“Woh raqs, woh raqqasayen, woh Dilli ki galiyan, woh Chandni Chowk ka Chawri Bazaar-Woh beete daur ki batein…….”
Photo of a Nautch Girl, sitting with her richly embroidered sari and her shy, yet assured look,photographed in Old Delhi on 1920s (photographer unknown)
As the evening deepened, the resonating melodious of music, mostly classical forms of ‘dadra’ and ‘thumree’ and slight nuances of ‘affections’ hinted in ‘ghazals’, flowed out of their ‘Kothas’, along with wafts of perfume,‘Sone ke Wark wala paan’, wine and ‘Hookah’.
Rhythmic tinkling sounds of ‘Ghunghroo’
Then came, the rhythmic tinkling sounds of ‘Ghunghroo’ from ‘Kathak’- a form of dance inextricably linked to the ‘tawaifs’ of yore. ‘Kathak’ is a form of dance that has been popular in northern Indian for centuries.
Uttering the “tawaif” is and was considered taboo in elite circles, but it is a word rich with emotional connotations. The term “tawaif” is the plural form of the Arabic “Taifa”, and literally means “group”. Gradually, with time, the term became notorious, with worldly corruptions creeping in.
Lost in time-Nayikas of Indian Music
Chawdi Bazaar of Chandni Chowk has seen some ‘ladies’ whose memories and names are etched in history……
It is said that ‘Zeenat’s’ hour glass figure and coquetry, had magnetic affects.
‘Kali Ganga’s’ dark complexion was complimented with the praise saying “her eyes are like the black eyes of a doe”.
‘Nur Bai’ who travelled only on an elephant, was notorious for “bringing ruin to many houses”. Nur Bai was the dancing girl of Mohammed Shah, who betrayed him to Nadir Shah…..
‘Behnai’ used to have mace bearers as servants.
‘Chamani’ who used to beautify and enhance the eloquence of her conversations with the use of appropriate idioms, had crossed the threshold of her youth but had not lost her charm and beauty, still had access to Badshah Rangila…..
‘Chamani Ram Jani’ was the much envied concubine of Itmad-ud-Daula,
Other names of known tawaiyf’s were ‘Baheni’, ‘Firdaus’, ‘Nilofer’, ‘Mumtaz Jaan’, ‘Nassiman Jaan’, ‘Chameni’…. each with a specialty of her own.
Some tawaif’s rose to hold power like- ‘Begum Sumroo‘ aka Begum Joanna Nobilis Sombre aka ‘Farzana Zeb un-Nissa’, popularly known as Begum Samru started her career as a Nautch (dancing) girl in 18th Century India and eventually became the ruler of Sardhana. She was the head of a professionally trained mercenary army, inherited from her European mercenary husband, Walter Reinhardt Sombre, later on; she played a key role in the political power struggle in 18th and 19th century India.
Her palace, now known as Bhagirath (Palace) Place, was at one time known as Chudiwali’s haveli. The palace in Chandni Chowk was built in a garden gifted by Akbar Shah to the Begum (Farzana) when he ascended the throne after the death of Shah Alam in 1806.
Begum Sumroo’s Palace
After the palace had been completed, Gokul Chand, Begum Sumroo’s chief munshi, wrote a acclamation when Akbar Shah visited it, and compared the mahal to something that had come from paradise, “with sweet flowers….whose spring was perpetual.”
‘Bibi Mahruttun Mubarak-ul-Nissa Begum’, who was nicknamed ‘Generalee Begum’ after she had married General David Ochterlony, British Resident in Delhi at the time of Akbar Shah II. General (Sir David) Ochterlony had thirteen wives. The youngest of them was Mubarak Begum. Being far younger than this old general and also because of her skill in singing & dancing she had great influence on the aging general. In no time she began to direct things within the walls of the residency.
After general’s death Mubarak Begum inherited a large fortune and built herself a haveli and a mosque in the garden.
She was getting quite unpopular due to her haughtiness and angered both the British & the Moghuls. The British were angry as she was signing her letters as Lady Ochterlony and the Mughals were unhappy as she had assumed the name of Quidisia Begum which was Emperor’s mother’s name.
Mubarak Begum’s Masjid
The mosque she built is located at Hauz Qazi in old Delhi and called Mubarak Begum’s Masjid but the locals rather crudely refer to it as “Rundee ki Masjid” [or Whore’s Mosque].
They all came from different parts of the country but eventually belonged to “Chawdi Bazaar” in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. They were rich, owned palaces, as magnificent as the aristocracy of the day.
Gauhar Jaan: ‘Greatest woman singer of thumri and khayal’
But they were the ‘Nautch Girls’, the Tawayaifs, the “Raqqassaein” of yonder years.
This is a plate 10 from HH Wilson’s ‘The Oriental Portfolio’. The collection was published in 1841
(British Library archives)
The brothels of Chawdi Bazaar had been shifted by British, outside the Walled City, at a place called ‘Kath Bazaar’, near Lahori Gate but outside the premises of walled city. The Nautch Girls lived in Kath Bazaar well after Independence and were moved elsewhere in 1957.
Where are these ladies, where are their palaces?
Or are they now just–“woh beete daur ki batein….”