Mumbai's mujra mystery
A new podcast series deep dives into the vestiges of the courtesan culture in the city, almost fading and now shrouded in secrecy
In the second episode of The Last Courtesans of Bombay, a young mujra dancer confides in independent journalist Kunal Purohit, "I can’t really tell my mother how things today are a world apart from the times when she was a mujra dancer." And this, in a way, sums up the core theme of the newly launched documentary podcast series by The Swaddle, a digital platform that covers the latest in health, gender and culture in India. The four-part series, Purohit shares, took months of research — gaining access to the secretive world of tawaifs in Mumbai, and winning their confidence being the biggest challenge. Four tawaifs — two of them retired and two still in the profession — finally gave in to his doggedness, giving him insights into the rich history of their profession, its focus on education, and what led to its stigmatisation, making it a shadow of its former self.
"I have been writing about what I call the sexual minorities since 2012," the Mumbai-based journalist tells us, referring to his reportage on bar dancers in the city. "The  ban on dance bars in Mumbai harks back to the laws passed during the colonial era, when courtesans — who were a highly respected and influential section of Indian society — were included in the venereal disease acts, passed by the British after 1857 to check their spread among the armed forces, alongside sex workers," he explains, referring to the discrimination these minorities suffered at the hands of the State. "The British also realised that though not overtly political, the courtesans were helping and assisting the rebels. That, together with the drying up of patronage of courtesans by the royal families, led to their marginalisation."
To understand the kind of status tawaifs used to enjoy in pre-Independent India, Purohit shares a nugget that emerged during his spadework for the podcast. "Soon after the 1857 War of Independence, when the British checked tax records of Lucknow residents, they realised that the city’s courtesans were among the highest taxpayers," he says, adding, "Highly skilled in poetry, music and dance, they were hailed as custodians of culture whom the rich would send their kids to, to learn etiquette. They would often be invited as chief guests for important events." And all this in an era when a common woman in Lucknow couldn’t step out of her home without the veil.
A courtesan featured in The Beauties of Lucknow, which chronicles "the dancing girls of the Oudh Court".
From a time when not everybody could enter a mujra kotha, which would only be open to public intellectuals, to tawaifs having to deal with coercion and threats by kotha managers to give in to sexual advances by patrons, the downward spiral has been rather unfortunate. As the young mujra performer from Bachu Seth ki Wadi near Mumbai Central tells Purohit, "It’s no longer about the art and skill the performer carries; but how she looks."
But however poor the ‘business’ may be, if there is an urgent humanitarian or social cause, for which funds need to be generated, the courtesans perform, and all the money collected goes to the cause, says Purohit, adding that there is even an internal justice system, which, for instance, penalises the mujra kotha employing minors. Despite the many challenges the courtesans of Mumbai and the country are facing, then, there still remains the lifestyle of tawaifs, which in itself is an act of resistance; much like their defiant bids to subvert patriarchy centuries ago.
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