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Tawaifs and Baijis, Wenches and Whores…

December 15, 2020 | By

In Mistress of Melodies, Nabendu Ghosh traverses the streets of the ever-changing city of Calcutta to tell the stories of women—courtesans and those who engaged in sex-work—across generations.

Silhouette presents an extensive version of Ratnottama Sengupta’s Editor’s Note in the recently released book, which explores the world of the “fallen woman” and how these women have been looked at by writers and filmmakers, along with the author’s own perceptions about her father Nabendu Ghosh’s works.

Tawaifs and Baijis, Wenches and Whores…Mistress of Melodies

Chhaya. Tagar. Basana. Maanada-Panna-Radha. Hasina. Angelina. Gauhar Jaan… What do these ladies, protagonists of this anthology, have in common? They are all engaged in sexual activity for money.

So what are the sobriquets for them? Prostitute. Street walker. Wench. Call girl. Escort. Harlot. Hooker. Hustler. Vamp. Whore. Temptress. Tart. Puta. Fille de joie. Bawd. Moll. Courtesan. Lady of pleasure. Woman on the game. Lady of the night. Scarlet woman. Concubine. Paramour. Cocotte. Strumpet. Trollop. Wanton woman. Devadasi. Tawaif, Baiji. Ganika. Randi. Veshya…

This is less than half the seventy-five synonyms in Thesaurus for the ‘woman of ill repute’. And this is without going into the term Sex Worker, coined by Carol Leigh, in the last century which has seen people become ‘porn star,’ ‘sex educator,’ ‘sexual trainer,’ and even ‘actress turned prostitute’.

Where did the word Prostitute come from? It is from the Latin word Prostitus, found since the 16th century. But the past participle of Prostiture – whether interpreted as ‘to expose publicly’ or read as ‘thing that is standing’ – does not have the abusive association the most ancient profession has. For that matter, the very phrase ‘Oldest Profession’ – a euphemism for prostitution when delicacy forbade the use of the word – is said to have acquired its opprobrious nuance only in the last lap of 19th century, after Rudyard Kipling used it in On the City Wall (January 1889), a short story about an Indian prostitute. Kipling begins by citing a biblical reference:

Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as everyone knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs…


Nana poster

Emile Zola’s novel Nana was transcreated by Jean Renoir in 1926 (Pic: Wikipedia)

Several majors of world literature have gained from the narrative of such ladies. James Joyce of Ulysses, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Fanny Hill by John Cleland, Shudraka’s Sanskrit classic Mricchakatika, stories by Eugene O’Neil and Henri Maupassant, by Premendra Mitra or Bonophul in Bengali, and even Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure come to mind immediately. And certain titles like Threepenny Opera, Moulin Rouge, Belle de Jour, The World of Suzie Wong are familiar because they lived on stage and screen.

So many more live with us through their forays on celluloid. Emile Zola’s novel Nana was transcreated by Jean Renoir in 1926. George Cukor’s Camille/ 1936 was born out of Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias (1848). Frederico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria/ 1957; Gigi/ 1958, adapted from the 1944 novella of the same name by Colette; Billy Wilder’s Irma la Duce/ 1963; Alan Pakula’s Klute/ 1971; the Hong Kong movie, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan/ 1972; Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver/ 1976; Louise Malle’s Pretty Baby/ 1978; Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha/2005; Gary Marshall’s super-duper hit Pretty Woman/ 1990…

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah/1972

Then there are the Indian classic movies on courtesans and nagar vadhus: K Asif’s  Mughal-e-Azam/1960; Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha/1964; Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali/1966; Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah/1972; Girish Karnad’s Utsav/1984; Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, made in 1981 and then remade in 2006 by J P Dutta; and again his recent Jaanisaar/ 2015.

