The singing ladies find a voice


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THE choice of the term singing ladies, ganewali, is a considered one. This is because the term tawaif accumulated over time moralistic, value-loaded connotations which forced these golden throated, articulate and often sharp-tongued ladies into silence. When they did speak, they had to reinvent themselves through polite myths to reinforce their self-esteem which had consistently been battered by references to them as fallen and dangerous women. They had to constantly camouflage their personas, a process crucial for making them into the legends that they were.

By the end of the 19th century tawaif had become an impolite word not used in genteel conversation; in the popular mindset the tawaif was equated to a whore. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand why these women, whose patrons often paid far more to listen to them sing or talk than for sexual favours, went into a self-apology mode in public.

Ironically, though not surprisingly, little remains of the writing of these most educated women of their times. Many did write poetry, but even this seems to have been censored out of literary canon. The little that survives is not easy to find. We thus have many references to these women who wrote but few of their words.

When a ganewali, the late Malka Pukhraj, finally broke through the silence she chose to use the word ganewali instead of tawaif.1 Dismissing the mindset associated with the word tawaif perhaps made it possible for her to write about her life, something no other ganewali had done before. She did not feel the need to apologize, invent or bemoan her fate as a victim of the profession. She not only rejoiced in her achievements but even displayed a few warts. The ganewali finally presented her life to the world with self-pride. In so doing this she both assured herself a unique place in history and also did great service to it. She did not have to invent unlucky stars, aristocratic lineage or a passion for music as an excuse for being a ganewali.



Compounding the silence of these women has been the coyness of scholars, even feminist ones, barring a few rare exceptions.2 Historians of music and musicologists find it easier to deal with them because they confine themselves to their worth as musicians. For mainstream historians, the blinkers are not surprising. By the mid-20th century the moral condemnation of these women had been internalized. This led historians not to notice, or to ignore these ladies and leave gaping holes in social history. The combination of these two hesitations has meant the erasure from history of a profession from which many of the public women emerged. When forced to deal with such woman, their profession was ignored unless it was necessary to pass judgment.

Begum Samru (d. 1836) is a good example of how coyness creates enigmas. The Mughal ruler Shah Alam acknowledged this dynamic woman as his esteemed protector, and the military strategists of the East India Company considered her crucial to their territorial ambitions. Her acquisition of tremendous political, military and economic clout has been documented. Her talents at diplomacy and her political wiles have been noticed, as have her instincts for survival and success. Yet, none of these accounts factor in the fact that she began her professional life as a young tawaif in Delhi. If they had, her success would be far easier to comprehend. It would also provide a fresh perspective on how to treat these women.

Could it have been immaterial that the girl who was sold to a foreign mercenary soon after she entered her teens, the age around which girls entered the profession, was so successful in dealing with the crafty players in a politically volatile and dangerous all male arena? Even from the little we know about their lives, we are aware of the rigorous training that girl-children being readied for the profession were put through. Wouldn’t her training and the skills that she was taught as a young girl being prepared for a public life among men have stood her in good stead when she had to negotiate with foreign soldiers, conspire with war lords, patronize the indigenous male aristocracy as well as extract favours from the Pope? The delicious irony is that from the received images of Begum Samru it is hard to imagine her as the stereotypical, voluptuous siren.



Another ganewali from the same period as Begum Samru survives in the pages of forgotten literature. In 1790 Hasan Shah of Kanpur, at the age of 20, wrote the first autobiographical novel in Hindi-ised Farsi. The original is no longer available though an Urdu version, Nashtar, translated a century later is, as is an English translation. According to Qurratulain Hyder, this was the ‘first known modern Indian novel.’3 If this is so, it is instructive that a ganewali should be the heroine of the first Indian novel.

Hasan Shah was deeply in love with Khanum Jan, the heroine of his novel. He later married her though it stayed their secret. Professional circumstances separated them and Khanum Jan died of heartbreak. Hasan’s recollection of his tragic love is idealized, romantic and tragic. Khanum Jan is a victim of her birth but manages to keep her ‘virtue’ intact and longs to escape from the vices of the ‘bawdy house’ through marriage. Sahib Jan of the film Pakeezah appears to have been patterned on her. Khanum Jan’s voice comes through, but only faintly and filtered through the heartbreak of her lover. If she is expansive, it is about love and perceived betrayal in the letters she wrote to her husband before she died.



