Posted by: gdevi | October 19, 2011

English 328 Ice-Candy Man – Hira Mandi/ Kotha/ Tawaif notes

A tawaif is an Urdu term for a courtesan uniquely trained in classical dance and music who danced in the Mughal courts and for associated royalty and nobility in India. While not a prostitute in the modern sense of the term–women who exchange sexual favors for money–a tawaif was a highly trained artist–often from childhood itself–and an independent performer; sexual favors were not routinely expected. Men visited the tawaif primarily for poetry, music and dance. But the tawaif could also be a highly-valued concubine of a king or a nobleman, and was regarded with respect by other men and women primarily for her aesthetic abilities and beauty.  In other words, wealthy men could purchase the tawaif and often had spouse-like, long-term relationships with them. This cultural context of tawaifs changed from the 18th and 19th centuries in the 20th century where now the term is routinely associated with prostitution.

Tawaifs danced a specialized form of dance known as mujra which was a blend of classical Kathak dances performed to the music of ghazals or thumris–Urdu poetry and semi-classical compositions–set to music. Mujras were held in special houses known as kothas where the tawaifs lived. All three terms — tawaif, mujra and kotha–are associated with prostitution in modern India and Pakistan, with a kotha usually associated with a brothel. In Ice-Candy Man, the ayah is finally taken to a kotha during the riots and made to perform as a tawaif, or as they are called in modern India, “dancing girls.”

The first video clip is from a 1981 movie Umrao Jaan, a film adaptation of the life of a famous nineteenth century Indian courtesan and poet Umrao Jaan Ada from Lucknow.  The movie is based on the novel Umrao Jaan Ada by the nineteenth century Indian writer Ruswa.  This is the scene where the Nawab Sultan, a scion of a royal house first meets Umrao Jaan at a mehfil (a meeting of poets). The dance is a paid artistic performance as well as a seduction. This is a fairly accurate portrait of nineteenth century Lucknow courtly life.

The second clip is a more modern one from the 1983 movie Mandi (trans. the Market Place). The movie tells the story of a group of “dancing girls” or “tawaifs” in modern India faced with the threat of having their kotha shut down. Here you can see how the mujra’s feudal social context has changed in the twentieth century. The courtesans still dance for wealthy clients–here the engagement of a young couple–the bridegroom is smitten by the lead courtesan–but the whole setting is an elaborate sexual transaction. The kotha to which the ayah in Ice-Candy Man is taken is more like this one.

It was historically inevitable that the social and subjective experiences of the “tawaif” identity would slip from the seeming (ironic) autonomy and protection offered by the Mughal court or the feudal system to their sexual commodification in democratic societies as sex-workers whose fundamental ethos still remains largely patriarchal. The tawaif, stripped off her training in the fine arts and the letters, was really a woman who sexually entertained men. Was the “tawaif” system a harmful cultural practice? I would say so. Bapsi Sidhwa would say so. Even in Umrao Jaan’s story, we learn that she was kidnapped as a child and sold into a kotha, where the owner of the kotha realized her potential and groomed her to be the chief courtesan. In many ways, the figure of the courtesan or tawaif lies at the heart of “harmful cultural practices” for women and children, of which prostitution is one. This is an incendiary topic in traditional cultures as well as more modernized societies both in the east and the west, where prostitution is often framed as a “choice,” a private matter between “consenting adults,” an outlook that allows the legalization of prostitution in states such as Nevada, or countries such as the Netherlands. Both the Netherlands and Las Vegas have high rates of child prostitution and are centers of human sex trafficking. The intermingling of sexual practices with business interests always results in the exploitation of those engaged in the  procurement and sale of these practices. As we all know from headlines related to the sex industry, “the customer is not always right.”

Here is one of the final  scenes from Umrao Jaan where the courtesan comes back to her childhood home from where she was kidnapped by a pimp years ago. Her aged mother, who instinctively senses that this is her daughter watches from the inside.


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