Date: 21 NOV 2020
Venue: Post Office
Time: 1450- 1550
Saba Dewan in conversation with Saleem Kidwai
The session began with a welcome address by Saleem Kidwai, talking about his last meeting with Saba Dewan. Dewan first spoke about the transition from filmmaker to writing a historical narrative. She mentioned that there had been a lot of material left from the film she had made. Being encouraged by well-wishers, she decided to write a book. Her application to the India Foundation Fellowship was accepted and she started her work without knowing what was in store. In her own words, All that material did not amount to a chapter. So, the actual field work started with that status. Even though the ground world was already done (familiar figure to a lot of people involved, connections, etc.), Dewan invested a lot of time ten years to be precise) with the families of the tawaifs. Spending time with families and getting to know them over the years was different from making a film. Being allowed inside their homes took several years. Secondly, the archival work also took pretty long. When asked how she remains active in your research without biases, Dewan simply stated that though every individual has their own world view, as a researcher one has to go by what material one is shown by the research. And it is important to remain truthful to that. It is very tempting to make arguments that fit into a certain notion but it’s not something she has ever followed. That is why there is so much research work. One simply cannot afford it as a researcher.
Kidwai mentioned that the process of gaining the trust of the people concerned must be different with, when they let one film them; it allows a certain kind of trust when filming, but about the private moments which the book covers, there must be an immense amount of trust building that both parties put equal effort in. To this, Dewan gave the full credit of the trust building to Kidwai. According to her, in the years 2002- 03, when the film research only started and the doors started getting shut as there was suspicion and justifiably so. Dewan thought of getting a man along with her so help the tawaifs be at ease; Kidwai had told her not to do that. He told her that the trust that the most intimate relationships of women are with women. Following this advice, Dewan said that the trust built and flourished over the years. Relationships with anyone is a give and take, and not built in a day. The most important thing, in Dewan’s opinion, is that she was respectful, and they managed to establish a relationship built on mutual respect. Yet, it is important to note that there are differences in class and background between Dewan and her unnamed friend, which Dewan acknowledged. There is a certain awareness and humility attached to how these relationships work. One cannot assume that one understands everything about the other people involved. There were certainly points where they would hesitate to talk about certain events or issues. In such cases, one would have to have that humility to know that they are different but it does not make them any less valid. Giving people space and respecting that they are allowed to keep certain points of their life they want, to be kept private. Later, when asked How Dewan filled up the silences when the people refused talk about the issues, she agreed that there were a few people who didn’t agree to talk to her. It is important to understand where they are coming from: a. It is hard to trust a random person asking about sensitive parts of one’s life, and b. people in tawaif families have been stigmatized for a long time. She said that she tries to build a proper relationship and forge trust, but despite that if it doesn’t work, she has to respect that and move back. As a researcher and filmmaker, one has to respect those silences and make room for that. Those silences need spaces as they hold many stories and may be read in any way. Respecting it and trying to understand the reason for their silences itself helps one understand the community.
While talking about the biggest hardships of the relationships Dewan had maintained with the people involved, she mentioned the ill treatment of the tawaifs and their families. There are these wonderful women who made their own lives but are bound by certain challenges (mainly domestic violence etc.). Unlike popular belief, the tawaif spaces aren’t safe spaces for all women. Patriarchy has infiltrated these spaces. Being under the veil (purdah) has restricted certain rights of the women.
The discussion moved on the tawaif culture getting popular among academicians as well as various performers and the romanticization of it. When asked about her thoughts on the attitudes of these people, Dewan asserted that it is a wonderful thing for a community that had been invisibilized forever., that the Tawaif culture is eliciting interests. However, she also expressed her concerns that researchers and performers might project upon the community the things that the person in question wants them to be. In some of the earlier writing which was far and in between, there was a tendency to shower the culture with a certain kind of faulty analysis. A continuation of that today is that we want them to be icons of feminism. It is important to note that they are a product of a certain kind of a historical and cultural context. Very often what leads to the mindless celebration of the culture is that it is not contextualized. One must always remember that they were performers (inclusive of male singers/ performers) and were completely dependent on their patrons, that is, a male patronage. So when one realizes that one’s survival is based on such a culture, recognition usually proves to be sobering. This demands a certain amount of critical thinking and nuanced work.
Dewan gave her opinion on the portrayal of the tabaif and sex culture in movies by first placing emphasis on the film persona as a character in her own right. These representations do not bother the real persons. In fact, a lot of times, they always have a good laugh about it. It is interesting to note that, however, one of them asked why they (film tawaifs) cried so much (fallen woman seeking redemption, etc.) Real life tawaifs would snort at that. The lives in movies and reality are poles apart.
Dewan admitted to not have worked as closely with sex workers but she was quick to note that most sex workers are not like those portrayed in films. Many times, they (sex workers and tawaifs, both) are also the only bread earner of the family. Despite the harshness of those realities, there is an engagement with life for the real workers which is absent in the movies.
