THE TAWAIF, THE ANTI - NAUTCH MOVEMENT, AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF NORTH INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC:

Part 6 - The Passing of the Torch

by David Courtney working tools

Dancer with Sitar

 




Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - The Tawaifs
Part 3 - Evolution of the Will to End the Tawaifs
Part 4 - Evolution of the Means to End the Tawaifs
Part 5 - The Anti-Nautch Movement
Part 6 - The Passing of the Torch - This Page
Part 7 - Affects of the Anti-Nautch Movement on North Indian Music
Part 8 - Epilogue

SUMMARY OF TOPICS COVERED EARLIER

The tawaifs were an Indian equivalent of the Japanese geisha. At the end of the 19th century there was a British inspired persecution of dancing girls.  This persecution included the tawaif.  However for there to be an effective persecution, there had to be both a will as well as the means to carry it out.  The will was provided by a combination of Victorian moralistic and political considerations.  The means was provided by the British consolidation of their control over the Indian subcontinent.  The persecutions started in the South and were initially directed at the temple girls, however they quickly spread to the North where the tawaifs became the targets.

The arts of the tawaifs did not die with them, but were instead passed on to a new generations of performers who were unconnected with the tawaif tradition.  This metaphoric "passing of the torch" was part of a complex series of events.  This section will deal with social and historical processes behind this transfer of these arts.  We will also look at a small sampling of people who were involved in this process.

 

The New Social Dynamics

At the height of the anti-nautch moment, a curious chain of events transpired in India.  The tawaif, the freedom movement, and an emerging cultural renaissance in India, were all thrown in together with interesting results.  In a nutshell, we can say that many people worked to forge a new India, saved the arts of the tawaif, but at the same time destroyed the tawaif tradition.

From the standpoint of the tawaifs, the social dynamics were changing fast.  This was a transitional period in Indian history, and at times things were quite complicated.  However for the purpose of this modest article, we will look at these things according to a simple model.

Model for our discussions

Model for our discussions

In this model there are six things that we need to familiarise ourselves with.  They are:

  1. The Tawaifs
  2. The Cultural Renaissance
  3. The Freedom Struggle
  4. The Relationship Between the Freedom Struggle and the Cultural Renaissance
  5. The Relationship Between the Tawaifs and the Freedom Struggle
  6. The Relationship Between the Tawaifs and the Cultural Renaissance

It is interesting to note how the British have fallen out of this picture.  They were still a force to be reckoned with in the early 20th century, but as far as the tawaifs were concerned, they were becoming irrelevant.

Tawaifs - Let us review the state of the tawaifs at the turn of the 20th century.  The tradition had been under pressure for more than half a century.  The dissolution of many of the princely states that had been their patronage, placed them in a precarious economic situation.  Two decades of persecution by British, as well as local social purity organisations, reduced both their economic status as well as their social standing.  The difficulty in getting bright young girls who could handle the years of rigourous training was reducing the quality of the tawaifs.  The boycott of their performances made the tawaifs disinclined to put in the efforts to maintain artistic standards.  All of these events conspired to push the tawaifs into the very prostitution that the social purity activists had long accused them.  But the biggest problem was a lack of social relevance.  It was clear that that the tawaifs were a dying breed.

Cultural Renaissance - The early part of the 20th century saw India in the midst of a cultural renaissance.  Decades of English medium, convent education, had a interesting impact upon Indian society.  It had the desired results (at least from the British standpoint), of producing an army of capable "babus" who dutifully carried out the administration of India for the benefit of their British masters.  Unfortunately, it created a peculiar, almost slave mentality among this class.  There were deep rooted feelings of inadequacy bordering on self-loathing.  Just as in the physical world where every action has its reaction, so too we find similar reactions manifest in the social arena.  In many quarters, the middle class begins to deeply reject the mindset of self-loathing and inadequacy and begins to take pride in their Indian self-identity.

But the obvious question was "What is this self-identity?"  This thirst for a sense of Indian self-identity fuelled a very powerful cultural renaissance.  Across the subcontinent, people started to take note of virtually every piece of folk art, classical art, music, dance and what-not, that they could find.  People were actively engaged in discovering, and at times even fabricating a self-identity.

Freedom Movement - It is ironic that it was the British that created the basic framework for both the Indian freedom movement as well as a united and free India.  From Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas, the British had established English medium schools where Indians became familiar with European concepts (including the European concept of nationalism).  This bourgeoisie, had the ability to move from North to South and East to West and meet with other Indians who had compatible world views.  The British had unwittingly united a subcontinent that had been divided for ages by political, linguistic, and cultural differences.  In this environment, the formation of a independence movement was inevitable.

Such pan-ethnism of the Indian bourgeoisie may have been very convenient in the early days of the freedom struggle, but it was neither sufficient, nor an appropriate a vehicle to build a sense of national identity.  It was clear there had to be an Indian sense of self-identity if the struggle for freedom were to be successful.

The freedom movement was by no means homogenous., for there were many approaches and ideas.  Some espoused largely non-violent, economic means (e.g., Gandhi, Nehru).  Some advocated a military approach (e.g., Chandra Bose).  Some advocated for grass roots guerrilla activities (e.g., Bhagat Singh).  Regardless of which approach a freedom fighter was adhering to, they could not forget past failings.

Relationship Between the Freedom Struggle and the Cultural Renaissance - The failure of the Uprising of 1857 was not lost to this new generation of freedom fighters.  It was recognised that one of the reasons that the Uprising failed, was that after initial military successes, there was a sense of "now what".  The concept of a unified "Azad-e-Hind" (Independent India), was missing.  The Uprising of 1857 was comprised of disparate Indian elements who had legitimate grievances, but no clear plan as to what to do after the British were defeated.  This lack of a clear goal allowed the Crown to mobilise her military strength and suppress the insurrection.  The Indian intelligentsia were determined that this would not happen again.

British retaliation against Uprising

British retaliation against Uprising

The intelligentsia of the freedom movement were very aware of the problem.  They realised that the only way to avoid the fragmentation and lack of direction, was to create and maintain a unified sense of self-identity.  This was in no way a simple task; historically the South Asian sense of self-identity was determined by communal identifications.

Many different approaches were used.  Not all of which had the same level of effectiveness.  Some actually turned out to be counter productive.

Many invoked invoke the mythical concept of Bharat Varsha, as a tool to help the common man grasp the concept of nationalism.  The image of Bharat Varsha as promulgated by many freedom fighters, was that of a period when all of South Asia (according many, the entire world) was governed by Hindu dharma.  This may have been a convenient introduction to the concept of nationalism for many commoners, but unfortunately it would have uncomfortable repercussion by alienating large portions of the Muslim populations of South Asia.

The All India Muslim League was established in 1906, but gained popularity in the 1930s; it began to push a very different agenda.  Their supporters tended to push Islam, along with the Urdu Language, as their means of establishing a sense of self-identity.

All India Muslim League 1936

All India Muslim League 1936

The Indian National Congress was attempting to avoid a partition of India.  It was clear that the Bharat Varsha approach would only further alienate the Musilim minorities.  However concentrating on traditional arts seemed a very safe way to create a national identity without causing any problems.  Therefore, the support of the arts became a component of the freedom struggle.  Even after independence it was still pursued.  Although the objective of attaining independence was achieved, there was still the issue of national integration.

Indian National Congress hunts for a way to create a national identity

Indian National Congress hunts for a way to create a national identity

Of course this is all history now.  The All India Muslim League and the Indian National Congress continued pursuing very different agendas, and using very different approaches; and India and Pakistan were separated in 1947.

Relationship Between the Tawaifs and the Freedom Struggle - The tawaifs and their place within the freedom struggle was problematic from the very beginning.  On one hand, the British made it very clear that they would never support the tawaifs; therefore any significant support for the British Raj by the tawaifs was not really a consideration.  But it was also clear that there was not going to be much support from the freedom movement as well.  Founding members of both the Indian National congress as well as the All India Muslim league were products of an English Victorian school system.  Therefore, they had a strong tendency to reject the tawaifs outright as mere prostitutes.

That is not to say that there were not interactions between freedom fighters and the tawaifs; but this did not represent an endorsement of the tawaifs.  Individual tawaifs were known on occasion to support the Indian National Congress with financial contributions; but there was really no reciprocation of support by the independence movement.  It was clear that as a matter of policy, the Indian National Congress considered the tawaifs to be a social evil; one, like sati (self immolation of widows upon husband's funeral pyre), child marriages, and restrictions on widow remarriage, needed to be eliminated.

