A night before my 28th birthday, I checked something off my bucket list – visiting GB Road during business hours. Two friends in tow, we drove past the kothas three times. Business was in motion.
Middle aged, unkempt women were striking deals with equally frowsy men in dark corridors.
On our way there, we did a little research online about what to look out for in the red light district of our city, and found out about Kotha no 64. Allegedly, this is where you find the best of the lot. Kotha no 64 was in dire straits. On the second floor, we spotted a woman looking out the window, neon blue lights filling the ambience behind her, looking utterly bored. There was no glory in her stance.
These women, whose job is to seduce, looked exhausted and embittered. Their aloofness and indifference made me wonder where the art of seduction has been lost.
Not too far from the scene of crime is Chawri Bazaar. Its architecture preserves stories of yore, of an era when tawaifs were an integral part of society. The buildings here house jharokhas, from where courtesans seduced their customers; quite similar to the window in kotha no 64.
Except, back in the day, the women were invested in their art and the men sought a lot more than sex.
The Mughal Era was a period rich with arts and culture. Evenings constituted hours spent listening to shayari, classical music and watching dance performances. Architecture was ornate with beautiful paintings and bejewelled walls and ceilings, of which the Taj Mahal stands testimony. There was keen appreciation of the finer things in life.
Tawaifs or courtesans played an important role in society. They were schooled in poetry, dance, music, politics, arts, literature and held the job of entertaining and pleasing men. Not only this, the nawaabs and nawaabzadis were sent to tawaifs to learn tehzeeb.
Tawaifs were not only not looked down upon, they were the ones responsible for inculcating what we regard as the etiquette of royalty! Sex was only a small part of what they had to offer and they could choose who they wanted to be intimate with. With complete right to say no, they were often wooed by the kings with caravans loaded with presents.
If there is anything left in our culture from the Mughal Period, it is the lives of these women. Movies such as Umrao Jaan and Mughal-e-Azam are stories of courtesans.
All classical dance forms in our country are remnants of the dance that courtesans performed. Their ghazals and shayaristill live on… In fact, Ghalib would not have been known to us today if Mughal Jaan, a dancer and singer hadn’t put a tune to his words.
Courtesans mesmerised men, but their prowess surpassed pleasing the senses. They were well-versed with politics and often influenced important decisions. Farzana, later called Begam Samru is one such courtesan who ruled over Western UP because of her political and military abilities. Moran Sarkar, a courtesan, who became Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s queen in 1802, was respected not only for her expertise in arts, but also her philanthropic work. There are many such stories of tawaifsbeing the upholders of culture and politics in the Mughal Era.
In the year 1856, the British passed the annexation of Oudh. This marked the decline of this rich period and soon, courtesans were labeled ‘prostitutes.’
Reduced to mere sex workers, they were robbed of their dignity and with that, our country was robbed of an irreplaceable group of people.
Today, the word ‘tawaif’ is an insult. To dance for the entertainment of men is a shameful thing to do. A prostitute has no say in who she is going to share her body with. She is nothing but flesh; meat for men to devour.
As we drove past GB Road that night, we saw three sedans and one SUV parked outside kotha no 64. A few young, well-dressed, good looking men stepped out of the cars and walked upstairs.
They looked like the kind of men we would meet at bars, maybe strike a conversation with or maybe even go home with. There they were, buying sex from the forlorn women at kotha no 64.
One can hope that there is some sophistication still left in the way these women conduct themselves under the sheets, but all accounts prove otherwise. As I saw these men disappear into the dark staircase leading up to the blue neon ambience, a wave of dread passed through me at the thought that one really can’t tell where a man has been. It was followed by a deep sense of sadness, a longing for those years of glory lost to a long forgotten past.