Some years ago, Manjari Chaturvedi’s Sufi Kathak Foundation, which works for promotion of the artform, received a pension request from an aging artist in Lucknow. Zareena Begum, a former courtesan singer, was paralysed and couldn’t move. When Chaturvedi met her at her Lucknow residence, the frail, aging woman told her she had one last wish: Ek baar Banarasi saari pahankar stage par jana hai (I want to go on stage wearing a Banarasi saari).
This got Chaturvedi thinking, and when she returned to Delhi she started planning an event for Begum. However, people who were generally willing to support her projects and dance concerts, were reluctant to back her on this one as it involved a ‘tawaif’.
“I was appalled by the disregard for courtesans. People readily accept and celebrate filmstars, but somehow develop this mind block when one talks of tawaifs, baijis, kalavanas and nautch girls. They fail to understand and recognise them as artistes,” says Chaturvedi, an accomplished Kathak dancer and proponent of Sufi Kathak, who has performed over 300 shows across the world. She then began her research on the subject, which hooked her for next eight years to the extent that she decided that she will only perform the dance of the tawaif. Chaturvedi hoped people would understand that the tawaif was not a sex worker but a trained artiste, who had an honourable reputation in the courts and feudal society of her time.
What emerged was called ‘The Courtesan Project’, a production that brought together real-life stories of many famed courtesans from Malka Jaan and Gauhar Jaan to Jaddanbai, and tales of their dances, poetry and music.
On Saturday, at Creaticity, Pune, a 90-minute performance called Uff Malka Jaan and The Velvet Courtesans took the audience on a tour of the lifes of courtesans, into the darbars of patron kings, nawabs and gora sahibs.
Chaturvedi performed the dance, actor Neesha Singh provided the narration in a charming and witty manner in English and Fouzia Dastango presented the stories of the tawaifs in Hindi and Urdu.
According to Chaturvedi, the stigma that is attached with courtesans is largely because they were female performers in the darbars of the Maharajas and the Nawabs. “Nearly 100 years ago, there was no India Habitat Centre or India International Centre or National Centre for Performing Arts. So where would an artiste perform? The dancers performed at the courts of the Maharajas and the Nawabs or they performed at a kotha, which was a performing space. I don’t find anything is wrong with that,” says Chaturvedi, 44.
The stigma attached to the court and kotha dance led to subjecting the courtesans to a life of anonymity, especially during the early 20th century, a trend which continued after Independence. This situation has also dissuaded courtesans from training their succeeding generations in Darbari Kathak. “Today nobody performs Darbari Kathak. It’s only mentioned in history. Our aim is to revive it so that people of this generation can actually see and re-evaluate the artform,” says Chaturvedi.