Scintillating Tales of the Courtesans of Old Delhi – A Heritage Walk by Dr. Navina Jafa

I had the pleasure to walk around Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi with heritage specialist Dr Navina Jafa a few weeks ago. The selected thematic trajectory was on the heritage and history of tawa’ifs, the geishas of yesteryears. Dr Jafa is a master storyteller and with her research of more than 15 years on the courtesans of India, this was much more than a heritage walk. Dr Jafa is also a Kathak dancer and that explains her passion to bring out long lost tales of India’s original dancers.

In her own words, “Heritage walks in a city can emerge as a platform for creating debates on issues. My walk on Tawa’ifs presents the idea of women as public entertainers specific to North India, and who were part of a larger category of women artists called Natuch Girls, a term which I explain is dismissive and derogatory. The question is about both the location of these women entertainers, and the example of gender politics. The women entertainers in public space in the centuries gone by were organized in complex sociological matrix of caste, class and skills. They too were part of an economic system.

While some made a living by selling their bodies and were mere prostitutes, some others were repositories of knowledge of arts, refined mannerisms, and languages. Beyond the colonial narrative were these artist women located in various spaces which offered patronage. The temples, courts, aligned to landed gentry, and then in markets. Patrons in form of Brahmins, rulers, and merchants sought to be entertained and educated through interaction and personal equations which had their own rules and dynamics. Thus these women were called Devadasis, Maharis, and Tawa’ifs. The spotlight of the walk was that category of artistes, and educated refined women who lived in urban spaces outside the court and temple and in the bazaars, and were equated as Tawa’if and perceived as prostitutes in North India.

 It must be recalled that in the category of sixty four arts were also a sexual expertise. And this frame of thinking is a view which is out of the frame of colonial Christianity which perceives senses and sexuality as a  sin. The colonizers flattened women as public entertainers conveniently as nautch girls, the impure ones, and the Western educated social and religious reformers promoted this view through the Anti Prostitution Movement and all traditional women entertainers in public domain were seen to be prostitutes…”

Heritage Walk - Courtesans of Old Delhi

Credits – Shutterstock

Dr Jafa’s narrative explained that in the Indian context, these women called the tawaifs were organized in intricate social categories. They excelled in and contributed to music, dance, theatre, the Urdu literary tradition, and were considered an authority on etiquette. This Heritage Walk specifically brought out fascinating stories to recreate the world of Tawa’ifs in the historical space of city of Shahjahanabad, where they dwelled until the first half of the 20th Century.

Walking through the narrow alleys of what was once Shahjahanabad, we realised that there cannot be a greater irony tucked away in the streets of Delhi than that of courtesans who lived in the lanes of Chawri Bazar, and afterwards were relocated to GB Road, the Red light area. Maybe their Thumris of love and longing were so beautiful because they were aware of the fact that love isn’t for them. Like caged birds, they sang melodious songs, only to be denied everything, including hope. If you look closely, a lifetime of legends associated with these enigmatic women still hang around in the narrow lanes of Chawri. These lanes entice a keen observer with subtle hints about a not so distant past, parts of which have been preserved, but rather unintentionally.

With Dr Jafa, a bunch of untold stories of these supposedly ‘badnam-galiyan’ came alive, as if  to re-live the bygone era of mujras and mehfils one more time. We began the adventure before Chawri Bazar woke up to it’s chaotic best. With most shops still closed and the eateries only opening up to prepare for the day, this was the perfect time for a walk and talk. An excited bunch of travel bloggers followed Dr Jafa through these narrow lanes, trying to embrace it all – the stories, the ironies and the myths which are so overdone, they seem closer to reality than actual truth.

Heritage Walk - Courtesans of Old Delhi

Credits – Alka Kaushik

We came across many old, withering structures, which still had traces of a time gone by. Dr Jafa pointed out how these buildings are a piece of the past, with jharokhas that are characteristic of those times. These jharokhas were used by the ladies to attract men hovering around in the lanes below. Typically, the areas where these kothas or brothels were located became a hub of activity. These were located in market areas and business centers of those times, where men spent their days. As Dr Jafa points out, the courtesans indulged in dance, music and poetry, shops sprang up beside their homes which sold itr or perfume, flowers and ornaments which could be used by men to please these influential ladies. It would be correct to even mention that these areas indulged in the business of pleasure to all the five senses!  

Walking along Chawri Bazar,  Dr Jafa pointed out a structure which had these characteristic Jharokhas and suddenly everything that she had shared with us made perfect sense. This structure seemed almost uninhabited, and hence untouched, as if inviting us to come have a look. Heritage Walk

Heritage Walk - Courtesans of Old Delhi

Today, Old Delhi and great food are kind of synonymous and one cannot exist without the other. Dr. Jafa’s research on urban spaces and tawa’if culture brings out the story of courts and bazaars in Rampur (UP), Delhi (Chawri Bazaar), Varanasi (Dal Mandi), Lucknow (Chowk), and even referred to Agra and Hira Mandi in Lahore. All these areas are where the courtesans dwelled. Those Tawaifs in Bazaars were frequented by men of all social classes. They were also business centers where men spent their entire day. So, food stalls mushrooming up there made perfect sense. Men of class also came to these women to appreciate their art, whether in form of music, poetry, dance or love-making, but for the most of them, it was beyond their fragile egos to share a meal with these ladies. That also explains why hundreds of food joints sprung up in these areas. Also, the famous quote often used by Bollywood -‘ Niche chai ki dukan, Upar gori ka makaan‘ might have it’s roots tucked away in these lanes. Heritage Walk

