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The Real-Life Heroines of Heeramandi

In recent weeks, the South Asian community has been enraptured by the Netflix series Heeramandi, a drama depicting 1920s Lahore’s tawaifs, courtesans whose talents include singing, dancing and, in Heeramandi’s telling, the art of love. The story centers Malikajan, the head tawaif of the Shahi Mahal, a brothel in Lahore’s redlight district, and her daughter Alam, an aspiring poetess. Those that didn’t continue watching Heeramandi for its deliciously over-the-top dialogue and intrigue stayed for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s expert cinematography and costume design. The weeks following the show’s release saw scores of South Asian TikTok users attempting to imitate the tawaifs’ flowery Urdu dialogue while dressed in traditional finery and going about ordinary tasks.


While I found Heeramandi entertaining, the larger-than-life costumes and dialogue left me wondering about the experiences of the subcontinent’s real tawaifs and what stereotypes the show might be perpetuating. Portrayals of tawaifs in Indian and Pakistani media are prolific, and include shows and films like A Suitable Boy (2020) and Devdas (2002). However, few of these depictions portray the tawaif’s impact on South Asian art and culture. A far greater number focus on the male gaze and debauchery; the actresses portraying the tawaifs evoke either desire or sympathy in the viewer, rather than respect. The tawaif’s indictment within popular media speaks to who society believes deserves the title of “artist”.  


The rise of tawaif culture began during the Mughal Empire in the 16th century. Women of the courtesan class studied kathak and mujra dance, poetry, and music for years to perform in kothas, or tawaif recital halls, which drew nobility and the upper echelons of Mughal society. The performers were seen as guardians of culture and composers of poetry, not as sexual objects. In Heeramandi, Malikajan’s daughter Alam’s dream of becoming a poetess is ironically ridiculed by her mother and peers. During the Mughal period, composing poetry and the study of literature was a basic qualification for many tawaifs. Moreover, a noble’s education included attending kotha assemblies; performances would convey lessons on history, literature, etiquette, and morality. In addition to receiving respect as artists, tawaifs were also entitled to the rights of the landed gentry. They could own, inherit, and bequeath property. 


The Britishraj all but erased the socio-cultural gains of the tawaifs because they conflated the tawaifs’ artform with sexwork. In 1856, after the British East India Company annexed the Oudh State, a Mughal province, the tawaifs’ patronage from nawabs and other nobility waned. However, the tawaifs were ready to fight against the colonizers that threatened their livelihoods. The courtesans turned their kothas into rendezvous spots and hideouts for the anti-colonial rebels. Wealthy tawaifs also agreed to sponsor the revolutionary cause. 


However, following the rebellion of 1857, the British cracked down on the tawaifs within the movement, although none were combatants. The Raj confiscated their land and its objection to tawaif culture forced them to resort to sexwork. In addition to losing their cultural influence and respect, the tawaifs lost their livelihoods and property, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. As portrayed in Heeramandi, the tawaif of the modern era was less likely to maintain control over her earnings and faced greater threats of violence from patrons or handlers. In addition to the Britishraj’s exploitation of the subcontinent’s resources, its puritanical morality led to the backsliding of queer and women’s rights. 


While mujra dancing continues to exist in Pakistan, it bears a greater resemblance to sexwork than the tawaif culture of the Mughal era. Despite its popularity, mujra dancers are under constant threat of violence, including murder and honor killings. The condemnation of sexwork in Pakistan leaves mujra dancers without protection or defenders. 


By highlighting the tawaif’s artistic influence, I do not intend to moralize against sexwork. The tawaifs of the Mughal period commonly engaged in consensual sex with partners of their choosing. However, they were more than objects of the male gaze and determined their own destinies. Recognizing that women played active roles shaping the subcontinent’s revolutionary struggle and culture provides a more holistic, accurate portrayal of history. 


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