7 Unsung Courtesans Who Contributed to India's Freedom Struggle

While our history books celebrate freedom fighters, the stories of tawaifs remain largely absent. Here’s looking at their part during the Independence struggle.

Priya Prakash
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Gauhar Jaan, Husna Bai, Begum Hazrat Mahal | Image collage belongs to SheThePeople

During the siege of Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in June 1857, Indian soldiers, alongside a courtesan, confronted British East India Company officials amidst gunfire. The courtesan, armed with pistols, played a remarkable role in the confrontation, but her story is notably absent from mainstream history books. Today, her tale survives through archival reports, local legends, and scholarly writings, providing glimpses into a fascinating yet overlooked chapter of history.


Now, Netflix’s latest series, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, directed by the renowned Sanjay Leela Bhansali, has brought the role of courtesans in India's struggle for freedom into the limelight. While our history books celebrate freedom fighters, the stories of tawaifs remain largely absent. Here’s looking at their part during Independence.

Unsung Courtesans Who Contributed to India's Freedom Struggle

1. Azeezunbai: The Brave Rebel of 1857

Originally from Lucknow and later based in Kanpur, Azeezunbai played an active role in the 1857 uprising against the British East India Company. Disguised in male attire with pistols in hand, she inspired sepoys and tended to their wounds during battles. Her home served as a critical meeting point for rebels, making her a vital figure in the fight for independence.

2. Hussaini: The Strategist of Bibighar Massacre

Hussaini of Cawnpore (now Kanpur) was a significant tawaif during the 1857 mutiny and was believed to be a key conspirator in the Bibighar massacre. This tragic event resulted in the deaths of over 100 British women and children, showcasing the deep engagement of some courtesans in the rebellion.


3. Begum Hazrat Mahal: The Queen Who Defied the British

Known as the wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, Begum Hazrat Mahal was a courtesan before her marriage. She played a pivotal role in the 1857 revolt, taking charge of Lucknow after her husband's exile and briefly reinstating Indian rule in the region.

Women Of Independence Series Creative By STP, Image taken from Hindustan Times

4. Gauhar Jaan: The Voice for Self-Rule

In the early 20th century, renowned courtesan Gauhar Jaan was enlisted by Mahatma Gandhi to raise funds for the Swaraj movement through her performances. Despite Gandhi's absence, she contributed half of the proceeds, showcasing courtesans' support for the independence cause.


5. Husna Bai: Leading the Tawaif Sabha

Husna Bai grew up in the Kotha and received training from Thakur Prasad Mishra and the renowned sarangi player Pt Shambhunath Mishra over time. During the non-cooperation movement (1920–1922), Husna Bai chaired the Tawaif Sabha in Varanasi. Under her leadership, members wore iron shackles instead of ornaments, boycotted foreign goods, and actively supported the independence struggle.

Husna Bai: The tawaif who made Hindustani music a respectable profession for women artists
Husna Ba, Credit: YouTube/Sureele Dinon Ki Dastan

6. Vidyadhar Bai: The Patriot Singer

Inspired by Gandhi’s message, Vidyadhar Bai dedicated her performances to the freedom cause. She sang nationalist songs, boycotted foreign clothing, and promoted Indian hand-spun fabric, highlighting the cultural role of tawaifs in the freedom movement.


7. Impact of the British Crackdown

Following the 1857 revolt, British authorities cracked down on courtesans, raiding their establishments (kothas) and disrupting their livelihoods. This led to the decline of tawaif culture, reducing their influence in society by the early 1900s.

The courtesans of North India, or tawaifs, were more than entertainers; they were educators, influencers, and patriots. Despite being overlooked in mainstream history, their contributions to India's freedom struggle are significant and deserving of recognition. 

Courtesans Heeramandi Courtesans in India's Freedom Struggle