Art & Culture

Seduction, music and sex education: Life and times of Awadh's glorious tawaifs

Aslam Mahmud
Aslam MahmudJun 05, 2017 | 18:30

Seduction, music and sex education: Life and times of Awadh's glorious tawaifs

The courtesans were broadly divided into two groups, khandani (hereditary) and new entrants. Training in singing and dancing was an important feature of the training of courtesans. Right from the age of six or seven, the girls were made to learn music and dance from ustads. This involved long hours of practice and rehearsal. Most of them enjoyed it. In addition, they cultivated the art of etiquette, good manners, decorum and courtesy. Most important was the knack for conversation, especially with the male clientele, which was to be studded with witticisms, repartees and appropriate use of Urdu (and sometimes Persian) couplets.


All this required basic literacy with more than a smattering of bookish knowledge. The aim was that the courtesan should be congenial and pleasing company. She was supposed to be an attraction with fascinating appeal in a mehfil.

A courtesan's ring. Photo: Woven souls/ Photoshelter

While the training of the courtesan included proficiency in the art of being coquettish, she had hardly any training or proficiency in cooking, sewing, cleaning the house and general housekeeping. Domestic helpers were retained to maintain the establishment; they dusted, arranged things and generally ensured an orderly setup. It was a long-standing tradition in brothels that hardly any cooking, except perhaps tea, was done on the premises.

Whenever food was required, it was ordered, mostly at the expense of the male client, from the nearby eateries. There was a saying that "tawaif ka chulha kabhi garm nahi hota (the hearth of a courtesan is seldom lit)".

In Lucknow, there were kothas around the original shop of Tunday Kebabwala in the Chowk area, which was well-patronised by the prostitutes and their clients. Men, before going up to the kotha, would buy a heavy dona (leaf container) of fried kebabs and a few garlands of bela and chameli (jasmine).


The women’s attire usually comprised a kameez (shirt) and izaar (drawers). They also wore the lehnga (skirt) with a short blouse called shaluka. With the izaar and lehnga, the scarf (dupatta) or head-shawl (orhni) was a must. For dance, usually peshwaz, a tunic comprising a fitted bodice and skirt reaching below the knee, was worn. The bodice or bra was an item of underclothes. It was called the angiya and myriad descripitions of it in Urdu and Indo-Persian poetry are considered examples of bold eroticism.

It is to be remarked that in those days there was no question of wearing bras of the correct size. An undersized bra or bodice was frequently worn to bring out the bosom. Nonetheless, the attire of prostitutes did not provide any unseemly exposure of the female body.

William Crooke in his book Things Indian: Being Discursive Notes on Various Subjects Connected with India, wrote the following about the nautch: "The dress of the nautch-girl is highly decorous but arranged with little elegance or grace. It often consists of skirts of scarlet and gold, spangled sáris, trousers of silk brocade, and they wear masses of jewellery, the anklets of silver or gold with little bells making a soft tinkling as their brown feet move."


Although the courtesans gave the impression of being indifferent to the gaze of their admirers, they liked to be admired. They loved to shower their smiles, coquetry and blandishments. They derived a lot of pleasure from tantalising their votaries, as also the libertines and the rakes.

Displaying the firmness of their breasts was in their interest, so they ensured that the "aanchal" or the end of the dupatta or sari kept slipping from their breast, which they would then adjust, thus drawing the man’s attention.

A long time was taken for make-up and no effort was spared to preen and beautify. Photo: Tasveer Journal

They rolled their eyes, winked or ogled. Their speech was urbane and, as far as speaking chaste Urdu was concerned, their sheens and qafs (pronunciation) were durust (correct). These were some of the ways that the courtesans practised to fascinate and tempt men and thereby increase their earnings. The unassuming and modest housewife was no match for the wily professional courtesans.

The courtesans generally woke up quite late in the day, after a long night. A belated breakfast was followed by riyaz (practice or rehearsal) of dancing and singing. Then came a tardy lunch and then resting, generally till the early evening, when the working day of the prostitutes actually commenced. They usually bathed and put on flashy, clean clothes appropriate to their work.

