Sway against stigma

Sufi Kathak: Manjari Chaturvedi’s relentless efforts aim at shattering the derogatory stigma stapled to Indian courtesans, now the hidden purveyors of art and culture,

Manjari Chaturvedi

The creator and the only performer of Sufi Kathak in the world, Manjari Chaturvedi needs no introduction. For over two decades, she has been working on the spiritual and mystical dance form that people have recognised as her trademark dance style. Born to a geophysicist father who was a professor at IIT Roorkee, and a well-read mother, Manjari has been tirelessly working on changing people’s stigma-ridden perceptions of courtesans in the country for the last five years.

“I was surprised that while I am respected for the art I perform, an artiste of yesteryear who flawlessly sang dadra, thumri and ghazal was being sniggered at. Actually, there was a concert in Delhi, ‘Nazo – An Ode To A Courtesan’, in 2009, where Zareena Begum from Lucknow came to sing old-style compositions that tawaifs (courtesans) and mirasins (singers) sang. And I had performed on them. But I didn’t know the stigma attached to it. In 2014, I met Zareenaji again. She was recovering from a stroke, and while I extended financial help through the Sufi Kathak Foundation, which I run, I found her heart’s desire was to perform on stage in a red Banarasi sari,” she shares.

After organising a seminar on the art of tawaifs and baijis titled The Last Song of Awadh, as also performing for Zareenaji, Manjari researched more on the subject, only to find how, in an extremely unfair record of history based on gender inequality, the men pursuing these arts became ustads while the women pursuing the same became nautch girls. 

“The current generations of the erstwhile male court dancers talk about the family lineage with a sense of pride extolling the greatness of their forefathers as dancers in the royal courts. But the generations of women court dancers live with a sense of shame, never disclosing their lineage or any connection with the erstwhile courts. Somewhere gender discrimination existed in the field of arts and is still not addressed,” she adds.

Born and brought up in the City of Nawabs, Manjari is a postgraduate in environmental sciences from Lucknow University and has trained in the professional category of kathak dance at Kathak Kendra, UP Sangeet Natak Academy. She was trained initially under the guidance of Arjun Mishra in the Lucknow gharana of Kathak, but she is heavily drawn towards Sufi mysticism and is influenced by Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusro and Mawlana Rumi.

The dancer gives credit to author-scholar Pran Nevile (who passed away in October 2018) who penned the book The Nautch Girls of India, which gave details about courtesans and how these brilliant performers were relegated wrongly as ‘nautch girls’.

“The tragedy is that not much has been documented about courtesans in India, especially their performing arts. Pran Nevile has done this huge work on documenting the works of the courtesans and other performers 20 years back. I have deep respect for his book,” avers Manjari.

Bollywood bane

Having performed in more than 22 nations in over 300 shows, she feels the Hindi film industry has also played a role in giving courtesans a bad name. She says that while on one hand, it has brought the tawaifs to the silver screen as an entertainer, which is a positive, on the other, it has been largely used as a form where the term is interchangeable with a sex  worker. “This has been a let down as their art is overshadowed by the need for building masala to tell a story. Courtesans were style icons of their times and there were jewels and clothes customised specially for them! They entertained at a time when there were no films, no television and no multimedia. Hence, these women are equivalent to film stars of our times. This brings my point that we idolise current film stars yet we term courtesans as derogatory. This is sheer injustice. Today, ad campaigns up and flock film stars. If we had ad campaigns back then, the only people endorsing these products would have been these celebrated courtesans,” she weighs in.

For the past five years, Manjari has been consistently either performing the dance of the tawaifs or giving talks on this subject. “I see people coming up and saying, ‘Oh! we didn’t think about this. No one told us about these incredible performers.’ The stories narrated and anecdotes are from the lives and times of a few famous courtesans as part of the concert. We have seen enough fiction based on the lives of courtesans, most of it suited for sheer entertainment. Nothing about their exploration of the arts, the music and dance. This is a narrative that is as per the documentation of their lives available in various historical records.

Stellar start

She goes on: “Many pre-conceived notions about courtesans, such as their sensibilities, lifestyles, emotions, disposition and ethos would be challenged as light is shed upon numerous lesser-known aspects of their lives. I have made a start, and the fact that I am relentlessly invited for performances and talks at various platforms on this subject means we are on the way to break the stigma! At least artistes now feel it okay to say the word tawaif or baiji. I deliberately always use the word tawaif and courtesan in all my performances and talks. One day, we shall soon have people who know more about the incredible women.”

Manjari, through her projects and concerts, strives to work towards spreading the message of love among people. Her body of work spans from earthly romance of Hindi folk to the evolved Sufi imagery of love in Persian poetry, from a beloved in flesh and blood to the abstract presence of the Almighty, from form to formlessness.

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