Grant Period: Over one year
For filmmaker Saba Dewan, the tawaif (courtesan of north India) negotiates that “extremely thin strip of space pregnant with possibilities” that has always been on the margins of the patriarchal order, “neither totally engulfed by it nor entirely liberated from it.” Saba’s research was towards a film on the tawaif, attempting to understand how her identity as an artist was critical to her survival.
Tawaifs have made a significant contribution to Hindustani music, dance and literature, especially Urdu prose and poetry, and later to theatre and film. Excavating the poetry written by the tawaifs, the film script focused on the identity of the ‘female professional’ constructed within feudal patriarchy. The exploration of the relationship between aesthetic expression and sexual identity was the crux of the film, and the study of the tawaif’s art focuses on the ambiguities, gaps and silences within memories and texts to locate multiple voices and meanings around female sexuality.
Saba contrasts the pre-colonial spaces of female sexuality with the nationalist construction of the ‘virtuous’, ‘domestic’, ‘cultured’ and ‘learned’ upper caste woman-mother. Her study addresses the regulation of sexualities in ‘modern’ India that eroded the social, economic, cultural and sexual space of the courtesan. Understanding ‘deviant’ sexuality (‘deviant’ being a term used repeatedly by the English-educated nationalist reformers), Saba observes, means looking at how the tawaif’s subversions were managed and controlled, and her music and dance (thumri, kathak and the ghazal) ‘cleansed’ of ‘deviant’ sexuality.
Despite her consistent marginalization, however, the tawaif continues to live in the popular imagination through Hindi cinema. Saba engaged the popular constructions of the tawaif, the breaks and ruptures in these constructions, as well as her actual contributions to cinema. The tawaif’s relationship to the arts, the performance of the ‘mujra’ notwithstanding, has largely been sundered today and she has been compelled to render mostly ‘sexual services’. Some tawaifs today perform cabarets and stage shows in smaller towns. A few have earned themselves considerable repute “as singers of a popular mix of folk and film lyrics.” The film explores the reasons for this transformation in the nature of her music, which has been appropriated by the ‘respectable’ middle classes and absorbed into the idiom of ‘classical’ music.
Saba travelled extensively to locate visual, oral and musical narratives that informed the script for the film. She feels that her research ought to be read “as part of a broader much-needed discourse, which could generate debate on the different and contested constructions of the courtesan body: a site of work, a site of abuse, addiction, power and pleasure.” She also hopes that narrating the histories of these marginalized women artists through her film will “contribute a fresh perspective in the area of cultural history and documentation.”