It was generally noted that they seldom gave attention to ironing their attire. A long time was taken for make-up and no effort was spared to preen and beautify. The prostitutes were engaged in the trade of selling their favours and thereby making as much money as possible. They were in a sort of seamy show business. Thus the lights, décor and furnishings were seldom refined or elegant. They were all on the garish side, vulgar and brash.

It was a world of tinsel and tawdry ostentatiousness. By late evening the prostitute had opened shop. She sat along with other girls either in the main hall of the brothel or, as was the custom, settled down on a cane stool (mondha) on the open balcony, displaying her charms to all the passers-by. Those interested in song and dance would seek such performances and those desiring sexual favours would get them, all of course with ample money. The revelry would go on till the small hours. Those who did little or negligible business would experience the wrath of the brothel keeper.

The wives of the wealthy were confined to chulha (the hearth), chadar (covering from head to the ankles) and char diwari (enclosure of the house), bereft of learning and enlightenment, while the males romped with women of questionable reputation. Photo: Tasveer Journal

Sex education was usually gathered from the senior prostitutes or from their peers. Initially, there were no books in the vernacular languages to explain the basics of sexual hygiene and physiology. Even in respectable families, discussion about sex was taboo. Menstruation was considered a subject of utter embarrassment. Few understood why menstruation happens and the explanations were replete with myths. Generally, the girls were frightened at menarche.

A majority of women, including courtesans, were not very familiar with feminine hygiene. For a long time there was no knowledge of sanitary towels. Old cloth and rags were used during menstruation and the pads were called haiz ki gaddi, haiz ka latta or kursuf. Probably the first Urdu book on sex education was written by Chaudhary Muhammad Ali Rudaulvi (1882–1959), from Barabanki district in Uttar Pradesh.

He was a famous essayist, epistle writer and short-story writer. He published his book Salahkaar (Advisor) in 1928. It was meant for young boys and girls, and went into several editions. Muhammad Ali Rudaulvi also wrote a tract, Parde Ki Batein (Matters behind the Curtain), on the rhythm method of birth control.

Although it is believed that courtesans in Awadh had no specific handbook or manual on the "business management" of venery, there were in circulation badly translated vernacular versions of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra (circa 2nd century CE), Koka Shashtra and Ananga Ranga by Kalyana Malla (15th or 16th century CE).

Slender Urdu books known as Lazzat al-Nissa (The pleasure of women) were also available. They were anonymous publications and were a rehash of the Hindu sexual manuals.

Sex techniques of courtesans

It is said that a courtesan could seduce a man with her mind and her charms, and knew all the latest techniques in bed. They learnt the wiles, seductive practices and enticement techniques not from a textbook, but from a past master, usually a retired whore adept at charming and beguiling men in her heydays. However, most of the charm and allure of prostitutes was based on deception and insincerity. It was make-believe and lasted as long as the money kept coming, or till the prostitute found a richer man.

The normal sexual fare with a courtesan, especially in Awadh, related to genital sex, anal sex and oral sex. In Awadh, oral sex, by and large, was considered embarrassing and irritating. Even in Urdu pornographic poetry, there are very few instances of oral sex. Whatever the kind of sexual pleasures available, for men, the enchantment and mystique of the prostitute’s body was overpowering and pleasurable. Perhaps the main reason was that the courtesans were uninhibited, unrepressed and not at all constrained. Their own wives were generally shy, modest, prim and sometimes unresponsive.

Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude; Rupa Publications

The courtesans perfected the art of controlling the vaginal muscles. In it "lies the secret of (the courtesan’s) much vaunted piquancy". NK Basu, in his book The Art of Love in the Orient writes: "This 'velvety grip' together with the insufficiency of Bartholinian secretion that keeps the parts free from sliminess, forms one of the chief attractions of many a professional fornicatrix and constitutes one of the most fundamental factors in weaning away the husband from his more handsome wife who is otherwise ignorant of this art."

The risks involved in sex work were unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases, formerly called venereal diseases. The rubber condom gained popularity in the middle of the 19th century and manufacturing advances were made in the late 1920s. The latex condoms became available in India in the early 1930s, but knowledge about them and consequently their use was limited.

