Courtesans, the Unsung Stewards of Culture

The British Raj conflated tawaifs with prostitution and minimized their contribution to the arts and politics, but that was far from reality.

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"Nautch" rose to prominence during the later period of Mughal Empire. Nautch then traveled outside Mughal courts to the higher echelons of the officials of the British Raj. (History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ayesha Le Breton


March 14, 2024

“Kabhi sayyad ka khatka hai kabhi khauf-e-khizan,” wrote 18th-century poet Mah Laqa Bai. “Bulbul ab jaan hatheli pe liye baithi hai.” Between the fear of the fowler and approaching autumn, the bird’s life hangs by a thread. 

Born Chanda Bai, Mah Laqa Bai was the first woman to compile a poetry collection, Gulzar-e-Mahlaqa, with 39 Urdu ghazals. She was a skilled warrior, kathak dancer, classical singer, and a founder of girls’ schools. Her mind and tongue were equally sharp, equipped to spar with politicians such as Hyderabad Prime Minister Mir Alam as well as to negotiate with the Marathas. She was also Hyderabad’s most sought-after courtesan

Bai wasn’t alone in her fame and repute. Courtesans — women who operated outside the traditional confines of society and were talented in the arts — were the authority on culture in pre-colonial India. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir reportedly loved Anarkali, a courtesan. And in 1857, Begum Hazrat Mehal fought in India’s First War of Independence. But the onset of the British Raj heralded a cruel fate, void of respect and recognition, the effects of which linger to this day.

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