Indian Courtesans now synonymous to mere prostitutes were accorded colossal respect in the bygone times, however alien it may sound. Here’s referring to the time when the British, rich Hindus and Mughals swore by a Tawaif’s beauty, intelligence and unflappable grace who earned their living from performing their songs to the ancient Indian dance moves. Though sexually engaged with the rich, the courtesans of the yesteryear took as much interest in politics as a minister, better still, they carried the Indian cultural legacy forward for years.

The blinding glitz and glamour of the Indian courtesans

We have seen Bollywood paying homage to the courtesans recreating them in the silver screen. There is also no denying that we won’t ever see the like of Rekha portraying Umrao Jaan, that’s quite the masterpiece, but as fact goes, the period was way too glamorous than what meets the eye. The divas brought forth their magic through Urdu poetry, compositions and dance (mujra) in vast halls with ornate murals and, pricey crystal chandeliers dangling from the rooftop and vividly enamoring artistry of the Mughal period. In center sat the courtesan radiating her aura, brushing her seducing glances upon her guests and leaving them in splits, singing and dancing like poetry in the move.

umrao jaan indian courtesans

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Indian Courtesans whose names were etched in history:

Comes as no surprise – Anarkali. Almost a household name after Mughal-e-azam deserves the first mention. Then there were :

Moti Bai adored by Aurangzeb

Noor Begum of Shah Jahan

Gauhar Jaan, whose emotional renditions of Thumri and Tappa still stir the soul.

gauhar jaan Indian courtesans

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How Indian courtesans saw things going south

Not in the British or Mughal period alone, ancient Indian texts like Manusamhita, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Kamasutra had special mention of the courtesans who came to entertain the kings through music and dance under their patronage and provided sexual favors only to them. They were given freedom of speech and opinion then. Time, when the Mughal Empire fell in shambles, the courtesans too saw misfortune amid the colonial penetration. They then reduced to working as full time sex workers.

‘Kothewails or Mujrewalis’ the terminologies that represent the courtesans now prove that Indian taste of aesthetics has hit the shameful bottom. Come the colonial era and they reduced to mere sex-working. Obviously, the British had least interest in Urdu poetry.Bang came the renaissance and they ill-fated tawaifs saw light in the end of the tunnel; they got to work in films which brought them the fame they were so far bereft of.

Kareena Mujrewali

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The recent predicament of Indian courtesans

The intoxicating magnetism of the Urdu poetry has long gone with the ostracized and obsolete courtesans. Now reigns the sleazy Hindi lyrics on which performs the Bar girls. Not to say, this has least appeal to the intellectual elite.

The stalwarts of Indian Classical Dance like Rukmini Devi, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Madame Maneka immortalized ‘Devadasi’ dance moves. Those are Oddisi, Kathhak and Bharatnatyam through their performances.

Tawaif Indian Courtesans

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