The condom ultimately became the basic defence against sexually-transmitted diseases. Prostitutes attempted birth control through doubtful methods like withdrawal, the rhythm method and douching. Undesirable pregnancies were therefore common. Many illegal abortions were resorted to with the help of unlettered midwives called dais.

Becoming a courtesan

Coming of age signifies a young person’s transition from being a child to entering adolescence. It is the age of puberty and sexual maturity, but it does not mean that a girl has achieved full mental development. However, for a would-be courtesan, it is the time when she is ready to start her profession. In the 19th century, when a girl who was to become a courtesan reached puberty and her breasts began to develop, the rite of the angiya, or the assumption of the bodice, was performed.

Another ceremony that was studiously practised among the courtesans of Awadh was the missi or teeth-blackening ceremony. A very meticulous paper, "The Missi-Stained Finger-Tip of the Fair: A Cultural History of Teeth and Gum Blackening in South Asia" by Thomas J. Zumbroich has been published and is available in the e-Journal of Indian Medicine, volume 8 (2015), 1-32.

According to Zumbroich, from about the middle of the 16th century, blackened teeth and sometimes gums became a part of embellishment and decoration. This was done through missi, a powder made of iron and copper sulphate, tannins and flavouring. "Teeth blackening as a life cycle event related to sexual maturity and in its literary portrayals acquired distinct sexual overtones." It was absorbed into the culture of courtesans and prostitutes, among whom the use of missi signified that a girl was ready to sell her virginity.

For the missi ceremony, the novice girl was adorned and clothed as a bride and her teeth were blackened for the first time with missi under the supervision of the bawd and the senior courtesans. The ritual was an internal and private affair and was not normally open to outsiders, including prospective customers. Celebrations were accompanied by dancing and singing followed by a feast, especially among the kasbis. The missi ceremony did not involve the deflowering of a girl; this was a later observance, which was more of a business venture.

Kathak artist Manjari Chaturvedi performs at the concert of Zarina Begum, a singer from Lucknow's last mehfils. Photo: Arun Sehrawat/Tehelka

According to Zumbroich, the festivities of missi were prominent among the deredar tawaifs of Lucknow in the early nineteenth century. Missi application was also done by respectable women in the 19th century, but with changing times and with the emphasis on white teeth, the practice of blackening the teeth became unfashionable and unpopular. Missi is now a relic of the past.

After the coming-of-age ceremony described above, was the coming out of the would-be prostitute, wherein she declared herself as being ready, available and accessible. In North India, the coming out of the neophyte prostitute involved a ceremony called nath utrai, or taking off the nose ring. It was the custom among almost all young girls to wear nose rings on the left side of the nose.

The ritual of nath utrai involved removing the nose ring worn by the girl, and usually, her deflowering by a bidder for money.

It was an occasion of rejoicing and the bidder paid a heavy amount for the privilege of being the first to consort with the girl. Once the nose ring was removed, it was never to be worn again. It signified that the girl was no longer a virgin.

Virgins were thought to be worth more than debauched women. Virgins, even on the threshold of commencing a life of debauchery, were considered attractive and charming and worth much more than practising women. Sometimes a wealthy man became associated with a kotha by bidding for a supposedly virgin nauchi. He made regular contributions in order to have exclusive sexual rights to the deflowered girl.

Vikram Sampath, in his biography of Gauhar Jan, has cited a chaiti, a seasonal semi-classical song sung in the month of Chait (March-April) when Ram Navami is celebrated. The singer was Rasoolan Bai (1902–74) of the Benaras gharana. The song laments the fact that the lady had lost the pearls of her necklace without a thief breaking in or anyone leaving the house. The words of the songs are an allusion to a young tawaif losing her virginity.

Courtesans as ‘sex educators’

The courtesans were socially accepted as counsellors and mentors for ‘the social and sexual education of the sons of the elite [...] providing an education in sensuality, poetry, and the graces of courtly conversation.’ According to an essay by Sarah Waheed in Modern Asian Studies, the kothas ‘served as “finishing schools” for young aristocratic men’. McNeil also remarks that the wealthy "sent their sons to them in order for them to learn manners, grooming and etiquette". The libidinous sons of the aristocracy and upper-class society therefore, with parental approval and acquiescence, sowed their first wild oats in the hired wombs of the facilitating filles de joie.

