Tawaifs: The unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle


PHOTO/Charles Shepherd/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The word tawaif is today used as a profanity. That wasn’t always the case.

In June 1857, when Indian soldiers laid siege to Cawnpore (now Kanpur), enclosing British East India Company officials, they were accompanied by a courtesan. In the midst of the confrontation, as shots whizzed around, the courtesan was seen by at least one eyewitness armed with pistols.

Azeezunbai’s fascinating story finds no mention in history textbooks. If it survives today, it is mainly in archival reports, local legends, and a paper written by Lata Singh, an associate professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Going through these resources can be like leafing through a flip book. Scattered across them is a picture of a woman who made a pivotal contribution to the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, at the forefront and behind the scenes, working as an informer, messenger and possibly even a conspirator in the Kanpur chapter of the rebellion.

A courtesan from Lucknow, Azeezunbai moved to Kanpur at a young age. There, as Singh writes, she grew close to the sepoys of the British Indian Army, particularly one Shamsuddin Khan. Testimony given to the British inquiry into the rebellion described Azeezunbai as being “intimate with men of the second cavalry” and “in the habit of riding” with armed soldiers on horseback. She was also spotted “on horseback in male attire decorated with medals, armed with a brace of pistols” during the mutiny.

Photo credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
PHOTO/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The tale of Azeezunbai is one of the many forgotten stories of India’s courtesans that were examined during a seminar held at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House on April 27. Tehzeeb-e Tawaif, organised by Manjari Chaturvedi’s The Courtesan Project, in collaboration with Avid Learning and the Royal Opera House, brought together historians, writers and researchers for a day-long symposium to discuss the legacies of India’s performing artists of the 18th to the 20th centuries. The panellists included Singh, historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg, musician Shubha Mudgal, cultural writer Veejay Sai, cinema scholar Yatindra Mishra, academic and political science professor Sanghamitra Sarker and bureaucrat-historian AN Sharma.

The event followed a similar iteration in Delhi in March and is one of many ways in which Chaturvedi, a Kathak dancer and founder of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, is trying to change the contemporary perception of courtesans.

Pushed to the margins

History has famously marginalised the voices of women, but even within that paradigm, India’s female entertainers have received a disproportionately bad rap.

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