May 13, 2018

‘Tawaifs’- Mystery Unravelled

Image courtesy- Internet

Learning courtesy from 'Tawaifs'? It may sound strange and also shocking to some as the term today is synonymous with sex workers. Little do we know however that in the Nawabi era, the rulers of Avadh used to send their future kings to the ‘Tawaifs’ for learning courtesy, the symbol of Lucknawi ‘Tehzeeb’ and `Adab’(culture and chivalry).
The so called civilized white-collared people, who visit the sex workers clandestinely in the darkness of night to satiate their lust, would be surprised to know that that many of the ‘Tawaifs’ of that era had added much to ‘Lucknawi’ heritage, its much acclaimed ‘Tehzeeb’ and much more in music and dance field.

Well known Awadh historian Yogesh Praveen says, “Mujro ki mahfilon se saze kothe tazeeb k gharane huwa krte the…..jaha bade-bade nawabzade, taluqedaro ke bete aur laat shahbon ke ladke shaoor -saleeka sheekhne bheje jate the” (The kothas , which reverberated with the sound of  classical music, were places, where the would be nawabs, sons of landlords and elites sent to learn  Manners and Etiquette).

The Kothas then used to get decorated with chandeliers, brocaded spiracles, floral strings and mirrors hanging over carved walls. Floral aroma of rose, jasmine and fiddle gave heavenly feeling to the visitors. At nights, Kothas were flooded with the Royals, having ‘gajra’ (torses) in their hands, used to be welcomed by offering ‘Pan’ and rosewater sprinkles at the entrance. ‘Sham-e-Awadh’ was not only famous for people strolling in the colourful nights at gardens of the city or watching cumbersome sun disappearing into horizon but also inherited mujra culture of Lucknow.

 Mujra literally means ‘Sadar Pranam’ (welcome greeting) or savoury of music and dance. Generally, it means singer- cum -dancer performing in men’s assembly.
In fact, the historians say that the art of classical singing and dancing had been nurtured by the ‘darbars’ (king’s courts). These skills found homage at ‘kothas’. They flourished there, generation after generation and manifested itself in the form of ‘mujra’.

 Many ‘ Tawaifs’ were dancers who used to dance within certain limitations, keep maintaining equal distance as well as equal relation with the male audience. Graceful and sensual combination of hands and eyes were exhibited through soulful outplay of love and separation by singing and dancing. They used to be masters of regional as well as classical art forms, as art ran through their veins. 

Praveen, in his book, has praised ‘ Tawaif Mahe  Muneer’ as she sang Ghalib’s  famous  Ghazal ‘Mere dil se koi pooche, tere teer e neem kash ko’, 36 times , each in time different style, at the wedding ceremony of the son of Maharaja  Mahmoodabad,. This shows her command over the craft.

Various instrument such as Tabala, Sarangi, Dholak and Shahenai compositions used to be played in standing position. Besides the audience was not allowed to sit till the song came to an end. This custom had been changed by ‘Ziddan Bai’,a tawaif turned renowned Ghazal singer.

Obscenity, vulgarity and lewdness had no place in the ‘Mujra’ culture. Affluent people used to show appreciation by giving cash or other valuables in the silver betel boxes or in silver disks which helps in maintaining decorum.

To be continued ….
Much more about ‘Tawaifs’ and
descendants has to come in my next blog.

Vivek Singh Chauhan


  1. Good. A better story would be on finding a tawaif today and writing about her trials and life has changed and how people' perception has changed.
    In some rural areas and semi urban areas we still get to see the modern tawaif...known as पतुरिया among other names....

    1. Such a useful information Sir.....we would like to add this in our next blog. And thanks for your valuable comment on that.

  2. Any quote from any tawaif could boost the spirit but never the less work is commendable

  3. nice story on a less discussed topic

  4. Very knowledgeable..... Eagerly Waiting for the next part of it .

  5. Very nice and knowledgeable...

  6. Can anyone tell why you put name Dev Tales?
    Nothing development tales you guys are putting here except such idiotic topics


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