This led to the lights in which they were viewed. In the tawaif culture, as far as earlier work is concerned, there had been ways in which they were looked either as a. The bad woman (the non- mother, the home- breaker), or, b. A victim who needs to be ‘redeemed’ (via marriage) and therefore it becomes the male responsibility to redeem her. More recent works (feminism, etc.), while very welcome as it recognises the agency of women, falls into the temptation of treating the image of the tawaif as a ‘poster girl’ or an icon. According to Dewan either extreme is wrong, and the tawaif is somewhere in between. A serious research brings one to one’s preconceived notions and deals with facts: the fact is that they were very much creatures of patriarchy and had to be completely dependent on male patronage (one couldn’t afford to be outside of this spaces)
This very interestingly led to the presence of repertoires in this day and age, or in completely different social and cultural circumstances. Dewan admitted that she harboured mixed feelings about this. Practically, one worries about the fact that these repertoires may die out, as several already did. it would be a shame. So, as a music lover and someone who had worked on these, Dewan said that she believed that these repertoires should survive, even if it comes to become a part of another context. However, she also stated that very often the transference happens in a fairly exploitative manner. The original performers i.e. the families have carried and nurtured them have been relegated to the sidelines. It is problematic as there should be mutual benefit from this.
Dewan also went on to say that most of these repertoires have undergone changes already. It is easy to think that there is a certain loss when it moves from one context to another, but from what she understood, because the profiles of the patrons are constantly changing, there is a kind of a proletarianization of certain repertoires. To assume that it will become corrupted if it is performed outside of its original context is wrong and may lead to its loss. Dewan admitted to be more invested in their survival than contextual change.
Kidwai then led the flow of the discussion to the process of writing of Twaifnama. Addressal of the main informant as a second person, recalling them and Dewan’s interpretation and reinterpretations, and a third narrative of history in the context of the development of the nation is what we see in the book. On being questioned about the false starts, wrong decisions that must have gone down with it, Dewan admitted to have made certain decisions because with the kind of confidence that one has with the language of images (filmmaking, training etc.), it is easy to approach it as one would, a film. In this case, however, it worked to a certain extent. But it was a huge struggle, the biggest challenge was that she was writing about people who were still alive. How does one write an honest account of people’s life and yet protect their identity? This posed a huge challenge and it took her the longest to try and work her way around this. It is then that she did away with putting a name on the main characters. This also meant that all the other characters and the family had to be fuzzed up enough to be confusing for even the people who know them.
Over a period of time, Dewan realised that there is a greater truth of the spoken word: Dewan had to be truthful and honest about the larger truth or the essence of what they were telling her. Protecting them was a duty as a writer, even if it meant putting two or three characters in one person. That way, the accounts in themselves are truthful but it isn’t necessary that it has to be a particular person. She admitted that there were times she would start writing it like a film script. But it worked out eventually. She took ten years to write this book and the first phase was painful. Later she came to enjoy it.
According to Kidwai only a filmmaker could have come up with this sort of a strategy and the only way the story could have been told. This complicated multigenerational story could only be told from the perspective of a filmmaker
When asked about the reaction of the family to the book, Dewan said that her main informant was extremely pleased with the illustration done: What she loved best was the childlike vanity captured in the picture. Dewan remembered that through writing the book, in the intensity of the moment people tend to share important secrets. So, she had taken good care to not put in information that could potentially hurt or humiliate her informants. Dewan said that her book is not more important than their lives. The other person involved didn’t want to keep the book because for personal reasons. Dewan also added that unlike when the film was made, there were very few people around with whom she could share the joy of the book.
On being asked about whether a Hindi translation would be available, Dewan told us that she would very much like a good Hindi- Urdu translation. This would make it more accessible to the people she had written about. She agreed with Kidwai that it is a story that needs to be told in Hindi- Urdu because there is just so much in terms of the language; especially Bhojpuri- the earthiness, the quirky humour, etc., is very difficult to translate. That would definitely add to the richness. Kidwai was quick to add that the translations from the material (in Bhojpuri, Hindi) are very well done, the lyrics, in particular. Dewan also added that after ten years, there is definitely not more she would like to add. She further said that it was not that she thought this was the greatest; rather it was that she never stayed very long with her works. She had not really given a thought about what she could have done differently. There are people who sit and brood over their work, and those who keep working on it, but Dewan had never done that; be it films or this book. She did admit that there were times she would cringe at her previous works, but she never really changed them.
On being asked what we can expect next, all she said was, “I don’t know what the future holds.” However, she added, “Film is the language I feel most comfortable in. So, I’d always told myself that if you finish your book, you’ll do a film to energise yourself.” But in the present, all she hopes is that now is that if things work out, maybe a film.
In conclusion, Kidwai praised Dewan’s moral courage and her work. However, for Dewan, he had been a teacher to her and the very journey into the world with tawaifs was due to her previous conversations with Kidwai.
– Niangthianmuang S Ngaihte
St. Stephen’s College