Courtesan story you haven't heard

Updated: Oct 01, 2019, 07:36 IST | Snigdha Hasan | Mumbai

With her dance theatre production, Manjari Chaturvedi discusses the significant contribution of courtesans to a fledgling Hindi film industry

Manjari Chaturvedi's performance will be accompanied by actors narrating stories of the tawaifs
Manjari Chaturvedi's performance will be accompanied by actors narrating stories of the tawaifs

Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi remembers the reaction to her first academic project on courtesans she took to the public over a decade ago. "'Are you asking us to come attend a seminar on tawaifs?' People would ask, appalled," the Delhi-based artiste recalls, explaining the reason behind the surprise. "You see, you and I haven't seen a kotha or watched a tawaif perform. Our window to their world is through their portrayal in cinema, which often presents them as vamps, attaching derogatory undertones to their personal life." Ironic, considering it was the courtesans who contributed artistically and financially to the fledgling Hindi film industry a century ago.

Chaturvedi will tell the story of this significant contribution in her dance theatre production, Begums & Baijis of Bollywood: The First Women of Hindi Cinema, in the city today. But before we turn the pages of that story, Chaturvedi explains who a tawaif was — only a handful remain today — and wasn't. "They were excellent performers, who underwent rigorous training in classical dance and music for at least a decade. If prostitution is what their profession was about, why would they take the arduous route of learning to do that?" she says.

Actors narrating stories of the tawaifs
Actors narrating stories of the tawaifs

The "nachne-gaanewali" connotation, Chaturvedi shares, has to do with the patronage tawaifs received in pre-Independence India. "There were no cultural bodies like the NCPA back then. It was at the royal courts and for wealthy patrons that they performed. Come to think of it, men were performing for the rajas and maharajas too. While they were given the title of ustad and their lineages still exist, the children of tawaifs shy away from that association," she laments, adding that both men and women performed at intimate concerts — with no sound amplification available, it was the only way to go — but history has been particularly unkind to women.

In her performance this evening, Chaturvedi's kathak choreography will be interspersed with stories narrated by two actors through which she aims to make the lesser-known side to the tawaifs more accessible. "When we speak of the powerful and independent women of Bollywood today, we give examples of Anushka Sharma or Priyanka Chopra having their own production houses.

Jaddan Bai
Jaddan Bai

But how many of us know of Jaddan Bai, who ran a production house in Bombay before we became independent? Or that Goa-based Kesarbai Akerkar's classical rendition of Jaat kahan ho akeli gori was part of an album played in NASA's Voyager, back in 1977?" asserts Chaturvedi. Apart from being the first to overcome the stigma against the entry of women actors in films, several renditions of songs popularised by courtesans went on to become Bollywood hits. "Mughal-e-Azam's Mohe panghat pe Nandlal was a song popularised by Indu Bala, who was never credited for it," she says, adding that the re-creation of these iconic songs in the performance is a hat-tip to their unsung performers and an endeavour to give them their due place in art history.

"Last week, I met a 92-year-old tawaif in Jaipur," Chaturvedi says. "And I realised that this is our last chance to record their history in their words. Else, we'll have to learn about them through the eyes of men."

On Today, 7 pm
At Tata Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
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Entry Rs 300 onwards

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