Unravelling the Tawaifs - An Interview with Saba Dewan

Shannon Mathew

In its celebrations of Women’s History Month, TYPF conducts an interview-series called “Movers and Shakers: In Conversation with History” where we engage with feminist individuals from across the country. We hope to revisit significant moments and gain new perspective on our understanding of history through the experiences of these remarkable women.

Saba Dewan  is a documentary film-maker based in New Delhi. Her work focuses on communalism, gender, sexuality and culture. Her films have been screened extensively across India and at international film festivals. Her most recent work has been a trilogy of films focusing on stigmatized women performers. The first of the three was 'Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi' (2006) on the lives of bar dancers; the second being 'Naach' (2008) which explores the lives of women who dance in rural fairs. The final film of the trilogy is 'The Other Song' (2009) about the art and lifestyle of the  tawaifs  or courtesans. She spent eight years researching and gathering information for making  The Other Song , and the film has gone on to become a pioneer in a space hitherto forgotten. The film portrays poignantly the story of a tradition and a community lost in history.

Saba Dewan is a documentary film-maker based in New Delhi. Her work focuses on communalism, gender, sexuality and culture. Her films have been screened extensively across India and at international film festivals. Her most recent work has been a trilogy of films focusing on stigmatized women performers. The first of the three was 'Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi' (2006) on the lives of bar dancers; the second being 'Naach' (2008) which explores the lives of women who dance in rural fairs. The final film of the trilogy is 'The Other Song' (2009) about the art and lifestyle of the tawaifs or courtesans. She spent eight years researching and gathering information for making The Other Song, and the film has gone on to become a pioneer in a space hitherto forgotten. The film portrays poignantly the story of a tradition and a community lost in history.

Shannon: To start off, what got you interested in documentary filmmaking? And why did you chose the topics you did as the subjects for your work?

Saba: Well, my parents are journalists, so while growing up it was assumed that I would follow them. But I decided I’d be wiser off not going into that field, which is how I guess young people can be sometimes! By the time I was in high school, I was passionately interested in cinema and film. I could see myself communicating through images, so I took the entrance exam at the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia and got through! Of course, I didn’t know at the time that the specialization at Jamia was documentary filmmaking because I was too young to know those differences, so for me ‘films’ meant feature films. But I got interested - passionately interested actually - in something I didn’t know much to begin with. I just wanted to do films and as luck would have it, I ended up specializing in documentary which was a genre in which I felt I wanted to express myself. It’s not that I chose documentary, but it was rather destined that documentary chose me.

And as far as the kind of subjects I’ve chosen goes, I guess it’s because I think that film work - as I would think all creative work - is a reflection of one’s own concerns. So my work has focused upon issues of gender, sexuality and culture of course, and also issues of identity politics or what we in India call communalism. And I think that is because those are issues that I, as a person, have been engaged with. They interest me and so they find a reflection in the work I do.

Shannon: So you’ve been making films for the past three decades?

Saba: I graduated in ’87 after finishing my masters. So yes, of course, it has been thirty years! Exactly thirty years, in fact.

Shannon: In that case, happy thirty years in the industry!

Saba: Thank you! But mercifully, documentary filmmaking in India isn’t quite an industry. When we talk about industry, we talk about big capital. In that sense, documentary has been largely independent of industry. You know, the initial years are of trial and error and of trying to find one’s own language. Every filmmaker has to have her or his own personal language. And for many of us, that takes a long time to find. But yes, they were exciting years, and ones that define me as the person I am today.

Shannon: So how would you define your personal language as a filmmaker now?

Saba: That is a lot of reflecting to do so early in the morning! You see, I am spontaneous and I do things through impulse. And so, stylistically, my filmic language is very diverse; it’s the way a story tells itself to me, which makes the films take very different shapes. Foremost, I am interested in the lives of women. And if you’ve seen my work, it is a documentation of understanding women’s lives. Each time I explore someone’s life with them, it not as if someone is my subject; the thing about documentary filmmaking which excites me is that it’s a participatory process. But what I’ve now begun to understand is that what I’m looking for as a filmmaker, or what intrigues me about someone’s life, is often about understanding myself. And I think that’s true for many of us, not specifically for me. In some way, these are issues that we’re exploring within ourselves or that are important to us. Even though I’ve done so many films about other women’s lives, one is seeking certain [personal] answers. Perhaps it has added a layer of certain reflection in my work, where there is a recognition of my subjectivity that’s coming to play.

So I think my films are very personal, in the sense that it is very close to the bone. The aim is to get close to the people I am working with, to be true to their lives, and to reflect it in the measure that I have understood them. And in some process, they start reflecting parts about me or my concerns. That would be something that I have understood most about my own work. But it’s always a process, no? It’s the most difficult to reflect upon yourself and figure out why you do what you do.

