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Bollywood is not a history teacher, says artist who revived tawaif dance forms

Bollywood is not a history teacher, says artist who revived tawaif dance forms


Renowned Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi breaks boundaries with her innovative approach to dance, fusing various cultural influences from Rajasthan, Kashmir, Awadh, Punjab, Turkmenistan, Iran and Kyrgyzstan in her performances. Inspired by Sufi mysticism, she pioneered a unique dance style known as Sufi Kathak, incorporating movements reminiscent of the meditative practices of whirling dervishes.

In a bold and laudable endeavor, Manjari champions the cause of social justice by shedding light on the lives and artistry of courtesans, known as tawaifswho have long been marginalized and stigmatized by society.

In the recent Netflix web series The Constitution by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the discussion around courtesans has come back to the forefront, making tawaif a fashionable word.

While the show has largely stripped down tawaifs of character development, performing with the same troupes, Manjari says Bollywood should not be treated as a medium of education.

Bollywood is not a chapter of history. Please don't blame Bollywood for historical facts. He will give you everything that sells. This is a commercial approach and the stakes are considerable. If the story of a damsel in distress sells, then that will give you that if the story of a warrior sells, it will work. So, Bollywood will only serve commercial purposes, she says.

Through her project The Lost Songs and Dance of Courtesans Gender discrimination in Arts and How it Shapes the Art for Future, she aims to archive and document the stories of these women performers, giving them the recognition and respect they deserve as artistic pioneers.

By undertaking extensive research, Manjari brings to life the untold stories of women who have faced societal stigma due to their roles as performers in music and dance.


Recounting her experiences, she discusses the obstacles encountered in gaining recognition for incredible female performers through her project.

So this time I asked Zareena Begum to perform with me and in response she said with folded hands that you belong to a prestigious family, why are you going to perform on our songs? So, you know, we don't really realize how the world perceives these artists when we only live in the cubicles of our privilege.

In 2014, when I went to meet her when she was ill, I was moved to tears to see her languishing in a dilapidated studio. She had only one wish: to perform in a Benarasi saree. That's when I realized the stigma around the word tawaif because when I decided to organize a show for her, the same sponsors who fund my shows refused to put their name up for a show in honor of Zareena Begum. How can we put our label on a tawaif to show? was their response.

Manjari forged ahead despite having no sponsor.

So we didn't have a sponsor and we were spending our own money. But the house was full for Zareena Begum, paralyzed on one side. I realized that the public wanted him and loved him, but there is such a stigma that no one will come out to support him, she says.

People often discourage me by saying: Manjari Mujra Karti Hai because I dance to the songs sung and performed by the courtesans.

Patriarchal narratives

Delving into the historical and gender perspectives of tawaif tradition, Manjari highlights the misconceptions of society and the challenges faced by these performers. From political acumen to artistic prowess, it highlights the multiple roles played by tawaifs in history and the need to correct the misconceptions maintained by patriarchal narratives.

Of course, it's gendered. For patriarchy to survive, women must be relegated to boxes. Even now, a woman who earns money and has retained her sexual freedom is the most feared and despised. It has many names. In those times, the tawaifs earned very well. In fact, British records indicate that they were the largest taxpayers in ancient Awadh. So obviously, they did not depend on men. Now how can a man control such a woman? You call them bad women! You create a distinction between good housewives and bad housewives, says Manjari.

At that time, such auditoriums did not exist. Therefore, they performed in Kothas or Darbaars. Today we have housing centers where people watch artists perform and leave or go to drink and frolic. Previously, they were defined as Kothas. You can't blame an artist for being born at the wrong time. It's a weird way to look at history.

Manjari critiques male-dominated narratives and colonial biases that have shaped public perceptions. Through her research and advocacy, she seeks to challenge stereotypes and amplify the voices of marginalized artists.

On the contrary, the male artists of the emperors still today proudly claim to be third or fourth generation artists of the king's court. But the women hide their identities and claim that their mothers or grandmothers have nothing to do with the darbaars. A woman who plays in the darbaar is a let's go dancingbut a man is one Master Or pundit. So, of course, it's a gender thing.

In the history of Kathak, you will hardly find names of artists because people suppress their identities and put them in brackets like they were before. tawaifs. These need to be corrected.

Manjari says women's history is written by men.

Women's history is always written by men, the case of tawaifs is no different. Their story is written from a man's point of view. Their endless hours of practice, the bruising of the footwork, the precision of the singing, these things we don't know because they were never written down. They were the highest form of entertainment in noble courts, so everyone aspired to tawaif. Most people have only heard of them and never seen them perform, so it's like Chinese whispers. These stories are marinated in gossip and, over the years, they become reality.

The historical representation is largely from the man's point of view. The people who had access to it never talked about it. The British also have an important role to play. They didn't quite understand the Indian way of entertaining and called everyone a nautch girl, which insinuated that they were a sex worker.

Always in demand

Sharing his experiences as a dance teacher, Manjari highlights the demand for learning traditional dance forms and the importance of clearing misconceptions among students. By encouraging introspection and embracing cultural heritage, it aims to nurture a new generation of dancers committed to the preservation of artistic traditions.

BEYOND THE OBVIOUS: The famous classic
dancer advises her students to look beyond what
we teach them

“Yes, people want to learn dancing. There are students who want to learn dance and traditions too. I have to keep with me those dancers who can keep the culture alive. But there are also those who just want to learn the dance for 20 seconds.

Regarding misconceptions, I always tell my students to look beyond what we are taught, that is, to live in the realm of our own negativity. Every time we look in the mirror, we continue to look for flaws, because it is so ingrained in us to look for flaws.




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