How the last mehfil of tawaifs haunted me for a long time
They didn't know where they had disappeared. But they would tell you that they left in sadness.
- Total Shares
Once I had been in that old house in Banaras. The stained glass windows and crumbling edifice were surrounded by a garden that once was a flat ground with wild bushes, and the wide rooms of the house spoke of the times that had passed them by. My mother had gone inside one of them to pay regards to an old woman with transparent skin and a big red bindi on her forehead.
There probably was no money for repairs. The sunlight had streamed in through the green and red of the glass on the windows. I don't remember much except the woman on the bed propped up against the pillows with glass eyes that looked frozen in time. The other woman wasn't there. Perhaps she reminded me of the absence of the other. They had co-existed. In absences.
She hadn't lived in that house ever. She was a mujrawali, and they said she danced on batashas. She had been famous, and nobody really had much recollection of her. It wasn't a thing to be talked about later. In those days, it was common to become a patron, and the tawaifs dedicated themselves to a life of pleasure, and reconciliation that inspite of the abundance of pleasure, there was great sadness of unrequited love. But they were taught to accept fate early on in their lives. To sing the thumris of longing. They seemed to have knowledge about love that I was seeking to understand.
The tawaifs, I must add, weren't sex workers. They were more like the custodians of art and music, and were trained in classical singing. They were free to choose their patrons - people with whom they could have sex. But they hobnobbed with the elite, and nobility, were entertainers, recited ghazals, and danced in a manner that was suggestive of the arts rather than it being a vulgar manifestation of desire.
How had they killed hope? I had read somewhere that hope is our biggest enemy. Only their voice that seemed neither soft, nor laden with sweetness, betrayed the bitterness of the heart. But that made their songs eternal. Again, it was about the universal and particular. They were experts at losing.
Many years later, I went in search of the mujrawalis in Banaras, and as I roamed the city, my mother told me to go to Dal Mandi. She didn't say much except that here I might find someone who would tell me of an era that has been lost. Before going there, I happened to meet an old writer in a small newspaper office, and he spoke of the days when Dal Mandi would be adorned in the evenings, and the wafting sounds of thumri would greet them. Now, it is a spice market, but if you looked closely, and took the alleys that find their way into more narrow alleys, you might be able to find someone who could tell you stories of those times.
She only gave away bits of the story. She said she was beautiful, and lived a lonely life.
And then, I went to Banaras. This was the city of my grandmother. The city where many waited for their final departure as they watched the flames leap eternally from the ghats where they burned the dead.
Banaras is a city of chaos, and calm. Cities mean different things to different people. There are facts of a city, and they are sometimes dismal. But to me, it was a dismal city. A city that was about the dead and the abandoned, and in between the two, it was all about farewells.
That autumn, I heard many songs of loss, and love. They were songs of an era lost to us; yet they were sung and were hard to forget. And it was only here that they spoke of the thumris and kajris. The mehfil was no more. But it was enough that somebody had come to listen.
Many tears fell. They neither gathered them nor hid them. They let the voice be interrupted by the tears. They said it added to its melancholy. It sounded like muffled rain at night, heard from a room, and coming through the corridors, and echoing through the empty streets as it entered everywhere.
In the katras of Banaras, I searched for an old man who sang the thumris. A kite seller in Dal Mandi smiled, and asked me to turn into the next katra, and find the house that looked old, abandoned. In this house, I'd find him, he said. Beware of his sadness, he said. Except for a piece I was writing then, I don't know why I went in search of them. It meant knocking on too many doors, and asking for addresses that may not have existed.
In search of time
Sharafat Ali Khan used to play harmonium while the women danced and sang for their patrons. In those days, he said, there was still a little respect left. Why are you looking for the ruins? Everybody left long ago, he said.
His house finished much of his story that he didn't offer to complete. The faded green walls, and the small room with windows looking out on the crowded streets of Banaras. It was a house that belonged to the past. A house of despair. A house where she buried his hopes, and where, around ten years ago, he had quit singing and playing the harmonium. Now, he only sang the marasiya, and cried. And from his tears, or from anyone's tears, you can never tell if he was mourning for others, or for himself. He sang the marasiya, the songs of mourning that the Shias sing during Muharram to mourn the deaths in the battle of Karbala, but as he turned his face towards the window, I knew he was crying for his own loss.
He remembered Rasolan Bai, the great thumri singer, who used to train under his father. She had been the daughter of Adalat Bai, a famous tawaif of Banaras in those days. He said Rasolan Bai's house still stands but nobody sang there anymore. She was forced to marry a man who used to sell saris when she was 44, and had felt the despair of a woman forced to conform in order to go on. She was rebellious, he said. She was eventually tamed, but she had her revenge in her own way. Through melancholy.