In the novel, Khanum Jan’s milieu is much richer and more expressive. She was a part of a troupe of deredar tawaifs – those living in mobile encampments. These travelling entertainers begin to feature in the literature from the 18th century. Prostitutes have always followed armies but these tawaifs were a part of a much larger, organized establishment. The troupe camped wherever a member found a rich man who fancied one of the girls. The troupe that Khanum Jan belonged to moved in the Kanpur, Varanasi and Lucknow area. They sought custom from British civil or military officers.

There were girls from Kashmir in the troupe. Contracts for temporary concubinage were sought and the whole group was hired to entertain when one of the girls found a patron. Evidently it was well-organized prostitution. However, it was in its frills that the strength of the institution lay. All the girls were well educated, prominent in their repertoire being the Persian ghazals of Hafiz. They knew how to sing, dance and, most important, converse. Having raised coquetry to a fine art they also knew how to extract favours in the most refined manner. The communication and persuasive skills of Begum Samru were obviously not all that uncommon. Neither were her skills with languages. Recollect the situation described in Nashtar. Here was a group of small-time deredar girls who spoke to each other in Kashmiri, pondered over the meaning of Persian ghazals, danced, sang Indian folk songs with joy and managed not only to negotiate with European men but debate with them about the meaning of Persian couplets.



Before the appearance of the next important tawaif in literature – Umrao Jan – a member of another Khanum Jan’s establishment in the bustling chowk of Lucknow more that a century later, the role of the ganewali’s had changed in many ways. The court and aristocracy of Awadh attracted many tawaifs to the state, a firmly entrenched part of urban life during the 19th century. With the expansion of towns and an increasingly expanding circle of patrons, their world turned into one of opportunity where wealth, fame and power were easily within the reach of those with the will and skills. For those wanting to settle down, there was also the option of economically comfortable life as one of the wives of a rich man. Tawaifs had also established their place as arbiters in the cultural milieu of the period.

From the time that official data is available, tawaifs are the only women listed as property owners and the only ones paying income tax. The encampment had not been entirely abandoned because the notional connection to the original deredars was of extreme importance for these women. However, the more permanent kotha, or the first floor salon, became the new home for the singing ladies. They were, however, ready to leave its comforts for the right offer but never travelled unescorted.



The lady who controlled these kothas usually knew everything that was going on in her establishment. She kept a sharp eye on careers and finances, investing mainly in property and jewellery. Keen to arrange marriages for her dull protégés, she did all to keep her stars from getting permanently attached. They were all very devout. Many were given to the use of intoxicants and it was not uncommon for them to smoke the huqqa in public.

The mistress also supervised the education and training of her girls as a single-minded mission. The ganewalis were perhaps the best educated of women. The more talented also trained under the best music and dance ustads, even if only for brief periods. In fact, they were valued patrons of poets, scholars, holy men and, most importantly, talented male musicians and dancers who were willing to teach them for a pittance in return for good meals and perhaps a place to stay. Sections of the ground floor of their establishments were kept vacant for musicians and visiting teachers. The belief that richer ganewali’s, given the feebler economic status of male musicians, exploited the reputation of ustads by hiring them briefly as teachers is uncharitable. A stray remark of Malka Pukhraj points to another possibility: that some teachers might have been eager to add their name to the roster of ustads of an about-to-be-star in order to enhance their own future employability.

The ladies controlling these establishments had a few male assistants. These assistants could be relations but were in her payroll. The male children were the deprived gender, entirely dependent on the mothers and sisters. They either acted as gofers, small-time pimps, or were set up in small businesses or professions. When married, their wives looked after the household chores. It was the girls in whose education investments were made. Property too passed from mother to daughter.

