Delhi By Foot

Tareekh-e-Tawaif:Saga of India’s Courtesans
The Shahi Masjid.

‘Ik tum hi nahi tanha, ulfat mein meri ruswaa. Iss sheher mein tum jaise, diwane hazaroon he!’

Tawaif, is a word that’s always intrigued me, much like an adolescent boy, of yore would have been; thanks to the eternal beauty, Rekha and Muzaffar Sahab, who made Umrao Jaan. Any woman, who sticks it to the patriarchy, is greatly appreciated by one and the one’s who could do it with such artistry, beauty and grace, I put them on a separate pedestal.

The first woman poet, to have a printed compilation of her work, Maha Laqa Bai, of Hyderabad was also a famous courtesan.

That also has do with imagery, I’m sure. If my first impression came from Pakeezah, a film that’s considered a classic, I would have been appalled, despite my love for the songs and the painful, angsty beauty of Meena Kumari. The idea, that a woman, only through marriage and parentage, can become pure of heart, takes away the power that some women, who stand on the fringes of society, actually have. Tabu, sitting on a swing, playing Saeeda Begum, with a young Ishaan Khattar, lying by her feet, adoringly glancing at this woman of pleasure, that’s the kind of image that the word, courtesan conjures up in my mind or Manjari performing the Courtesan Project On Stage.

Mariam, a history graduate from Jamia who believes in preserving oral histories, leading us into Qudsia Bagh.
Zubair Idrisi, who plans DBF’s outdoor activities, facilitating the walk.

So, of course I had to go for this walk. The facilitators Zubair and Marriam, took us to the Shahi Masjid first and then to Qudsia Bagh, built by Qudsia Begum, who was the wife of Mohammed Shah ‘Rangeela’. The Begum started as a royal courtesan, became the wife of the emperor, then a high ranking official in the Emperor’s Army and after her husband’s death a regent to her son. It was only after Rangeela’s death in 1748, Udham Bai, the Hindu courtesan, that the emperor had married, took the name ‘Qudsia’, meaning ‘pure, innocent or chaste’. Sounds, familiar?

Mariam Siddiqui, came with printouts of miniature paintings. Some of these illustrations can be found on Wikipedia and other websites. But it was refreshing, to see someone make the effort to print them out, nevertheless.

The young facilitators, took us around to show us the fragments of the palace. While Zubair played a game, with us, Marriam discussed the famous courtesans, the depiction of these courtesans in Bollywood viz a viz Pakeezah ( though her opinion of film, was more about it being Kamal Amrohi’s symbol of love, a Taj Mahal of sorts, to Meena Kumari) and Umrao Jaan; the Randi ka Masjid, the connection of Bollywood with tawaifs through parentage, David Ochterlony etc. What made the walk interesting, was not the recounting of facts, that one can always read ( if one enjoys the activity), it was the feminine point of view, accentuating the power of seduction, not deliberately, though. A little intention, would have been nicer, just a few nuggets from the Suitable Boy or a little more about the state of the women of pleasure in current times or actually taking us to Chawri Bazaar or GB road, would have made it perfect. Nevertheless, Marriam, is an engaging orator, quick witted and the walk was very well researched and facilitated by the two. The banter, the back and forth exchanging of information, between the facilitators also made it a captivating conversation.