However, the tacit or expressed permission to young men to visit courtesans was not meant to be a licence for licentiousness. The youngsters from good Hindu and Muslim families were supposed to behave in a disciplined manner and not become dissipated. Most of these young men were destined to marry into decent families. Anna Morcom in her book Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance has the following to say about courtesans:

"For men to have relationships with courtesans and other dancing girls and enjoy erotic entertainment was acceptable in feudal society, in which marriage was not seen as the only preserve of sexual pleasure. However, in cases where a man actually fell in love with or wished to marry a courtesan, the public and domestic female roles became blurred. That it was a transgression is exhibited in the numerous cautionary tales for noblemen concerning courtesans.

Nonetheless, many wealthy young men became wayward and inconstant. It was unfortunately accepted that married men who had been initiated into sex by courtesans would still keep mistresses. A regular visit to the courtesan was regretfully not frowned upon. The secluded wife suffered within the four walls of the house and some of her lamentations found their way into the Urdu rekhti poetry of Jan Sahib, Sayyid Insha Allah Khan 'Insha' and Nawab Saadat Yaar Khan Rangin, among others."

This was the consequence of the patriarchal feudal society as it existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the Muslim community did realise the importance of education for women, the 19th century and at least the first quarter of the 20th century was a dismal period for women. Awadh society, for that matter most of North India, was under the hold and influence of the courtesan culture. The Indian hetaeras had, because of state patronage, carved out a queenly niche for themselves. It was more or less accepted that they were the standard bearers not only for sexual pleasure but also courtly manners, customs, demeanour and deportment.

The fleshpots in red-light areas like Chowk in Lucknow had become the social clubs of the elite. The wives of the wealthy were confined to chulha (the hearth), chadar (covering from head to the ankles) and char diwari (enclosure of the house), bereft of learning and enlightenment, while the males romped with women of questionable reputation.

The art of seduction

The musical and dance assemblies of courtesans were held in a large room or hall, or under a shamiyana. The performance took place on a smooth floor covered with carpets. In the salons of moneyed courtesans were huge mirrors, wall-to-wall qalins and even crystal chandeliers. The invitees or guests were seated on one side. The musical programme usually included classical as well as semi-classical songs and some songs were rendered on request (farmaish) as well. At a point in the singing or dancing where the art of the performer was striking and conspicuous, the members of the audience made offerings of money, which was usually called nazrana or nichhawar.

During the times of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah there was a profusion of thumri, dadra and ghazals in singing sessions. Among the courtesans of Awadh, the famed thumri singers included Haider Jan, Jaddan Bai and Achhan Bai. In the late 1930s, Chhuttan Jan and Babban Jan of Lucknow were also well-known thumri singers. Thumris were composed by Wajid Ali Shah as well as Shaikh Nizami and Hafiz Ashraf. Nawab Alam Mahal, one of the wives of Wajid Ali Shah, also wrote thumris and dadras.

In the book The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives by Martha Feldman and Bonni Gordon, the following two aspects of the performance of the courtesans have been mentioned:

a) In singing, ghazal, thumri and dadra she utilised chaste Urdu and Braj Bhasha and her dance had both bhava (mime) and nrittya (pure dance).

b) In the salon dance audiences at the kotha where the courtesan presided, the patrons were treated with grace, elegance and finesse.’

Further, Feldman and Grodon have stated: "[...] it is the tawaif’s uncencumbered identity as a woman that enabled the courtesan to produce a sensual gendered cultural experience for her male patrons in return for the rewards they offer."

The sound of music

In 2008, Saba Dewan, while conducting research for her documentary The Other Song, learnt that up to the middle of the 20th century, the tawaifs were the leading professional women singers of India. Their contribution, however, has been largely forgotten. According to an article by Amrita Datta in the Sunday Express of May 24, 2009 titled "For the Record", the entire community of women singers "was airbrushed out of our musical consciousness".