The ganewali’s kept open house with their own unwritten code of social behaviour. Anyone who was generous, and well-behaved, was welcome. The right introductions and social status too mattered. Special visitors might come in private to meet their current flame, but all were welcome to watch any of the ganewali’s perform. The size of the expected offering was not openly discussed, but displeasure was politely communicated. The artifice of extracting gifts was unbelievably sophisticated. There was a large and varied mixture of people frequenting the busier kothas. Aristocrats rubbed shoulders with merchants or the outlaws. Poets and faqirs were always welcome.



Linked as they were to the urban milieu the ganewalis were also very conscious of civic issues which set them apart from other women. It is thus not surprising that the kothas became centres of conspiracy and many ganewalis joined in the rebellion of 1857. The interrogation of a ganewali from Kanpur is recorded. There are unsubstantiated accounts of girls taking to the streets in a battle with British soldiers. There are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of these women in the rebellion but most seem to have gone unrecorded. A shame; if only the tawaifs had left diaries the way the memsahibs did!

However, the role of ganewalis in the rebellion can best be judged from the ferocity of the British retribution that was directed against them once the rebellion was quelled. There was large-scale appropriation of their property. They were harassed by new public health regulations and their presence in society was sought to be curtailed through new zoning laws. But the ganewalis were tough ladies and were soon back in business. They became even more conscious of government policies and often organized themselves for joint action.

Our next well-known ganewali, Umrao Jan appears at the end of this period. She was a young woman during the mutiny but it was only in the 20th century (1905) that she made an appearance in the novel by Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa (1857-1931.)



The work is fictional. However, it is apparent that the heroine of the novel is based on a real character. Ruswa had luckily found a remarkable informant. And her disguised voice is far clearer than Khanum Jan’s in Nashtar. Umrao Jan was a successful professional and not on the fringes of the establishment unlike Khanum Jan. She also had a longer and much fuller life and her biographer, a far better novelist, realized the importance of her words. More crucially, she had in Ruswa a chronicler who relished leading her on not just into her own life but also those of many of her contemporaries.

Ruswa too, however, had to pay the necessary homage to morality. In the opening pages of the novel he has Umrao describe herself most often as: an unhappy wretch who has drifted through life without any mooring; a homeless vagrant who has brought shame upon her family; a woman whose name will be as disgraced in the world to come as it is in the world today.4

Umrao Jan would have probably been born around the time Begum Samru died. Ruswa, according to the novel, was a good friend of Umrao Jan. Both were poets; the friendship between tawaifs and poets has a long history preceding Jurrat (1748-1810), the poet who wrote Rekhti in the voice of the tawaifs he was friends with. A similar friendship was meaningful for the streetwalker who lures the poet with his own poetry in the film Pyaasa. Internal evidence suggests that the information about the world of the kotha in the novel could only have come from an insider. Ruswa claims he coaxed his friend to tell him about her life which she did in sittings interspersed with poetic exchanges.



The setting of the novel is a kotha of deredar tawaifs, a large establishment with a hierarchy of tawaifs. Umrao is bought from her kidnappers and trained alongside the daughter of the lady in charge. The daughter prefers to become a mistress while Umrao Jan pursued a career, not letting her heartbreaks, misadventures or social upheaval get in the way.

Umrao Jan lived through the rebellion of 1857. She was forced to leave Lucknow and her establishment was looted. Khanum Jan set up her own kotha and then retired into a comfortable life. Through Ruswa, Umrao Jan often berates herself, her life and her profession. However, when urged, she retails juicy gossip about her life with apparent joy and little remorse. She, not too reluctantly, even admits to smoking and use of opium and alcohol.

The token self-condemnation was essential for the novel given the overpowering social attitudes of the period against tawaifs. Having dealt with the anger of the colonial power, the tawaifs now had to face a strident, and fatal, attack from the reformers in their own society. Their profession was condemned and they were branded as wicked. The presence of Gauhar Jan, India’s first recording megastar, at a Congress session was objected to by respectable lady supporters and the singer asked to keep away. Yet the ganewali continued to raise money for the party. It is said that once, piqued that Gandhi did not show up for one of her fund-raising events, sending a representative instead, she donated only half of what she had promised. Many other ganewali’s also generously gave of their time when they had to raise money for charity. Jaddan Bai financially helped the left-leaning Progressive Writers Association.