Shannon: Coming to the trilogy you made which focused on stigmatized women performers, was that an impulsive decision or something that came after years of thinking?

Saba: Actually, years back I had started off with research in the 90’s on HIV AIDS. It was through that research project that I got a chance to visit a lot of red light areas, where I had my first encounter with sex workers. I was in Ujjain as a part of the project, and there the meeting with the sex workers was attended by these women who were tawaifs. And believe it or not, I was really shocked! Somehow, I had assumed till then that they were a figment of our imaginations; that they had essentially come down through Hindi films, and were creatures of cinema. I knew that tawaifs had existed at some point, but not that their families still survived. For many of them, they themselves were not in sex work but were the landladies of the sex workers. And then I realized that these were pretty well-off women - women of substance in fact - who owned property. And the kind of culture capital they came with was very different. It has obviously accumulated over generations, in terms of a certain refinement and sophistication in the way they spoke and conducted themselves. That was my very first encounter with a group of tawaifs, which interested me enough to start reading up on them and the courtesan culture.

In the meanwhile, I was very interested in doing a film about my own family, and reflecting on the lives of educated middle class women who had started working outside. My work is very historically researched, and it was while I was researching on 19th century educational reforms, I found further references to tawaifs. At one time, they were the only educated women in society, apart from the few from aristocratic families. So while I was working on my own family, who are kind of the opposite of the tawaifs in the sense that they were respectable women moving out into the public, I realized that the histories of women are very intertwined with each other. I guess when I finished working on “Sita’s Family”, it was the natural trajectory to move on to the tawaifs. And while I was researching, I came across the bar dancers and nautanki dancers too. So I hadn’t planned on a trilogy, but then the project just grew and grew.

Shannon: So with all three of these films, there’s a discussion on how the regulation of their sexualities possibly led to their marginalization.

Saba: The fact is that the tawaifs as a group have always existed on the margins of patriarchy. It was not as if they were considered respectable, and then suddenly that changed. They were highly skilled and educated women of means, they were the lovers and companions of the elite in the area, and they were sought after as entertainers and artists. Though they were not considered quite respectable because of the stigma attached to women being ‘outside’, they were not pariahs either. Till the early 20th century, you have accounts of the most elite courtesans, say from Varanasi, invited to preside over discussions about literature, because they were so educated. It was a very interesting, fascinating state. But with the coming of colonialism, that delicate balance really shifted. In the pre-1857 period, the Evangelists were very active with this very repressive Victorian morality. Where did the tawaifs fit in? Their presence was appalling because they don’t quite conform to the notion of Victorian morality. Then after 1857, there was the added need to justify colonial rule. There were various tropes that were used as arguments to show that Indians were inherently decadent, steeped in ignorance, and barbaric. And the tawaifs became a very convenient beating stick. The fact that they were very active in public life and in so-called ‘respectable’ spaces, meant the Indians were morally compromised. In that very narrow Victorian morality, the courtesan sexuality could be only understood as prostitute sexuality. So the tawaifs start getting painted in that way.

In the subsequent rise of nationalism, the nationalists themselves - who were English educated ironically - were part of the new middle classes and were imbibing in large measure colonial mentality as far as morality of sexuality was concerned. And so within that narrative too, the tawaifs become an issue. India had to be rid of evils, you see, of many evils including them, to reclaim the original glory. So within this span of time, you see the demolition of tawaifs. And then post-independence, that process got accelerated when the anti-prostitution laws targeted the sex workers, and in turn the tawaifs as they were put in the same category. There was also the question of their contribution to the arts, to Hindustani music and dance, which the nationalists wanted to “reclaim”. And it was argued that the tawaifs had to be cleansed out, to cleanse music, dance, and the heritage of ancient India. The practitioners themselves were thrown out, and their art appropriated. So it happened on many levels; many ways in which they got marginalized.

Shannon: Do you think it was perhaps easier to use them as a scapegoat due to their association with the Mughals?

Saba: I don’t think so. I think the reasons are even more basic than that; it’s patriarchy. Look at the devdasis in the south, they weren’t connected to the Mughal dynasty. Yet, they were treated much in the same shoddy way. They were custodians of the temples and were part of the temple rituals, and even they, more or less, suffered the same fate. And it’s not even like they were autonomous women; they were there because they were needed to serve certain sections of the elite men. See, the men had it all; they had the mistress and the wife. But the mistress was allowed more space because she had to be skilled in certain arts. That’s what the men came looking for- not just sex but for cultivating conversation and for entertainment. So she played a certain role, she fulfilled a certain need.