It must be remembered that singing by courtesans, before the coming of the gramophone, was the only type of singing in vogue. Housewives and respectable women in Uttar Pradesh (including Awadh) seldom sang or were trained to sing. The only singing done by Muslim women was perhaps during marriage festivities and other family celebrations. During Muharram, women recited nauhas (lamentations) and sozes (dirge) at home and, likewise, respectable Hindu ladies practised bhajan singing at home.

However, much of the public recitation of nauha and soz was done by courtesans. In Lucknow, Chunewali Haider, Hasso, Bari Jaddan, Mughal Jan, Nanhi Begum and the Chaudharain sisters made their names in Muharram recitals in the early part of the 20th century, and male devotees always flocked to such functions.

Here the author would like to comment on the timbre and pitch of the voices of some of the courtesans who were talented singers, which have survived on gramophone records. What strikes one is that a majority of the voices were deep and husky. They were throaty voices, loud and sometimes piercing. It may be that from the first decade of the 20th century, the courtesans were given to smoking, which was frowned upon in respectable society. Some of these husky-voiced singers included Zohra Bai Ambalewali and Malka Pukhraj.

The early singers sang loudly because of the rudimentary and primitive system of recording. The music seldom overwhelmed the voice, and musical instruments used were to the minimum. We have very little audio evidence of what and how the courtesans sang in mehfils. There are just a few surviving gramophone records made during the first 30 years or so of the 20th century, which can be found in music archives. They give a glimpse of what the courtesans sang and how talented they were in the field of singing.

Rekha in as as Umrao Jaan.

The earliest singers recorded on the newly invented gramophone were the courtesans, starting with Gauhar Jan of Calcutta. In the early song recordings, at the end of each song, the singer quickly announced in English: My name is, followed by her name. The declaration was for the reference of the technical staff who prepared paper labels for the pressed copies of the records.

Gauhar Jan of Calcutta was born in 1873 and died in 1930. On November 11, 1902, Frederick Gaisberg, American-born musician, recording engineer and one of the earliest classical music producers for the gramophone, recorded a song by Gauhar Jan who sang into a large horn in a room of a hotel in Calcutta.

This song was "Ghoor ghoor barasat meharava, bijuriya chamaki anek baar (The lightning flashed many times and the rains poured from the sky)."

"[...] that Tuesday morning in Calcutta was to place her (Gauhar Jan) forever in the annals of world musical history,’ noted Vikram Sampath, in his biography of the courtesan titled My Name Is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician, published in 2010. Sampath further wrote that "Indian classical music took a giant leap forward. From the confines of the courtesans’ salons and the rich man’s soirées, it was catapulted right into the homes of the common people". In the course of her life, Gauhar recorded some 600 songs in nearly 20 languages.

Bajanaama: Study of Early Indian Gramophone Records by Amar Nath Sharma gives a brief sketch of some of the courtesans who earned a name as singers and had their songs recorded. These include:

Khurshid Jan and Jali Khurshid of Lucknow and Khurshid Jan of Kanpur

The songs of Khurshid Jan of Lucknow were recorded in six records by George Dillnutt in Lucknow in 1909. Khurshid Jan "is still remembered for her sweet and melodious voice". Some songs of Jali Khurshid were also recorded and so were some songs of Khurshid Jan of Kanpur. One of her ghazals that became very popular was "Main jis par jan deta hun woh mera kyun nahin hota (Why does she not become mine even though I am willing to lay my life for her)".

Shamim Jan of Lucknow

Shamim Jan was a contemporary of Allah Rakkhi Bai, Buggan, Jali Khurshid, Babban Bai, Tara Bai, Benazeer Bai and Muhammadi Bai of Lucknow. Her songs were recorded by William Sinkler Darby. One of her thumris was "Piya bin nahin aavat mai ko chain (I do not have comfort without my beloved)".

Jawahar Bai of Lucknow

Songs by Jawahar Bai of Lucknow were recorded around 1906–07 by the recording team of Gramophone and Typewriter Co Ltd, which was sent to India and comprised William Conrad Gaisberg assisted by George Dillnut.

