Shortlisted | Book Awards 2020 | English Non-fiction
Dharmman Bibi rode into battle during the revolt of 1857 shoulder to shoulder with her patron lover Babu Kunwar Singh. Sadabahar entranced even snakes and spirits with her music, but eventually gave her voice to Baba Court Shaheed. Her foster mothers Bullan and Kallan fought their malevolent brother and an unjust colonial law all the way to the Privy Council—and lost everything. Their great-granddaughter Teema paid for the family’s ruination with her childhood and her body. Bindo, Asghari, Phoolmani, Pyaari … there are so many stories in this family. And you—one of the best-known tawaifs of your times—remember the stories of your foremothers and your own.
This is a history, a multi-generational chronicle of one family of well-known tawaifs with roots in Banaras and Bhabua. Through their stories and self-histories, Saba Dewan explores the nuances that conventional narratives have erased, papered over or wilfully rewritten.
In a not-so-distant past, tawaifs played a crucial role in the social and cultural life of northern India. They were skilled singers and dancers, and also companions and lovers to men from the local elite. It is from the art practice of tawaifs that kathak evolved and the purab ang thumri singing of Banaras was born. At a time when women were denied access to the letters, tawaifs had a grounding in literature and politics, and their kothas were centres of cultural refinement.
Yet, as affluent and powerful as they were, tawaifs were marked by the stigma of being women in the public gaze, accessible to all. In the colonial and nationalist discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this stigma deepened into criminalisation and the violent dismantling of a community. Tawaifnama is the story of that process of change, a nuanced and powerful microhistory set against the sweep of Indian history.
Saba Dewan is a documentary film-maker. Her documentaries have focused on issues of gender, sexuality and culture. This is her first book and has emerged from her trilogy of films on stigmatised women performers: Delhi–Mumbai–Delhi (2006) about the lives of bar dancers; Naach (The Dance, 2008) on women dancers in rural fairs and The Other Song (2009) about the art and lifestyle of the tawaifs or courtesans. The research and writing of the book was supported by a fellowship from the New India Foundation. Saba lives in Gurgaon.
‘Dewan’s sweep and understanding is formidable … this book is the glorious chronicle of the radical notion, to paraphrase Marie Shear, that courtesans are people.’ – The Wire
‘A comprehensive, clear-sighted, and necessary book, Tawaifnama is not just a sensitive handling of the topic, but also a demand for a more positive acknowledgment of things past, and things as they are.’ – The Telegraph
‘This is easily one of the most ambitious new non-fiction books to come out of the subcontinent.’ – The Open Magazine
‘Vivid and rich in its description, it is riveting, poignant and unputdownable.’ – The Week
‘Saba Dewan’s sprawling history of the life of tawaifs connects generations of private memories with public archives ...Using interviews and personal testimonies, she creates a narrative that is tender, nuanced and exhaustive – The Mint
‘In times where questions of public morality and curbs on art and literature abound, the book serves as an important occasion to understand the process through which such strictures are shaped and how incomplete they invariably remain.’ – Himal South Asian
‘In Tawaifnama Saba Dewan tells a gripping multigenerational story of a culturally erased community.’ – Scroll
‘Tawaifnama combines history, biography, gender studies, politics, culture, and music and walks the reader through a forgotten landscape of Banaras.’ – The Hindu
‘Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama is not merely a book tracing a family of tawaifs, it is understanding the sexuality associated with these women in the given society and the times that they lived in.’ – The New Indian Express