Dharmman Bibi rode into battle during the revolt of 1857 shoulder to shoulder with her patron lover Babu Kunwar Singh. Sadabahar entranced even snakes and spirits with her music, but eventually gave her voice to Baba Court Shaheed. Her foster mothers Bullan and Kallan fought their malevolent brother and an unjust colonial law all the way to the Privy Council—and lost everything. Their great-granddaughter Teema paid for the family’s ruination with her childhood and her body. Bindo, Asghari, Phoolmani, Pyaari … there are so many stories in this family. And you—one of the best-known tawaifs of your times—remember the stories of your foremothers and your own.
This is a history, a multi-generational chronicle of one family of well-known tawaifs with roots in Banaras and Bhabua. Through their stories and self-histories, Saba Dewan explores the nuances that conventional narratives have erased, papered over or wilfully rewritten.
In a not-so-distant past, tawaifs played a crucial role in the social and cultural life of northern India. They were skilled singers and dancers, and also companions and lovers to men from the local elite. It is from the art practice of tawaifs that kathak evolved and the purab ang thumri singing of Banaras was born. At a time when women were denied access to the letters, tawaifs had a grounding in literature and politics, and their kothas were centres of cultural refinement.
Yet, as affluent and powerful as they were, tawaifs were marked by the stigma of being women in the public gaze, accessible to all. In the colonial and nationalist discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this stigma deepened into criminalisation and the violent dismantling of a community. Tawaifnama is the story of that process of change, a nuanced and powerful microhistory set against the sweep of Indian history.