Beyond The Veil: How Tawaifs Held Profound Power Over India's Culture

While the Tawaif art has been misconstrued in the post-colonial era, the performer women were once regarded as highly respected contributors to the freedom struggle.

Tanya Savkoor
New Update
tawaif courtesans

Image: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress

Rooted in the annals of South Asian history, the 'Tawaifs' of the Mughal era emerge as enigmatic figures evoking a sense of mystique and fascination. These women, often referred to as courtesans or entertainers, played a multifaceted role in the ethnical fabric of pre-colonial and colonial India. While Bollywood films like Umrao Jaan, Devdas, and Pakeezah have enshrined the beauty of their art, the Tawaif's intriguing stories and pivotal influence on our culture have been erased from our history books. Eschewing the purdah system, the Tawaifs remained some of the most independent women of the Mughal era, paving the path for a revolutionary social status. 


The Tawaif women showcased an outstanding display of empowerment, independence, and artistic prowess in the Mughal era. However, the British blurred the line between Tawaifs and prostitution, leading to the diminishing of their craft and further, a highly misconstrued image of these remarkable women.

Art, Power, and Rebellion

The word 'Tawaif' comes from the Urdu word, tawaf, which means circumambulation. The performers who spun in circles to the music came to be known as Tawaifs. Contrary to the patriarchal normalcy at the time, the Tawaif women were known for their power in society and their profound cultural wisdom.

The enchanting tales of Tawaifs find a place in the 20th and 21st centuries through cinema. | Image: The Week

They were flagbearers of culture, music, etiquette, and dance. Their fondness for literature and art gave a voice to poetic figures like Mirza Ghalib and Daagh Dehlvi. The Tawaifs were also educational influencers to noble families where they tutored young nawabs and begums in the arts and etiquette. 


The Tawaifs were also handsomely rewarded for their work and the kothas of elite Tawaifs opened their doors only to wealthy patrons. They often organised performances that only the creme-de-la-creme of society could afford. These women were among the highest tax-paying bracket of Indian citizens at the time, according to British records. 

Records have also shown that they economically supported kingdoms in times of need like wars or crises. This made the Tawaifs as big part of the freedom struggle as the soldiers, nawabs, and common folks. Their profession was highly respected in society and being a Tawaif was regarded as a privilege.

Why Tawaif Culture Was Abolished

The Tawaifs were the epitome of autonomy, as they were financially independent and were not forced to marry or have children. They were also the only women who were allowed to inherit property at the time. However, that was until the British classified them as immoral and degrading to women under the Victorian moral code.

Tawaifs formed a close-knit community, exhibiting a sisterhood. | Image: British Library

This started when they discovered that one in every four soldiers had contracted venereal diseases, pushing them to regulate sex work like prostitution. The implementation of the Contagious Diseases Act aimed to curb the spread of sexual diseases but the Tawaifs were put under the same category as sex workers.

Sex workers and Tawaifs were subjected to sudden and mandatory medical examinations if suspected of having sexual disorders. Infected individuals were forcibly confined in “lock hospitals” until they were deemed disease-free. This further marginalised the tawaifs and consequently, their profession experienced a decline.

Mughal Era Tawaifs indian cultural history