Despite the social opprobrium, the ganewalis had no shortage of fans or success. The most notable among the series of stars was Malka Jan, an interesting character even though details available about her are confusing. She was ostensibly Armenian and like other Eurasian and women from many European countries had entered the profession. Married to a European, the lady already knew how to ‘sing and to dance’, and after the birth of a daughter, abandoned her husband and moved to Varanasi to revive her career. She was also a poet though like the poetry of many other ganewalis, it too is almost impossible to find. She also trained her daughter Gauhar Jan to become the first superstar ganewali of the 20th century.

Gauhar Jan (d. 1930) was a superstar of the new century. The gramophone had been introduced into India in the early years of the 20th century and naturally the recording companies headed for the ganewalis in search of talent. In Gauhar Jan they found a star. She successfully adapted to the difficult task of recording for gramophone discs. Starting in 1902 she is eventually rumoured to have recorded 600 discs in seven languages (The actual number might be a more realistic 150). Her audience was large and she became a popular icon, in demand for advertising. She also had a profound influence on subsequent music. Finishing a ghazal or a khayal in less than three minutes while still leaving time to announce one’s name was no easy job; the best musicians lost their nerve when they had to do it. Gauhar Jan mastered the technique and thus defined the nature of recorded music till the next technological revolution.



Gauhar Jan, epitomized another important characteristic of the ganewali –mobility – harking back to the deredar origins. Her legendary carriage was loaded onto the train because she did not like to travel without it. In Calcutta she drove around in an open carriage drawn by four horses in defiance of British law and social approval. Her mobility and public appearance were stark symbols of her self-belief. She sang Tagore’s songs, with his permission, but set to her own tunes, a privilege not allowed to others till the recent ending of the copyright covering the Tagore compositions.5

The star value of those who became popular through their recordings helped the ganewalis to successfully transit as concert artistes at ticketed performances. More so once social change and decline of rich patrons made the stage the main platform for the ganewali. The ganewali’s, pressured by the shrill voices of their liberal nationalist critics, began to move into areas other than the recording industry. Theatre and films were two other options and the ganewalis naturally left their mark there too.

Malka Pukhraj was a younger contemporary of Gauhar Jan and as a young girl recalls being present at a performance of the aging star. Her ascent coincided with the last years of Gauhar Jan. But before we move from Gauhar Jan to Malka Pukhraj we need to look at another contemporary of theirs.



This was the remarkable Jaddan Bai, an extremely popular ganewali. She, perhaps like few others, had sensed the opportunity encoded in cinema for a career change to fit the times. She also understood the power of social ostracism against the ganewali. She had moved from being a successful and respected performer to becoming a producer and actress. She then concentrated on preparing her daughter Nargis for a profession in the entertainment industry. Ironically, her sons too joined the business but came nowhere close to their sister’s success. Nargis was taught everything except how to sing. With the success of Nargis, both as a star and a public figure, the cover up of the origins or these artistes was complete. The gana had been successfully withdrawn from the treasures bequeathed to a ganewali’s daughter.

Jaddan Bai had the foresight to sense the inevitable as the Indian liberals got closer to power. She chose wisely for her talented daughter and prepared her for tremendous success. Those who continued to be ganewalis had to deal with the indignity of All India Radio insisting that its female singers be married, even insisting that they use a separate entrance so that their presence at recordings wouldn’t offend regular, well-born staffers.

Malka Pukhraj, like many other of her talented peers, survived this change without having to give up singing. These remarkable women survived to enrich music because of their grit. Their individual lives followed different trajectories but within the same pattern.



In tracing the course of Malka Pukhraj’s interesting life, a reference to Begum Akhtar is necessary. Both she and Malka Pukhraj were about the same age and, though competitors, were never rivals. The two, whose main popular forte was the Urdu ghazal, became the brightest stars of tawaifi music ensuring that the ghazal was firmly established as a popular musical genre right into the 21st century. Though the more acclaimed singer, Begum Akhtar remained a biographer’s nightmare because of her need to live her life as a series of myths. Malka Pukhraj, on the other hand, was disarmingly candid, even if her critics were disappointed at the lack of the masala they were looking for.

