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
) 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.
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)
(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'.