There had been a crackdown in the city on the mujrawalis, and they left for somewhere else. They weren’t prostitutes. In the 1970s, the kothas where mujras were performed were brought under the purview of the Immoral Trafficking Act. That's why Dal Mandi had fallen from grace. Rasolan had to marry at 44 because All India Radio said Baijis had to be rechristened as Devijis. The elite households would send their daughters to learn the art of seduction through words.
And as Sharafat Ali Khan sang the Marasiya, an elegiac poem about the death of Hussain ibn Ali in the battle of Karbala, he paused.
“Kahaaniyan toh bahut saari hain,” he said. "But to hear them requires a heart of steel."
But there must be someone who hasn't died of sadness. I asked him if I could find any of these women. He said I could go to their village in Ghazipur, and perhaps they'd let me in.
A night before, Muzaffar Ali, the filmmaker who made Umrao Jan based on a novel by Mirza Ruswa had said that the mujrawalis existed only in films.
Birds in a cage
I went to Basuka, a village that was reached through vast fields, and narrow dirt roads. Here, they said, the mujrawalis had been living for generations in two clusters - Chota Para and Bada Para. In both, they denied me their stories. Their ancestors had settled there from Fatehpur, and in this village, they remained. That afternoon, the village was quiet. Most young girls were away in other cities and towns trying to adjust to the new life, and learning the new dance - the Bollywood dance. They would come back during the wedding season and from here, they'd be dispatched to perform at weddings. But these weren't the old ways of the mujra. They faced stiff competition with the new lot and had to transform. And even though nostalgia defined their identity, they had to keep losing themselves in order to go on with their wretched lives that were uprooted and floating.
A couple of women spoke about the past, and from their faded memories I strung together a narrative of Rajkumari, the woman whom they spoke about in the family, and who was just gone one day after my mother's uncle passed away. I didn't know her. But I wish I did. She could have gone on dancing, but she had chosen love, and a dismal life. But she had children, and in some ways, she had been given some validation.
Whether she loved the man, it is unclear. It was an inheritance of self loss, of no choice. There was no freedom in their songs, I realised. These were the songs of trapped birds longing for freedom from within a cage.
Other rooms, other voices
I kept searching for more stories. I hadn't known the purpose for some of those journeys. In Mirzapur's Pasarhatta Bazaar, I walked up to kothas that housed women with vacant eyes and despairing souls.
Mangla Devi was reluctant at first, and then she spoke in poetic sentences of a life that hinges on nothing but a compulsion to go on. For the sake of others, she said. Did she fall in love? Yes, who doesn't? But you are always looking for love in the wrong places, she said.
"Why do you chase such stories of unrequited love?" she asked.
"I am a nostalgist. I am mapping love's forays and its delusions," I told her.
The ice had been broken, and she spoke about her life. There were some framed photos on a bluish wall and she pointed out to her sister. Her daughter was sitting next to her, and she sang in a coarse voice. She wasn't talented, but she had been condemned to this life.
"How does it feel to know that you will love in vain?"
"We are meant to love," she said.
She said their thumris were testimony to bereavement, and longing. It was a curse, and a gift.
"We don't expect loyalty," she said. "We look for memories. And maybe some luck."
As a collector of memories - my own, and of others for chronicles that have yet been untold - I listened to Rasolan Bai's songs late into the night. A rebellious Rasolan, and what became of her. A lonely life, and a repertoire of songs.
And on my last night, I found Saira Bano. In her house, which stood at the end of an alley, she sat in a room where mirrors were mounted on the wall. And she didn't say much, but sang. I only saw her wiping a tear from her eyes in the reflection. I had nothing to say. I had no answers why I had been looking for tawaifs. I wanted to say maybe I felt like one. But I didn't.
My last mehfil
“Afsos toh yeh ki dukan sazi hui hai lekin koi khariddaar nahi hai,” she said, and I wanted to tell her that I understood this.
Saira said she doesn't have answers. She had cried for much of her life. She came from a family of tawaifs and learned to sing. And it was only in singing these melancholic songs that she found a release.
"Rafta rafta, woh mere hasthi ka samaan ho gaye…" she sang.
And then, she looked up at me, and said it should tell me everything. But of course, no answers exist. We write only for the purpose of deleting.
That was my last mehfil. And I returned with voices singing in my head. Voices that were full of nostalgia, abandonment, love, loss and defeat. They haunted me for a long time. They still do.