Begum Akhtar was the daughter of a reasonably successful ganewali. Put through the grind early in life, she moved from native Faizabad, the original capital of the Awadh nawabs, to Calcutta to learn and prepare for a career. She had to go through rigorous, back-breaking training. She started giving private and public performances the moment she was considered ready. She worked in plays, made recordings and movies before settling down to a career as a concert singer. A heart breaker, she was in tremendous demand with rich patrons willing to pay a fortune for the mere pleasure of her company. Legends attribute the destruction of many fortunes to her.

Malka was born in a not easily accessible village in Akhnoor district of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Her mother returned to her peasant parents when pregnant, unhappy with her husband who ran gambling dens in Jammu where she had gone, probably looking for a career of her own. Early in her daughter’s life she decided that she had to master ‘all the skills’ and become ‘famous’ and wanted her daughter to achieve all that had eluded her. She even reconciled with her husband so that her daughter could be educated in Jammu. From there on she ensured that her daughter was not idle for a moment. She then took her to Delhi where she learnt Kathak and improved her Urdu diction. While in Delhi she had learnt enough to attract listeners to her home and began to earn money to support her establishment.



Both Begum Akhtar and Malka Pukhraj came from exclusive establishments. Their mothers were their managers and there were no other competitors. Malka Pukhraj might not have not broken as many hearts as Begum Akhtar nor achieved equal eminence as a singer as far as the critics were concerned, but she ran a close second even though Begum Akhtar, an Urdu speaker, enjoyed a clear linguistic edge. Both began smoking while still children. However, while Begum Akhtar had to struggle in her initial years, Malka had a dream debut.

Hari Singh, the new ruler of Jammu and Kashmir was coronated in 1923. Malka Pukhraj and her mother returned to the state in advance of the coronation. In the enthusiastic preparations for the event she was soon spotted and since she was from the riyasat, she was not only chosen to sing at the coronation but subsequently employed at the court on magnanimous terms.

She soon became close to Hari Singh who developed a paternal protectiveness towards the young ganewali. His fondness for her provoked much salacious comment beyond the inner court circles. Malka Pukhraj, thankfully, enlightens us to the nature of their bonding. They were like girlfriends, she recalls. Far from being allowed a wanton life, the ruler ensured that she lived a protected life, supervising her social contacts. Her proximity to the ruler and her regular presence, probably the only woman, at the evening gatherings when the Maharaja relaxed, placed her in very dangerous territory.



The court of the Maharaja, in the 1920s, was beginning to see polarization on communal lines. The British were keenly interested in the developments and kept a close watch. Malka Pukhraj as the only woman, and a Muslim at that, in court circles, was particularly vulnerable.

She became the target of an abusive press campaign, a price she had to pay for her lucky start. Stories about her were particularly good copy for Diwan Singh Maftun, an Urdu journalist who edited the journal Riyasat. The magazine specialized in the sleazy and nefarious goings-on in various princely states. He was frequently sued and often had to settle the disputes out of court.

Maftun’s6 pathological dislike for tawaifs bordered on misogyny. Malka Pukhraj was ideal subject for a barrage of innuendo with a suggestive dash of intrigue. He played on her name and used it as a proof of her political ambitions. Ranbir, a Jammu publication was equally relentless , its ire directed at the treacherous Muslim lady singer close to the ruler and who was plotting to kill him. This was in the late 1920s, a volatile time in this mountain kingdom. Perhaps this was when Malka Pukhraj first understood the power of the published word as a weapon of combat.



Living in Jammu and Kashmir as the court singer she enjoyed a ringside view of important developments. With her remarkably vivid writing, she chronicles the changes in the state, passionately observant and articulate about the lives of Muslims of her city. She described what she saw and is refreshingly free of post-partition prejudices and postures. When she, as a Muslim, was dragged deeper in court intrigue, good sense prevailed and she sought permission to leave. A whiff of scandal lingered over the circumstances of her departure but there is no reason why we should not believe her when she says that the decision was a personal one.

