Tawaif was a concubine who catered to the Muslim nobility of South Asia, particularly during the Mughal era.


The patronage of the Mughal court before and after the Mughal Dynasty in the Doab region and the artistic atmosphere of 16th century Lucknow made arts-related careers a viable prospect. As well as the demand for (mostly) male music and dance teachers, many girls were taken at a young age and trained in both performing arts (such as Kathak and Hindustani classical music) as well as literature (ghazal, thumri) to high standards. Once they had reached greater maturity and possessed a sufficient command over their arts, they then became tawaif, high-class courtesans who served the moneyed and the nobility. These courtesans would dance, sing, recite poetry and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often ancillary to this, it was not always a foregone conclusion that at the end of the night a tawaif would choose a lucky suitor to take to as her lover. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors.

Popular culture

The figure of the tawaif has had an enduring appeal, being celebrated in Bollywood films. Films with a tawaif as a central character include Tawaif (film) (1985), Pakeezah (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981) (and Umrao Jaan (2006 film) – a re-make), and Devdas (2002). As well as this, there are many films with a tawaif in a supporting role.


Today, the term in Urdu has undergone semantic pejoration and is now synonymous with 'prostitute'.

See also


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