See, patriarchy and patriarchal norms never remain the same. It’s not as if pre-colonial patriarchy was more liberal, but it did have a space in it for women like tawaifs or devdasis. What happens is the way patriarchy gets restructured. It’s not that it got dismantled; it got recalibrated with the colonialism. With colonialism, the whole narrowing of the concept of the family took a very Victorian form, where the father was the head of the family, and there was the wife and children. The tawaifs did not conform to the narrow vision of being a wife. So it was the redefining of patriarchy in a very monogamous family system.

Coming back to your question about the Mughal association, though the tawaifs origins actually predates the Mughal dynasty, it is true that in North India they were associated with a certain “Muslim-ness”. I don’t think their association was the primary reason, but I will add two points. In addition to the restructuring of patriarchy, there was also the proximity of the tawaifs to the local aristocracy. Not just the Mughals, but rajas and nawabs too. The tawaifs became a convenient trope because the colonial rule was delegitimizing the local princes, many of whom took part in the 1857 revolts and had to be shown as being morally compromised. The tawaifs became symbols of that, which suited everyone. “Oh look, these guys are morally compromised! What are they fighting the British rule for? Fighting for the survival of their decadent, corrupt, immoral lifestyle. Look, they have these women, these prostitutes, who they keep openly!” So that was also there.

Then there was a certain nationalist discourse which was looking at India in a great Hindu civilizational glory. That narrative equated the Mughal and the Muslim rulers before them as invaders. Here it suited the narrative of equating the tawaifs with the Mughal rule in the north, by saying that they got involved in corrupt practices and that the sacred music also got compromised with involvement of the tawaifs and Muslim ustads. Those kind of narratives were also there.

But the primary narrative that remains was the reconsiderations of patriarchy. And it was not just the tawaifs, but other communities like the devdasis, who got disenfranchised. What was seen as an aberration was seen as a morally corrupt.

Shannon: Like you had said earlier, whatever we do know of tawaifs comes from how we see them portrayed in Bollywood movies. So after interacting with them in such close quarters and getting to know them, do you think there is any truth to what we see on screen or is it not true to reality?

Saba: See, the women I have met with are the first to admit that the profession continued well past its expiration date. You see the last of the tawaifs in my film, and even the ones I’ve worked with had long since retired and are not in the field anymore.

In Hindi films, it’s very common to show the tawaifs waiting for the hero to come and rescue her. The ones I met, they weren’t waiting for redemption. I mean that they had a very clear idea of what men were and of what use they were, which is fair enough because these are self-made women and patriarchy hasn’t treated them very well. They know their survival is dependent on certain things. So while they are extremely feisty and autonomous, they were clear that they weren’t waiting for some man to come, redeem them and lead them into a life of respectability. Of course, there is a need for companionship, of love and intimacy, but not in the way Hindi films show a male protector coming and making a wife out of her. I didn’t find anyone who saw herself as a fallen women; I didn’t find anyone who was dying to be made into a wife.

The kind of agency they possess is also missing from the movies; their agency gets vanquished when it comes to being victims of circumstances. Of course as women, we know that there isn’t any such thing as true agency for women in South Asia, where caste, class and even sexuality starts defining how much autonomy you can exercise over your lives. But these were women who, even with these constraints, exercised a great deal of autonomy. Unlike in the films, where you see them as cowering women who have some male figure towering over them or exploiting them, they are women who were heads of their households. This was an inversion of patriarchal household which was very refreshing, where authority passes from mother to daughter, or from aunt to niece. For me, coming from a [hetero] normative patriarchal household, the experience of seeing a space where you saw women being decision makers, where the money is controlled by them, and all the things that the male head would be responsible for are the responsibilities the tawaif head of the household enjoys - it is very different. Though I’m sure it’s changing now as the norms are changing, where the boys are becoming the breadwinners and the girls are being married off. And once that starts happening, authority itself will change hands. But these were the women who symbolized that way of life.

In reflecting the women centered places, where I thought the primary relationship these women shared were with other women, not with men. And I don’t mean solely sexual relationships, I mean it in emotional terms, the ones that sustained. The only film I feel comes closest to showing that sense of community would be Umrao Jaan, the Musaffar Ali one. And oddly enough, even Pakeezah. Although the whole narrative is about redemption, from the detail to the milieu itself one was able to get the sense that the director had some knowledge of elite tawaif families. The story itself is very much the stuff of patriarchal narrative, where the girl has to be morally reclaimed. 

I didn’t find anyone who saw herself as a fallen women; I didn’t find anyone who was dying to be made into a wife.

Shannon Mathew studied History at the University of Delhi, completing her Bachelors from St. Stephen's College in 2016. She is currently interning with The YP Foundation.