complex in the midst of gardens, orchards, fountains, hunting grounds and marble arches. This paradise on earth had a vast residential area for female favourites of the king.

Kaiser Bagh, the most splendid part of Lucknow, was most viciously demolished after the 1857 ‘mutiny and war of independence’ against the British which was won by the whites by the breadth of a hair. The same date also spelt the beginning of the end of the privileged life enjoyed by the tawaif for at least a century.

The initial sense of wonder experienced by Europeans in the 17th century in India had given way to an innate sense of superiority a century later. After annexing Lucknow in 1856 and confiscating the immense wealth of the city, the British dismissed the tawaif as the dancing and singing girl.

In an effort to keep their fantasy for everything exotic alive they called the tawaif not a dancing girl but a nautch girl from naach, the local word for dance. With little or no feel for the exact role that the tawaif played in society, British soldiers forced her into common prostitution, spreading the deadly venereal disease (VD) around the city. It was only later that historians discovered that a larger number of British soldiers died from VD than bravery on the battlefield.

Those Englishmen who survived the 1857 mutiny went on to slap strict Victorian moral values on the population they had conquered, declaring the tawaif an outcaste. The social hypocrisy of the new rulers also allowed the same profession to limp along but in a clandestine way, in shame, and in fear.

Their property was confiscated and their lifestyle disgraced and debased. High income tax was slapped upon the very affluent tawaif, also as revenge for having financially and morally supported Indian rebels against the British in 1857. The British dismantled everything Lukhnawi, including all that which had made the world envy Lucknow as one of the most lovely capital cities of the time. This made the tawaif run helter-skelter to other cities like Kolkata in search of work, including in films. In the hurry, much was lost, in particular, the original verses written by the very talented tawaif. Today all the ghazals we know are written mostly by male poets.


The tawaif of Lucknow was a very respected woman with total control over her body and money
Mehru Jaffer Lucknow

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