The dancer who was never meant to be

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In Lucknow, a stroll through the heart of the old city can turn up interesting relics. The strains of music have long since died out, but nostalgic customers are welcome to buy empty perfume decanters that may have once belonged to a tawaif. For those who have a sense of history not easily quelled by lingering remnants of a fragrant past, there is the courtesan film to turn to.
Mostly opulent to the point of decadence, the tawaifs of Hindi cinema and some alternate films are perhaps the strongest and most popular visual signifiers of an era long gone. And this is especially true of her dance, for it was the tawaif’s musical footprint that weathered the storm of modernity. Today, the tawaif’s portrayal as a dancer might be a cinematic construct coloured by popular imagination, but her memory lives on through her innings in cinema.
Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 magnum opus Pakeezah, where Meena Kumari played a tawaif from Lucknow, is Hindi cinema’s most exalted take on the courtesan. Sahibjaan, her character falls in love with a member of the gentry. Along the way, she realises that she will always be singled out as a tawaif. The performances in Pakeezah are masterfully framed; in the climax of Inhi logon ne, as Meena Kumari launches into a series of chakkars, her gauzy red veil held high above her head, one can see many other tawaifs dancing in their balconies along the street.
Filmmaker Saba Dewan feels that while Pakeezah nears an authentic representation of how tawaifs danced, Meena Kumari’s character is a classic representation of the tawaif as victim. She says, “The way the courtesan dances and sings in equal measure is something that has been substantiated by descriptions collected from people who visited tawaifs. For instance, in Aaj ham apni duaon ka asar dekhenge, Sahibjaan is mostly seated; she gets up to dance a little, but most of her movements involves facial expressions and hand gestures. But the film portrays her as a victim who has to be rescued by modernity, by Raj Kumar in his role as a forest officer who comes from the haveli but is employed outside it. Even the train he travels by is a projection of the modern universe he resides in.”
Dewan tells us how dance slowly vanished from the repertoire of traditional tawaifs. “Dance and music were an intrinsic part of the tawaif’s repertoire till the early 20th century. Many great courtesans of that period were both dancers and singers. The reform and morality movements in the early 20th century made the dance of the courtesans their main target. This started in the south of India, where the dance of devadasis was under censure, but it travelled to the north too. Compared to music, dance became a far more reprehensible cultural act. The upper echelons of courtesans began focusing only on singing and stopped dancing. In their heyday, Rasoolan Bai and Siddheshwari Devi would not dance in public. They performed the bol banao thumri, which was not a dance vehicle,” she says.
The recording tours conducted by music companies in the early 20th century gave us significant glimpses of the musical repertoire of the tawaifs. Video recording, however, took longer to reach them, and this might explain the obvious absence of archival footage of their dance performances. Many courtesans made a relatively smooth transition from performance to cinema in the early years of the 20th century, one such courtesan was Nargis’s mother, Jaddan Bai.
Indian cinema is replete with instances of performing women. Until a century or two ago, such women, like tawaifs and even devadasis, were the expert dancers themselves – they passed on the dance and were responsible for its survival. Conversely, we have situations like the one presented in Mandi (1983), directed by Shyam Benegal. The film represents a disintegrating tawaif tradition, where the greater blurring of lines between the courtesan’s performative self and her sexual availability presents us with certain images about tawaifs. Here, the tawaif, who once proudly endorsed her own tradition of dance, must reappropriate it from the respectable milieu it has now escaped to.
In one scene, Shabana Azmi, the owner of the brothel/ kotha, is at a festive gathering with her dancers and singers, where she announces a performance of Kathak. A member of the audience requests a more contemporary and titillating performance, to which request she tells the man to watch Hindi films for titillation.
Cinema studies researcher Sumit Tripathi comments on the erasure of the tawaif as a figure in command of her own art. He says, “In cinema, the role and identity of the tawaif is through her dance. In Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, the two young girls are trained in music and dance. From what we know of performances of thumri in older times, it was both about music and dance. It was difficult to distinguish between the song and the dance. It was a composite presentation. But the filmi portrayal of tawaifs as dancers from a rich lineage also degenerates into entertainment because they are seen as figures of free sexuality, desire and unrequited love in cinema. Often, they also yearn for domesticity. The tawaif’s dance is the item number of olden times. In the sixties, an offshoot of the mujra was the cabaret, but the dancer still owned her dance and existed through it. Now this distinction between performers and heroines has blurred because all the central protagonists are doing item numbers too.”
The Courtesans of Bombay, made by Merchant-Ivory Films with Ruth Praver Jhabwala in 1983, is one of the few real-time depictions of courtesans as dancers. This docudrama focuses on Pavan Pool, a community of courtesans in South Mumbai, who sang and danced in their own mujras every evening and also rendered sexual services. All the women in these families were trained in Kathak and Hindustani classical music. Scenes from the film reveal some of the nightly song-and-dance gatherings in claustrophobic rooms where a populous family might live by day. Despite being highly-trained dancers, most of the women cannot even think of looking for opportunities outside their traditional occupation because they live in a space marked and hence ‘tainted’ by the stigma of prostitution. Kathak, meanwhile, has migrated to air-conditioned auditorium spaces just a few miles away, where dancers proudly perform compositions created in the royal courts of yore, even as the disinherited occupants of Pavan Pool sink deeper into their endangered existence.

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