And our sluts? They too have honourable existence in Bimal Roy’s Devdas/1955, Asit Sen’s Mamta/1966 as also Sharafat/1970; Chander Vohra’s Khilona /1970, Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem/1972; Gulzar’s Mausam/1975; Shyam Benegal’s Mandi/1983; Sudhir Mishra and Anant Balani’s Chameli/ 2003, Pradeep Sarkar’s Laaga Chunri Mein Daag/2007, Srijit Mukherjee’s Rajkahini/2015, remade in Hindi as Begum Jaan/2017 …

Before I exhaust this list, I must make a special mention of Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Mando Meyer Upakhyan/ 2002… This Tales of a Naughty Girl was about a teenager whose mother, a brothel inmate, wants her to marry an old lech for money – but the rebel runs away to Calcutta, to find a new life in school education!

Collectively, and continuously, these names underscore that whether Fallen, Shameful, Sinful or not, the loves and lives of veshyas resound through the heart of the world.


Vidya Balan in Begum Jaan/2017 (Pic: Google Image Search)


Here are some bare facts about the trade: If a person sells parts or organs of the body to mitigate hunger, we feel pity for him. But if a woman sells her ‘virtue’ – another euphemism – we feel disgust. She is deplored, derided, disparaged. It is a grave sin to trade your virtue, even if it is to meet a societal need. So for years the degraded woman could be booked under the law. In England of 1888, Jack the Ripper mutilated the sex organs only of women in prostitution. What is her crime, one may wonder. It is that men pay the ‘shameful creature’ for their sexual gratification!

Has any male ever hated the rag picker or the jamadarni, sweeper who lives off the urban muck? Granted, they are not accorded the front seat in social do’s the way actresses are, but no one subjects them to visceral attack merely for being ‘lowly’ citizens.

Worldwide, whenever a ‘fallen woman’ – yet another euphemism – is mentioned, people picture a siren who lures men into her den and then robs him of his wealth. Reality check: More often than not, she falls in love with a man who ‘marries’ her – sometimes he simply promises to! – or impregnates her, takes her away from her home, and then dumps her if not sell her to a brothel owner. True, some girls are in the profession by the fact of their birth: because her mother is a tawaif, or her father is a low-born natua. Is the ‘husband’ or the father ever made to pay for this form of economic exploitation? Not that I know of.

As a writer and a creative individual Nabendu Ghosh, to quote iconic filmmaker Mrinal Sen, “never believed evil is man’s natural state. Along with his characters he has confronted, fought and survived on hope.” This precisely is what we see in Mistress of Melodies. Be it Chhaya, the widow who is ‘married’ by Balram and deserted soon as she sells her jewellery to secure him a job; be it Tagar, the virgin who is abandoned when she is with child; be it Basana, the orphan who wants to make a home, even if it is with a profiteer; be it Fatima, who takes money from Rustam and then attacks him with a scythe; be it Hasina, the baiji who sells her adolescent daughter to the highest bidder and then finds out that he is the very man who sired the child: no matter how delicate or crude her status is, this writer never looked down upon them. A Gulab Jaan sings like an angel; a dying Radha stands under the lamppost to earn the rent for her Madame. Not for a moment are they mere bodies bereft of soul.

Indeed, a part of their soul continues to pulsate even when they bare their body to loathsome, foul smelling, fetid souls. That is why they have icons of their gods in their dens. That is why Fatima cleans his wound when Rustam returns with a nasty cut. That is why they offer money to the mate who is inhaling only to stop exhaling. They cook for their pimp. Gauhar Jaan listens to the patriotic bard, Chaaran Kavi Mukunda Das and stands up to the imperialists…


This aspect, combined with the fact that she was the first Indian voice to take Hindustani ragas to the world, had fascinated the writer in Nabendu Ghosh. So he penned Mistress of Melodies – in English (the other stories are in translation) – as the first draft for a fuller screenplay. A major voice of 1940s in Bengali literature who moved to Bombay with Bimal Roy in 1951, the multifaceted author is more celebrated as the legend who scripted several classics of the Hindi screen through 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. And as screenwriter too he trained the spotlight on the fact that a body can be stained, not the soul.

A sequence from Woh Chokri, 1994 – directed by Shubhankar Ghosh

Sharifon ka zamaane mein aji woh haal dekha ki, Sharafat chhod di maine… ‘When I saw the way the righteous conduct themselves in this world, I gave up righteousness...’ sang Hema Malini in Sharafat/1970. The blockbuster wherein a feisty courtesan sets out in search of her father was a satire on the hypocritical moral standards of the patriarchal society. Twenty years before this, Nabendu had written both the story and screenplay of Baap Beti wherein the little daughter of a ‘dancer’ – yes, one more euphemism! – residing in a hostel sets out to find the ‘father’ she never had.

Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman in Teesri Kasam

And talking of dancers: in Chanda Aur Bijli, adapted from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, the eponymous Chanda is a ‘street singer’ – a masked portrayal of a woman of easy virtue. Then, in the National Award winning love lyric, Teesri Kasam/1966, dancer Hirabai falls in love with a naïve bullock cart driver Hiraman who places her on the pedestal of a devi, and leaves the itinerant Nautanki company so as not to disillusion him.  Who says that women visited every evening by host of men don’t feel coy when they are taken for a newly-wed bride! Certainly not Sadat Hasan Manto, the Urdu writer who was taken to court for writing about such ladies.

Nor did Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the author of Devdas/1955. He created Chandramukhi, the most beautiful and richest prostitute in Chitpore who “disgusts” Devdas. The heartbroken protagonist still pining for his childhood heartthrob Paro – who is married to an elderly zamindar – leaves the kotha but Chandramukhi does not forget his love for Paro nor undervalue it. On the contrary: she falls in love with Devdas, leaves her profession and devotes herself to him alone. Devdas is perhaps the first on the Indian screen, then, in which a ‘kothewali’ is not hated but an odd woman in love.


vyjayanthimala motilal dilip kumar

Bimal Roy’s Devdas/1955  (Vyjayanthimala, Motilal and Dilip Kumar)

When I say, “Chandramukhi leaves her profession,” I also ask myself: Is this really a ‘profession’? When I hear the term ‘sex worker,’ I also want to know, ‘Did this lady choose this as a career option? Did Chandramukhi apply for the job in a kotha? Do today’s Radha-Maanada-Panna-Bunchi enjoy job security? Promotions? Retirement benefits? Was any one of glamorous Baijis counseled about the abuse inherent in the job? Does the housewife Chhaya hurled into the job have the option of quitting it? Can a Basana go for a career change?’ Because the answer to all my questions are an emphatic NO, I reject the 20th century term that implies prostitution is an innocuous, even wholesome work like a typist’s, or a dentist’s secretary…

And long before I learnt to pose these questions, Nabendu Ghosh showed it is far from the truth. Yes, some – like Hasina – are born into the ‘trade’. But most others are duped, cheated, sold, dumped to rot in dungeons known as brothels, with no escape in sight. Indeed, as ‘Anchor’ drives home with a shock, hunger is the devil that forces a simple housewife to sell her body to lechs. Either she is feast for wild beasts or fodder for depraved lust. Fatima must let the moneylender claw her breasts; else, like Amina, jackals will tear out her flesh…

hand painted poster of Sharafat 1970

Hand painted poster of Sharafat 1970 (Pic courtesy: And They Made Classics…)

The author however had a dream even for these ladies. And One Night they muster courage to leave the darkness of the sinful alley and walk towards a new sun. And one morning Rustam Ali, the sailor who only seeks flesh when his ship docks, finds the anchor of his life in a spunky slut.


Today – as perhaps always? – boys and trans-genders too are prostituted. But women and girls still constitute the vast majority of those trafficked for sex. According to one estimate, in Europe alone 87 percent of the humans in prostitution are women. Why? Perhaps because women are, always, more vulnerable. Physically, because Men Cannot be Raped as the Swedish movie said. Emotionally, because they are mothers. And most easily, economically: because men have been the hunters-soldiers-farmers – in a nutshell, breadwinners…

However, even under these constraints, these ladies – tawaifs, baijis, nautankis, nautch girls – have been custodians and conveyors of India’s classical arts. And that silver lining deserves to be saluted.

(The excerpt from the Editor’s Note of Mistress of Melodies, which forms part of this essay has been published here with permission of the author.)

More to read

Should Phalke, 150, Be Forgotten?

IPR and Indian Cinema: A Scenario of Violation

The Writer, the Hero, Shows Nabendu’s World

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema


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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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