FROM the time she ideated the project, documentary filmmaker and author Saba Dewan was certain that in her first book, Tawaifnama, she wanted to give voice to the tawaifs or courtesans. She would not speak for them or on their behalf, and never presume that she understood them. “This book doesn’t fall into any genre. It’s an exchange of stories,” says Dewan, who spoke about the book at the Chandigarh Literature Festival.
Tawaifnama is a multi-generational chronicle of a family of tawaifs with roots in Banaras and Bhabua. Through their stories and personal histories, Dewan explores the nuances that conventional narratives have ignored or wilfully rewritten.
In the not-so-distant past, tawaifs played a crucial role in the social and cultural life of northern India. Dewan notes how the women were skilled singers and dancers, and also companions and lovers to men from the local elite. She adds how at a time when women were denied access to education, the kothas of the tawaifs were centres of cultural refinement. As many tawaifs were musicians, they were articulate, assertive and confident. They were also masters of the oral tradition.
While there was a stigma attached to them for being women in the public gaze, this deepened into criminalisation in the 19th and 20th centuries. “While the fulcrum is one family, there are many voices and stories within stories that unfold to make this book so voluminous. The first and most challenging part was to trace these families, who withdrew from public life, and one of the ways to survive in society was to don a mantle of respectability. My initial forays led to no headway, as no one wanted to speak to me, they had moved on and did not want to wake up a past that had brought them so much stigma, pain and struggle. And how could they trust my intentions, I could be just doing a sensational story,” recalls Dewan, adding that the book is narrated in the form of an account being narrated by her friend, who remains unnamed.
While Delhi-based Dewan’s previous documentaries have focused on issues of gender, sexuality, communalism and culture, Tawaifnama is her first book. It emerged from her trilogy of films on stigmatised women performers: Delhi–Mumbai–Delhi (2006), about the lives of bar dancers; Naach (The Dance, 2008) on women dancers in rural fairs; and The Other Song (2009) about the art and lifestyle of the tawaifs or courtesans.
The filmmaker turned to her teacher Salim Kidwani for guidance, as he has done a lot of work on tawaifs. “He told me as a woman I would be accepted and could build trust and confidence with the tawaifs. Their tough experiences and relationships with men would never allow them to open their hearts to a man,” says Dewan.
The following research work required Dewan to trace the families, understand the social-cultural-political background of the time, the roles the women played, and how politics affected their lives. Dewan met several families and the book, she says, emerged out of the friendships that she subsequently developed with them. “They did not want to be identified and the fact that I agreed to protect their identity helped them trust me. The process of writing the book was an emotionally enriching experience, as I learnt so much about their life, relationships and lonely journeys. There emerged a deeper understanding of gender and sexuality, and as a woman I could feel their struggles and empathise with the price they had to pay. Their lives are tied to our history.”