Tawaifs in India’s Fight for Independence

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In the historical narrative of India’s struggle for independence from British rule, the contributions of many have been celebrated, but some have lingered in the shadows, barely recognized. Among these overlooked figures are the tawaifs, the courtesans of Northern India, traditionally seen as mere entertainers. The new Netflix series “Heeramandi” raises an intriguing question: Did these women play a significant role in the freedom struggle? This series not only delves into the lives and challenges faced by these women but also spotlights their potential impact on one of history’s most important movements.

Azeezunbai: The Rebel of 1857

Originally from Lucknow and later based in Kanpur, Azeezunbai (also spelled Azizun Bai) took an active role in the 1857 uprising against the British East India Company. Dressed in male attire and armed with pistols, she inspired the sepoys and even attended to their wounds during battles. Her house served as a crucial meeting point for rebels, making her an integral figure in the fight for independence.

Hussaini: The Conspirator of Cawnpore

Another significant tawaif during the 1857 mutiny was Hussaini of Cawnpore (now Kanpur). She is believed to have been one of the key conspirators in the Bibighar massacre, which led to the deaths of over 100 British women and children. Her involvement showcases the depth of engagement some courtesans had in the rebellion.

Begum Hazrat Mahal: The Queen of Lucknow

Though primarily 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 control of Lucknow after her husband was exiled. Her leadership briefly reinstated the rule of Indian fighters in the region.

Gauhar Jaan: The Voice for Swaraj

In the early 20th century, celebrated courtesan Gauhar Jaan was asked by Mahatma Gandhi to raise funds for the Swaraj movement through her performance. Despite Gandhi’s absence at the fundraising concert, she managed to contribute, though only half of the proceeds. Her actions signify the blend of support and autonomy prevalent among courtesans of the time.

Husna Bai: The Leader of Tawaif Sabha

During the non-cooperation movement (1920–1922), Husna Bai chaired the Tawaif Sabha in Varanasi. Under her leadership, the members wore iron shackles instead of ornaments as a sign of protest and boycotted foreign goods. Her efforts highlight how tawaifs collectively supported the independence struggle.

Vidyadhar Bai: The Patriotic Singer

Inspired by Gandhi’s speech in Varanasi, Vidyadhar Bai dedicated her performances to the cause of independence. She sang nationalist songs at every gathering, boycotted foreign-made clothing, and dressed only in Indian hand-spun fabric. Her story exemplifies the role of art and culture in the freedom struggle, spearheaded by tawaifs.

Impact of British Crackdown

Post-1857, the British authorities clamped down on courtesans, frequently raiding their establishments (kothas) and disrupting their livelihoods. This crackdown led to the physical and cultural dismantling of the tawaif culture, significantly reducing their influence and position in society by the 1900s.

    The courtesans of North India, or tawaifs, were more than just entertainers; they were educators, influencers, and patriots. Their contributions to India’s freedom struggle, though significant, have largely been overlooked in mainstream historical narratives. As we revisit their stories, it becomes clear that their legacy in shaping modern India deserves recognition and respect. The portrayal of their lives and sacrifices in media like Netflix’s ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’ helps bring these forgotten heroes back into the public consciousness.

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