Azmat Jan of Sandila

Songs of Azmat Jan of Sandila in Uttar Pradesh were recorded by Pathé Freres Company, founded in 1896. The records were with the label Disque Pathé.

Mohammadi Jan and Wazir Jan of Lucknow

Beka Record of Beka-Grand, Berlin, recorded songs of Mohammadi Jan and Wazir Jan, both of Lucknow. According to Bajanaama, Wazir Jan was "an excellent singer of ghazal and thumri of the Lucknow gharana".

In addition to singing, some of the courtesans would also dance, with copious small bells (ghungroo) tied around their ankles. Sometimes the musicians also played while standing. The musical instruments were tied to their waists with sashes.

Some old picture postcards of dancing women show them in the foreground accompanied by musicians standing in the background, with musical instruments fastened to their waists. These dancing parties also sometimes moved in marriage processions. In royal times, the dancing girls at times performed on a moving wooden platform (takht-i rawaan), which was carried on men’s shoulders in cavalcades.


The mujra in Awadh was a performance of dance, typically a loose form of Kathak, and singing done by prostitutes to entertain clients. "Mujra dena" literally means to pay respects or to salute. When a courtesan sang at a mujra, she was typically seated, and the singing was accompanied by bhava, or gestures, eye movements, blandishments and coquettishness.

Musical accompaniment was usually the sarangi, tabla and harmonium. In such musical assemblies, the audience sat comfortably against bolsters and pillows, chewing paan and smoking hookahs. When they departed, they left money tucked among the bolsters. In mujras, the dancing went on for hours and the best girls graced the occasion. The mujra programmes of singing and dancing were always seasoned with wit and humour. The connoisseurs appreciated repartees and biting jests.

Mujra in the Bollywood film has come a long way.

However, the customers were not there to appreciate the high points of the art. The aim was titillation and arousal. It was performed so the men could savour young women visually (or physically), achieve pleasure and get gratification.The songs would charm and allure, but it was the sensual persona of the mujra dancer (or dancers) that enraptured and proved compelling. This was despite the fact that the mujra dancer was fully clothed without any palpable display of body parts. The mujra never had any elements of a striptease, or for that matter, of the tawdry performance of bar dancers. The mujra was not wholly an erotic performance but was a choreographic salutation to the audience.

Richard Connerney’s book The Upside-Down Tree, which was a result of his stay in Lucknow, has nicely summed up the role of the courtesans of Lucknow in so many words:

"Nineteenth-century Lucknow was the home of tawaif, professional, geisha-like courtesans who entertained well-bred men in extravagant brothels (kotha). Men of repute in Lucknowi society would gather for special parties where these highly trained women would sing, recite poetry, dance and play musical instruments. Tawa’ifs were no simple streetwalkers; they were refined women who required months of courting and demanded expensive gifts before granting any man access to their physical intimacies.

The courtesans’ skills and training as performing artists led some of them to enter India’s fledgling film industry, where they went on to become the leading lights of the film world. As someone observed, ghazals, Muslim socials, Awadh and the tawaif were all instrumental in shaping Hindi cinema as a whole.

When Indian cinema took birth in 1913, men acted the female roles as women from respectable families did not act in films. Subsequently, female characters were given to courtesans to play as their own business was suffering. We have had a long list of courtesans-turned-actresses and they include names like Jaddan Bai, 53 the mother of Nargis, and Paro Devi."

A few Bollywood films have captured a mujra in all its resplendence such as Pakeezah (1972) or Umrao Jaan (1981).

But in the author’s opinion, the best mujra has been shown in the Hindi film Mahal (The Mansion), released in 1949 and directed by Kamal Amrohi. The film shows a mujra dance by two small-times actresses, Leela Panday and Sheela Naikon, and includes the song "Yeh raat phir na ayegi" sung by Raj Kumari (1921–2000) and Zohra Bai Ambalewali (1918–90).

(Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Publications India from the book Awadh Symphony: Notes on a Cultural Interlude by Aslam Mahmud.)

Last updated: March 15, 2018 | 18:49
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy