Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama – A brief review

Saba Dewan’s new book ‘Tawaifnama’ is a remarkable read about contributions of women to Hindustani classical music, All India Radio, theatre, silent film, Bollywood, and in India’s freedom from British. It was fascinating to learn how tawaifs had negotiated the onslaughts by colonialism and Hindu nationalism upon their way of life and art practice.

It highlights a great deal about the everyday life in Banaras and surrounding areas, through the colonial period till date. Saba Dewan’s ethnographic fiction reimagines dialogues with her primary interlocutor, who she addresses as ‘you’ in the book. By positioning the reader, her interlocutors, social reformers, Hindu nationalists and colonial writers in a dialogue with each other, she tells the story about women who performed in public during the time when Britishers and (ironically) Hindu nationalists tried to impose Victorian morality, concept of family narrowed to a patriarchal one,  alongside social reforms pertaining to the behaviour of women and people of lower castes. This also led to restrictions on folk songs sung by women in public, their intermingling with women from other castes. And these restrictions on women were adopted by upwardly mobile intermediate castes as a strategy to claim higher status. Meanwhile, they were also encouraged to enjoy the benefits of British education.  Such conflicting world views! A clear boundary was made between ‘respectable’ and ‘obscene’. 

“In the tawaif community, on the other hand, the birth of a daughter was an occasion for celebration and thanksgiving. As future breadwinners, girls were coveted and loved, while boys were treated as unwelcome burdens, a drain on the family’s resources. With little role to play in the economy of a tawaif household, boys were forgotten children of the family… Receiving ‘pocket money’ for their personal expenses from their mothers, sisters, daughters, even adult men were treated as children.” (Dewan 2019, 113)

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