Tagged: Issue 3 Vol 4

Un aakhon ki masti ke: Some speculations on Courtesans and the Indian Bourgeoisie

Aren’t some of our notions of upwardly mobility premised on appreciation of the tawaifiya culture?

I know, this is problematic; I can see where and how too. First, I don’t suppose there’s such a word as tawaifiya – but this not being a paper in the strict sense, I think I can get away with that. Second, since it seems of my own construction, I needs must give some meaning to it. Third, when I’m done with that, the uphill task of threshing the matter, why I think there’s some connection between notions of being cultured and upward mobility and so-called tawaifiya culture.

To start then, tawaifiya. I take it as an obvious derivative of tawaif and tawaif, in the lay sense, will mean courtesan. More specifically, a courtesan of the Islamicate ethos of the Mughals and the royalties which subsequently arose following their breakdown. Of course, this is not to say that the courtesan was specific to these contexts alone; leaving disparate parts of the world otherwise, even within the subcontinent there have existed long standing traditions of the courtesans, women of beauty skilled in performative arts and proficient in letters. Again, it does injustice to these various types of courtesans to group them so and discuss them thus but for purposes of convenience.

Getting back to the tawaif. The courtesan has always been a notable part of the subculture of privileged communal erotics in the subcontinent and so it’s no use wondering whether it owes its emergence specifically to the Islamicate period of subcontinental polity. Yet, be that as it may, fact remains that our common notions of the tawaif – and by our, I refer specifically to the Islamicate subcultures of the subcontinent – owe a lot to what we consider the direct influence of the Mughal paraphernalia of aesthetics and entertainment. Within this, dance – which has always been a prominent part of courtly entertainment in the subcontinent – forms a time honoured tradition; dance, combined with singing, a certain adept literariness and sexual promiscuity, constitute the general conception of the quintessential tawaif.

Tawaifia culture, in that sense, will connote all those institutions and traditions which consolidated the tawaif’s position as a cultural given in the context of late medieval and early modern Islamicate India. That these institutions and traditions were premised on the factuality of a court and a courtly, urbane elite seems obvious enough so that even though vulgarly the tawaif is a whore, she is nonetheless a sophisticated, elegant and more or less inaccessible one. Again, it also seems obvious that the morals and manners of the times which we generally associate with the heyday of this sort of cultural ethos were sufficiently different from ours to allow, with as few scruples to the conscience as possible, a convenient divorce between religious and ethical theory and practice. The tawaif, not a whore, not a dancing girl, was yet both even as she was much, much more: her prestige came from the selective access due to her accomplishments as not just singer and dancer but also versifier and a wit. A public figure and part of a commerce, she was available but not commonly and, which sets her apart from the paramours of early modern Europe, not necessarily for a price.

Given all this, it’s not too difficult to see how an appreciation of this so-called tawaifia culture – or some ethos of it at least – forms a part of upward mobility in the contemporary context. We do not, of course, have the same institutions today which made that culture what it seems to have been, but we still do have many value systems that are commonly shared coming derivatively from those times. The emergence and consolidation of a class of urban bourgeoisies and industrial workers, the establishment of a rehashed, Indianised Puritan work ethics with all its attendant moral and ethical implications and the supposed democratisation of gender relations, these did over the course of the past century or so effect drastic changes in our notions of acceptable gender roles, sexual normativity, ethical commerce and upward, class mobility – yet, even as they did they did not fully supplant the basis of social organisation and aspirations that we have inherited from the past. When I claim that an appreciation of the tawaifia culture still forms a part of our notions of upward mobility, I refer to these inherited notions of taste and being cultured.

Notions which, as I have hinted above, are premised on an exclusivist sense of being cultured and privileged. The tawaif, as many of us conceive her today, is a symbol of an intensely cultured, privileged and rich, albeit supposedly decadent, past. Closely, though not inherently, linked with her is another much cherished, somewhat idealised phenomenon more or less typical to the Islamicate cultures of the subcontinent, the mehfil. Symptomatic in its more literary avatar of Urdu poetry, now understood generically as the ghazal, and in actuality comprising the varied, nuanced paraphernalia of rekhta and rekhti, the mehfil, shorn of its supposedly more deviant elements, has appealed steadily to the Islamicate-ed bourgeoisie’s imagination as a symbol of early modern India’s intricate and flourishing culture of wit and sophistication.

These two then, the former not as much as the latter perhaps, combine to form the crux of the bourgeoisie’s romantic nostalgia for a privileged and ornately cultured past – a past which, for what it stands today as, continues to be a metaphor of position and power. Appropriating that metaphor as a legacy particular to its own ethos is, hence, a vital part of this class’s fashioning as truly Indian, an amalgamated mix of a globalising modernity coming into its own with the authentic traditions of its pre-colonial sophistication still firmly in place.

This is amply illustrated by sundry contemporary practices and cultural artefacts. The symbolic merit attached to an understanding of ghazals across the Hindi speaking belt, the regular organisation of ghazal based mehfils by patricians of the urban bourgeoisies, the persistence of Urdu – or pidgins of Urdu as it were – as the language of love and sentiment in mainstream Bollywood, its association with a certain tehzeeb reminiscent of Oudh and the Nawabs and the endurance of such legends as Umrao Jaan, all of these are indicative of the continuing charm of a the idea of a closed, intensely sophisticated and elegantly well disposed coterie of peers set apart as a community as much by its wealth as by its eminently different aesthetics of love and entertainment.

Considering our demographics, that is a powerful idea. Indeed, given the state of flux first the Independence and then, gradually, economic liberalisation put Indian polity in, the old centres of brilliance, status and power no longer hold with the same dominance. In a context where the idea of inheritance has lost much of its charm and where, for many years now, the nouveau riche have been a growing force, the past alone can provide some basis for classist differentiation. The dialectic has been worn out, but it still holds today: the educated, urbane bourgeoisie lays claim to a superior cultural inheritance even as the self-made business tycoon controls the modes of production which make, in their own devious ways, that fashioning by the bourgeoisie possible. In the Indian context it is, of course, interesting to think that both these classes are as self-made as the other, but then one preceded the other and so made such claims to an integrated cultural inheritance possible. Learning and knowledge, after all, are the great showpieces of the urbane bourgeoisie; they are characteristics which make it possible for it to posit itself successfully as the honest, hardworking mainstay of the nation. It is not surprising, then, that incorporated within these networks of education is also an appreciation of the past, a past which was glorious even in its decline and which, re-imagined, becomes a symbol of a sophisticated Indian-ness.


Anubhav Pradhan,
M.A. (Final) English,
Hansraj College,
University of Delhi