Dard se tere hai mujhko beqarari hai hai
kyaa huyi zaalim teri gafalatashiari hai hai
(Alas! Your pain causes me no peace; what is this attitude of callousness o cruel one)
Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib wrote this elegy for a woman he called “a sitam pesh domni (an oppressive nautch girl)” in a letter he’d written to his friend. Nowhere does one find the name of this 19th-century courtesan. The records — mostly Mirza Ghalib’s letters — mention her without a name. “But she was important enough that he wrote a poem for her and asked a Nawab to get someone to compose the piece in raag Jhinjhoti,” says Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi, who decided to name this blindspot in history as Nawab Jaan. She got ghazal singer Radhika Chopra to record the composition in the night raga that Ghalib’s letter demanded. The poet’s lament for his unknown beloved was a part of “The Courtesan Project” presented by Chaturvedi through Darbari Kathak
while journalist Neelesh Misra played the narrator at the third Jashn-e-Rekhta festival in Delhi last week.
“People say that there was nobody called Nawab Jaan. I had found many courtesans, artistes who have remained unknown, unnamed, removed from the documentation of performing art history. Giving a name and presenting her was a tribute to those talented artistes whom we call tawaifs and put a derogatory stamp on them. The idea is that of creating an alternate narrative, to tell people of the art of these phenomenal women,” says Chaturvedi, whose concert, under a marquee was marred by loud sounds from another concert at the festival, a whistling audience and sound and light issues. Chaturvedi is unfazed. “It is interesting to not perform for the usual suspects,” she says.
The project began five years ago when Chaturvedi worked with Zarina Begum, the last living singer of the Awadh court. “Begum, now 91, asked for just one thing — ‘Ek baar Banarasi sari pehen kar gaana hai.’ That struck me hard,” says Chaturvedi, who presented a concert with Begum. But it was hard to find sponsors. One of them put it indelicately, “Ab hum tawaifo ko honour kare?” “They were sitting across a dancer of today and insulting a singer-dancer of yesteryear,” says Chaturvedi, who managed the concert without sponsorships. What also surprised Chaturvedi was that the reference was being made to some of the most educated women of their times. “Courtesans were those few who were adept at politics, literature, and the art of conversation. Back then, other women were quite subservient,” says Chaturvedi.
Their education was also probably one of the reasons why many pieces written and composed by the courtesans remain anonymous. While poets such as Adarang and Sadarang sneaked in their names in khayals to make sure they were not forgotten, courtesans didn’t bother. “There was only one Begum Akhtar. We also know of Rasoolan Bai, Gauhar Jaan and some others. But what about those thousands we don’t. Once Nawab Amir Naqi Khan Mehmoodabad told me that 51 courtesans sang at his wedding about 50 years ago. Who were these women and what were their stories?” says Chaturvedi about the women who found themselves predominantly in Delhi, Lucknow, Banaras, Calcutta and Hyderabad.
She says that the shame of a courtesan comes from the fact that she was liberated in terms of her body and financially. “We assume that they slept with everybody. It’s an assumption because they are women. The men are absolved,” says Chaturvedi.
At the turn of the 20th century, society became uncomfortable with romance and, post-independence, found Bhakti. “The underlining tendencies of people made us uncomfortable with the tawaifs and we didn’t know what to do with them,” says Chaturvedi.
She is now working on stories of some other courtesans including of Inayat Bhai Berowali, whose sarangi player was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. “Imagine how talented she would be,” she says.