The brothels were matriarchal systems which were fairly independent in nature though they employed men for odd jobs as well as those who could teach music, art, poetry and dance to the ladies of the household. The courtesans were trained professionals, who were passionate about their art of entertainment through music, dance and literature. Young boys were sent to these women to educate them about music, poetry and sometimes, the etiquette to behave with women and even love-making. These visits were not frowned upon per se,  but were a part of growing up. Heritage Walk

Another very interesting fact that Dr. Jafa shared was that “…The tawa’ifs  in North India also played her social and political role, for example in Lucknow I got records in houses of landed aristocrats on Tawai’fs sheltering the rebels of the war of 1857 and providing them with money and food. Then when I visited in Varanasi, the home of Agha Hashar, an eminent poet and playwright who later went to Bombay and contributed hugely to the growth of the Parsi theatre, his son told me of the tawa’if who sheltered Chandrashekhar Azad as he dodged the police. Who would have thought to go and check for a revolutionary nationalist in the house of tawa’if? Heritage Walk

Heritage Walk - Courtesans of Old Delhi

Credits – Alka Kaushik

They even played a silent yet important role in India’s independence struggle but it’s a sad reality that not many acknowledge their efforts. Like stated above, legend is that it was a courtesan who hid Chandrashekhar Azad in her home when Britishers were out looking for him everywhere. There are many untold stories of such kind with these strong women lending a helping hand to our freedom fighters, but then we are a society of hypocrites who would not acknowledge these tales.

While these highly qualified courtesans played their unacknowledged part in the freedom movement, they were payed back in cruelty after independence. Though music was in their veins, Sardar Patel refused to allow them into the studios of All India Radio. They were forced to vacate their traditional homes in Chawri Bazar and many had to resort to prostitution to keep alive in GB Road. A lot of these women who were trained professionals found their way to Bollywood, which embraced their beauty and talent unlike the All India Radio. The first of the Bollywood beauties like Meena Kumari, Naseem Bano , Madhubala (both Naseem Bano and Madhubala were from Shahjahanabad) were said to have come from these infamous lanes.

In Dr Jafa’s words “The tawa’if unfortunately is the story of women, first dismissed by being bunched in one category, then marginalized in the name of unclean prostitutes, and finally when they are completely ostracized they get recreated as the exotic sensual symbol of an elusive woman perceived as mystical and the pure – the Pakheeza . Has anyone heard their silent sobs or seen their tears? How dare people try to recreate them….!”

Isn’t it a perfect irony that the dwelling place of women who were looked down upon, never accepted as a part of society and not allowed to marry (but were sold or married on contract) is the exact same place which today hosts shops of everything related to weddings, be it cards, jewellery, traditional clothes and a thousand other things associated with weddings.  Isn’t it like they’re smiling from the frescos where they are immortalized, telling us that how much ever India tries, it cannot eliminate their involvement in the journey of Chawri Bazars across India.

Walking the lanes of Chawri Bazar, reliving an era that has been wiped off in the name of respect and society, we remembered many famous courtesans that day. Dr Navina’s extensive research on these ladies is a well of knowledge that has been acquired by the means of countless visits to the areas across North India where courtesans used to dwell(Rampur, Old Delhi, Lucknow, Benaras to name a few) and coaxing people to talk about things they would rather keep to themselves. Little is documented about the women who were pillars of influential courtrooms across the country. Heritage Walk

I cannot thank Dr Jafa enough for sharing such intriguing stories and points of view with us, that are a part of her extensive research, which will soon be published in the form of a book. While walking with her through Chawri Bazar, many a times we noticed strangers listening closely while pretending to be unaware of the fact that they are eavesdropping. Such is the power of her stories, and such is the enigma of those women who were once the courtesans of Old Delhi.Heritage Walk

We concluded the walk at the Haveli of Mirza Ghalib with an enchanting Kathak performance by Dr Jafa. Sans any music but with Ghalib’s words in the background and Dr Jafa’s graceful moves, most of us were transported back to the world of enigmatic dancers whose lifetimes are buried in the lanes of Old Delhi. It was a perfect conclusion to the untold stories of the courtesans as well as a beginning of the new ones that I am dying to read in Dr Jafa’s upcoming book, Moving Histories:The World of Kathak DanceHeritage Walk

Heritage Walk - Courtesans of Old Delhi

Credits – Alka Kaushik


  1. This piece reminds me of the movie ‘Umrao Jaan’. It’s sad to know the courtesans weren’t treated well after Independence. Bollywood that way deserves praise for being more accepting. I find it annoying that no action is ever taken against patrons – supply follows demand and inaction against other parties speaks of double standards and gender discrimination.
    Thanks to Dr. Jafa for taking the effort to educate us about pieces of history that would almost certainly be forgotten otherwise and thank to you for bringing this post to us.

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