She moved to Lahore. Her fame and notoriety ensured that she was already known and had an audience waiting. So far she had only performed at royal functions and therefore there were many who were eager to see her. She was in demand the moment her mother settled in a kotha in Lahore. One of the first things they did was to bring over her grandfather’s tonga and horse from the village. Soon she bought a car for herself, ensuring that no one could make her stay longer than she wanted whenever she was invited out.

They are many wonderful insights, both personal and professional that her memoirs provide. She opens up a window to the working ganewali’s life. Her experiences with royalty are funny and dramatic. Her patrons are varied and interesting. There was the man who thought he could woo her by talking about his constipation. Another wanted noth-ing more than for her to listen to him recite Shakespeare. Her mother took care of the dashing dandy, an upstart with a colourful sexual past. Far from selling sexual favours, she had men offering gifts – ranging from specially designed jewellery to dogs – all for the pleasure of her company. Her mother and other relatives were always around. She could be alone with any visitor until the moment her mother sensed that she was vulnerable; all her conversations were eavesdropped upon.



Our heroine is far from a trollop. Her virtue had first been guarded by a protective Maharaja and then by a determined mother. And it was against this control that she rebelled, first in her fantasies and then in real life. By breaking free when she was ready, she remade life, both as woman and as an artiste. Malka Pukhraj became an acknowledged and much loved singer of the subcontinent and performed till late in her life. Like Begum Akhtar, she had been able to negotiate a deal between her marriage and a career.

Malka Pukhraj’s decision to write about her life is not a surprising. Her determination to see it through till its publication was an amazing act of courage. By temperament she was a doer who liked to keep herself busy. She had time on her hands after her career as a performing artiste tapered off. She liked to read and was proud of her own education. She believed she not only had wonderful stories but the skills to tell them. Above all, she was proud of what she had achieved in her life.

She started writing her story with tremendous enthusiasm sometimes in the 1980s in the seventh decade of her life. The commitment to producing a memorable autobiography is clear from the text. A number of earlier drafts provide evidence of the neatly written chapters of the first half of the book, lucid and legible.



However, somewhere in the middle of the text a change of approach is apparent. I say this because I mentioned her determination to see the book through. As someone who has been close to the text and discussed it with her, it is important to record what happened; it might help those who want to use the book as source material.

Her very genteel and socially well-placed family began to fear the book. Knowing her as they did, I am not surprised that they were apprehensive about what she might reveal. Her earlier attempts were clearly crystallizing into a path-breaking autobiography. Like most families they did not want her to go public with some of the goings-on.

Clearly she was pressurised to abandon her work. Suddenly, in midstream, her writing changes; the chapterization is abandoned. The second half of the book is a mere paragraph. A scrawl replaces the neat writing. Her determination to complete the book seems to become her paramount aim. That she stopped herself from saying many things she would have liked to is likely. But complete it she did.

Publication apparently was the next problem. She surmounted that too by her instincts at finding the right allies and her characteristic defiance.

Whenever her original manuscript is published, it is sure to find a respectable place in Urdu literature. Even in translation, it provides illustration of how history changed from the ganewali as a camp-follower to a woman with generations of camp followers.



1. Song Sung True: A Memoir, edited and translated by Saleem Kidwai, Kali for Women, Delhi, 2003. The original in Urdu, Bezubani Zubaan Na Ho Jaye, is still unpublished.

2. See Veena Talwar Oldenberg, Making of Colonial Lucknow, OUP, Delhi 1989, p. 134 and ‘Lifestyles as Resistance’, in Violette Graffe (ed.) Lucknow: Memories of a City, OUP, Delhi, 1997, 136-54.

3. Hasan Shah’s The Nautch Girl, translated by Qurratulain Hyder, Sterling Paperbacks, New Delhi, 2003, p. 5.

4. The Courtesan of Lucknow: Umrao Jan Ada, Trans. Khushwant Singh and M.A. Husaini, Orient Paperback, nd. p. 17.

5. See Qurratulain Hyder’s extremely valuable introduction and notes in Nashtar, ibid.

6. See Diwan Singh Maftun, Naqabil e Faramosh, Maktab Sher o Adab, Lahore, first published 1957.