(Part 1) These are pictures of tawaifs from Lucknow in the 19th century. The word tawaif has been maligned and misrepresented over the years. The truth is that these tawaifs, devadasis or 'nautch girls' have played a major role in revival and preservation of Indian performance arts. They were not only very gifted in various literary and performance arts but they were also very powerful and rich in the medieval times. The onslaught of Aurangzeb's and certain other rulers' restrictive Islamic morality meant that the arts had to retreat from public space and were accessible to only a small section. There was a differentiation within the tawaifs as well: there were those who mastered Urdu poetry, others who were trained in Kathak and yet others who revived Hindustani Classical music like Thumri or Dadra. They usually had clients ranging from Zamindar class, Nawabs, Maharajas or even wealthy Englishmen, but these women had the choice of engaging in carnal relationships. Post the revolution of 1857, the British cracked down on tawaifs and relegated them to certain parts of town where their emphasis on culture and heritage faded away and they were forced to work as prostitutes for the British soldiers. Combine this crack down on their wealth and power with Victorian era morality, the result was the marginalisation, banishment and ostracism of these accomplished women who revived and saved Indian culture and arts from fading into oblivion. This series will focus on contributions of tawaifs and devadasis who were the earliest freedom fighters, philanthropists and talented artists. I hope this will change the way in which these women are viewed today.
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