Relationship Between the Tawaifs and the Cultural Renaissance - The role of the tawaif in the cultural renaissance was extremely complicated and at times troublesome.  Many in the middle class admired and respected the arts of the tawaifs, but they could not relate to the culture of the tawaif.  The tawaifs still tried to maintain 18th century world views, while the middle class were firmly embracing the 20th century.

Simply put, the arts of the tawaifs were taken from them and given to the middle class.  This process has at times assumed very different value judgements.  Those sympathetic to the tawaifs, tend to view their arts as being stolen from them.  Others who are more sympathetic with the middle class nature of the renaissance, look upon it as a form of democratisation of the art-forms.  They point out that in the old feudal system, the only people who could enjoy theses arts were the extremely wealthy ruling classes.  They look at the passing of the arts from the tawaif to the populace as a cultural "redistribution of wealth".  If I may interject my own feelings, I look upon it as a "rescue" of the arts.  It was clear that the tawaifs were disappearing and it was necessary to find a new home for their arts, otherwise they may have disappeared.

 

The Rescuers

The passing of the tawaif's arts to the middle class was not an easy job.  It could not have been done without the sacrifice, and hard work, of many people.  This included tawaifs as well as members of the middle class.  This process required the middle class to submerge themselves into the kotha culture of musicians, poets, and tawaifs; take their arts; and then use modern approaches to preserve and propagate them.  Such endeavours involved combinations of modern musicology, gramophone recordings, publication of books, and a wide range of activities.  Although we consider such activities normal today, they were unknown to many of the tawaifs, and considered to be revolutionary at the time.

 

A Few Famous Tawaifs of the Time

Many people need to be thanked for the rescue of these arts.  These were tawaifs who broke with tradition in very important ways.  We must remember that the professional culture of the kothas was characterised by extreme professional secrecy.  Tabla players frequently used to refuse to perform certain material in the presence of other tabla players.  I am told that there was a sarangi player who used to play with his fingers behind a veil so that no one could see his technique.  Tawaifs used to perform their arts only before extremely select viewers.  When we remember this almost paranoid obsession with professional secrets, it is very remarkable that these tawaifs were willing to perform before large public audiences.  The fact that they would be willing to have their songs recorded on disk was itself remarkable.  The fact that they would accept as dance students people who were not specifically chosen to carry on the tradition in the kothas was amazing.  All of these things point to a degree of forward-thinking that was rare in that culture.  For such forward-thinking, we owe them an amazing debt of gratitude.

Let us look at a few of these remarkable tawaifs:

Jaddanbai (1892-1949) - Jaddanbai was a tawaif who by all accounts was an extremely remarkable woman.  She is mostly remembered as the mother of the Bollywood film star Nargis, and grandmother to Sanjay Dutt.  However in her time, she was a master music composer, singer, actress, and even film maker.  It is interesting to note that there is a persistent rumour that Jaddanbai was the illegitimate daughter of Motilal Nehru by way of her mother, the famous tawaif Daleepabai of Allahabad.

Jaddanbai (extreme right) with Dilip Kumar, Nargis, and Mehboob

Jaddanbai (extreme right) with Dilip Kumar, Nargis, and Mehboob.

Gauhar Jan (1873-1930) - Gauhar Jan was a tawaif whose birth name was Angelina Yeoward, when her mother converted to Islam, Angelina took the name Gauhar.  She was very gifted in both singing and kathak dance; she was only 15 when she gave her first performance.  She was very famous in Calcutta in the early part of the 20th century.  We are fortunate that she has left us with over numerous recordings made during her lifetime.

Gauhar Jan with Gramaphone

Gauhar Jan with Gramophone.

Begum Akhtar (1914 - 1974) - Finally we must also not forget the late Begum Akhtar.  She may be considered one of the last of the tawaifs.  She gave her first public performance at the age of 15; we are fortunate that she lived recently enough that a large number of her gazals, dadras and thumris could be preserved in recordings.  Her influence over the musical world cannot be overstated.

 

Begum Akhtar

Begum Akhtar.







A Few Famous Non-Tawaifs of the Time

Our gratitude must also be extended to non-tawaifs as well.  As the tawaif tradition was declining, there had to be non-tawaifs ready to receive the arts and carry them on.  The hardships endured by the non-tawaifs in this process was no less than their tawaif sisters.  Although they were products of a different cultures and different times, they still had to endure considerable amount of ostracism.

But the difficulties of the non-tawaifs extended beyond mere social pressures.  The process of propagating theses arts in a new environment required an extraordinary degree of innovation.  We must not underestimate the enormity of the task of translating an art-form from one time to another, from one place to another, and from one culture to another.  Never forget that a 19th century kotha was a very different place from a 20th century auditorium.  The music business in the 20th century required considerably more flexibility than the system of royal patronage of the 19th century.  In all, the job of being recipients of this art-form was a very challenging task.

Men played an especially important role in the perpetuation of these art-forms.  During the height of the anti-nautch persecutions, only men could perform without fear of being accused of prostitutes.  Therefore one should not be surprised to find a fair number of men among the people we must thank.

Sukhdev Maharaj & Sitara Devi (circa 1920 -) - Two very important non-tawaifs were Sukhdev Maharaj and his daughter Sitara Devi.  Although the name Sukhdev Maharaj is virtually unknown, Sitara Devi is remembered as a very famous kathak dancer.

Sukhdev Maharaj was a Brahmin from Varanasi (Benares) who was a well known Sanskrit scholar of the Vaishnava tradition.  He was also a very accomplished kathak dancer, and earned his living performing and teaching.  He taught the art of kathak to both his sons as well as his daughters.  He even had a school in Benares where he taught many people.  For this, he suffered a tremendous degree of ostracism, but he persevered.

It was Sukhdev Maharaj's daughter Sitara Devi (born early 1920's), who really became famous.  Her birth name was Dhanalaksmi, but she was nicknamed Dhano.  She initially had informal training under her father, but when it became clear that she had talent, her training was then entrusted to her older sister, Tara (Tara was the mother of the famous dancer Gopi Krishna).  It was about that time that she assumed her stage name "Sitara Devi" (lit. "Star Goddess").  When she was still a young girl, her family moved to Bombay.  There she continued to perfect her art.  Very early on, she was dancing in the films.  However she gave this up, feeling that the film world was ill suited to her traditionalist tastes in dance.  She continued to dance for many decades and won a great many honours.

Sitara Devi

Sitara Devi

Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872-1931) - One other person that we are indebted to is Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.  He established the first modern school of music: this was the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya which was established in Lahore in 1901.  This school was open to all, and was structured along the lines of the numerous English medium schools which had been set up in India in the later half of the 19th century.  This model is still used for the various government and private schools, spread across India today.

Vishnu Digambar Paluskar

Vishnu Digambar Paluskar

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) - It is interesting that one of the non-tawaifs that we are indebted to was actually a lawyer; this was Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.  We are indebted to him for documenting a vast corpus of rags and compositions, and codifying the north Indian system of music.  Furthermore, it is his system of notation which is the most widely accepted in Northern India.  At the turn of the 20th century, he published his four volume magnum opus entitled Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati.  Even today, it is considered to be the standard reference work on the subject.

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) - Perhaps the name which is most associated with the cultural renaissance was Rabindranath Tagore.  He was active in a number of endeavours including music, poetry, literature, and religion.  He became the first Indian to win the Nobel prize when in 1913, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.  He composed a vast number of songs, based upon traditional and classical music; today these are known as Rabindra Sangeet.  His contributions to the development of the artistic scene of the late 19th and early 20th century cannot be overstated.  It was almost as if he personally epitomised the cultural renaissance of India.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

It is pointless to give any more than these few samples of musicians, dancers, and scholars who were responsible for saving these art-forms during an extremely trying period of Indian history.  We can only hope that these few examples will, at least illustrate the hardships that both the tawaifs as well as the non-tawaifs had to endure, so that we can enjoy classical music and dance today.

 

 

Previous Page | Top of Page | Next Page




Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - The Tawaifs
Part 3 - Evolution of the Will to End the Tawaifs
Part 4 - Evolution of the Means to End the Tawaifs
Part 5 - The Anti-Nautch Movement
Part 6 - The Passing of the Torch
Part 7 - Affects of the Anti-Nautch Movement on North Indian Music - Next Page
Part 8 - Epilogue

 

© 1998 - 2017 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com