AK Gandhi’s book ‘Dance to Freedom: From Ghungroos to Gunpowder’ tells the stories of tawaifs like Azizan Bai, Husna Bai, Begum Samru, Begum Hazrat Mahal and Dharman Bibi

What role did courtesans play in India’s freedom struggle? Why do we know so little about their efforts to liberate our ancestors from colonial rule? Where can we find more information about these women? Take a break from hatewatching Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period drama Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, and read historian-author-translator AK Gandhi’s book Dance to Freedom: From Ghungroos to Gunpowder (2024), published by Fingerprint.

Before you plunge into the stories of Azizan Bai, Husna Bai, Begum Samru, Begum Hazrat Mahal and Dharman Bibi, it is important to understand their lives and work in a historical context. The author points out that tawaifs — who were highly respected during the Mughal period as custodians of art and culture — were clubbed with prostitutes under the British. The decline in patronage diminished the quality of their music and dance, and also their status.

He writes, “Over centuries, tawaifs experienced a stark societal shift — from a period when nobles and the wealthy felt proud of being seen in their company, even sending their children for etiquette training, to a time when they were looked at as a blot on society.” This book focuses on a few among these courtesans who rose above social censure, found their calling as freedom fighters, and displayed their valour by confronting the brutal imperial forces.

Their love for the motherland

This book paints a glorious portrait of Azizan Bai, who was born in Lucknow in 1832. She used to pass secret information gathered from her British patrons to Indian revolutionaries. On some occasions, she even offered shelter and financial assistance to revolutionaries. Worried about her safety, her lover Shamsuddin once asked her, “Aren’t you scared of doing these things? You could land in trouble; you don’t know these white people,” Azizan Bai laughed and replied, “What use is this beauty if it can’t be put to use for the motherland?”

During the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British East India Company — also known as the First War of Independence — Azizan Bai fought with Nana Saheb and Tatya Tope. When Shamsuddin was killed by the British, Azizan Bai remained stoic and wore “a man’s dress, adorned with the shining medals that she had removed from Shamsuddin’s reform.” She had no time to mourn him because she wanted to carry on his work with every fibre of her being.

The author writes, “Several other nautch girls from her kotha too joined her. They played their part in the war by preparing meals and tending to the wounded. Occasionally, they aided in the distribution of ammunition.” Azizan Bai led a group called Mastani Toli, which took care of the troops by engaging them in conversation and singing songs to boost their morale.

Her fierce spirit is best captured in the author’s description of her encounter with General Henry Havelock, a British officer, who assured her that she would be pardoned if she confessed to her crime. Azizan Bai refused to bow down because she did not want to discourage the revolutionaries who had not been caught by the British and were still fighting.

Summoning up all her courage, she said, “You’ve betrayed the country that gave you rights to trade, and you’ve only taken advantage of our weakness. Until recently, you swore allegiance to the Emperor of Hindustan and worked as tax collectors but look at you now.” The general did not expect the courtesan to be so principled in her resistance. She was immediately sent to the gallows to be executed. Her last words were “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Nana Rao Ki Jai”.

Husna Bai from Banaras, another courtesan who is profiled at great length in this book, participated in the freedom struggle in a completely different way. Drawing inspiration from M.K. Gandhi — who had already gained a reputation as the Mahatma for practising and preaching non-violence — Husna Bai established the Kashi Tawaif Sabha in 1921. She appealed to courtesans to join the swadeshi movement and embrace the charkha as a source of livelihood so that they could earn by spinning cotton and singing songs. She urged them to use their musical talents in service of the motherland by focusing on patriotic songs.

The unsung heroes of the freedom movement

One of the most poignant moments in this book is a meeting between Husna Bai and Gandhi. In 1920, when she heard that Gandhi was going to pay a visit to Banaras, she made up her mind to see him. She took a few courtesans along with her. The prevailing attitudes towards courtesans can be well understood from the author’s account. He notes that the volunteers who were involved in crowd management tried to maintain a distance from the courtesans.

He adds, “For common people, it was even more baffling. How could they be seen with the tawaifs on the street in broad daylight?” While some courtesans felt insulted by the glances and unflattering comments, others found humour in the situation. One of them was pleased about the distance. She said, “It’s good for us; at least we won’t be crushed in the crowd.”

When they eventually got a private audience with Gandhi, he said, “Perception is very important in life, so there's a need for you to embrace other walks of life! You have to break free from the shackles of the Dhani (rich man or owner).” Husna Bai wondered what else they could do. At this point, Gandhi said, “Take up the charkha for a livelihood. Why don’t you take the lead? It’s also a part of the Non-cooperation Movement. Rise and emancipate the fallen women as only you can know how to best do it.” Husna Bai took his advice to heart.

While this book does not provide a critique of Gandhi’s conception of “fallen women”, the author does acknowledge the challenges that the courtesans had to face when they decided to walk the path suggested by Gandhi. “Charkha alone cannot sustain us,” said one of Husna Bai’s colleagues. When Husna Bai suggested that they sing religious songs to gain dignity and respectability, she was countered with this remark: “But who will come and listen to religious songs from us? And forget if anyone will ever come with a wad of notes to listen to such songs.” Sadly, even Gandhi who spoke of reform and rehabilitation shunned them.

The author writes, “Paradoxically, the (Kashi Tawaif) Sabha was constituted following the call of Gandhi, yet on numerous occasions, he refused to accept the courtesans as members of the Congress.” No wonder then that courtesans have remained largely unsung in the history textbooks that Indian children read in schools. As the author notes, records of their role in our freedom struggle “were either not created or were wiped out”. He adds, “This was especially the case when a nautch girl was linked to a person who had earned a worthy place in our history, as people thought they could be a blot on the exalted name of the freedom fighter.”

Time to rectify their erasure

We are in 2024, and it is high time that such erasures are rectified. This book is, therefore, a commendable effort. The author also provides substantial accounts of the work done by Begum Hazrat Mahal, Dharman Bibi, and Begum Samru. While Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh is celebrated for her leadership in the 1957 War, the fact that she was a courtesan prior to her marriage to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, is often hidden for reasons of respectability.

The author writes, “The Begum knew that it was not going to be easy, but she detested the British and wanted to do everything that was in her power to chase them out of the country.” She cultivated spies, built alliances to increase the size of her army, and raised funds. She promised to double the salaries of her troops, and offered them rewards for their bravery. She also warned her subjects of the British policy to divide them along religious lines. She put up a massive fight but had to eventually seek refuge in Kathmandu with Jang Bahadur Rana.

This book is packed with many such details gathered from the author’s travels, legends and folktales in the regions that the courtesans hailed from, and the labour of several writers who have written about courtesans in the past—Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Amritlal Nagar, Saba Dewan, Lata Singh, Katherine Butler Schofield, Vikram Sampath, and Ajay Skaria, among others.

Another aspect of this book that is worth mentioning is the striking cover. Oddly, no artist or designer has been credited for this. I learnt from the publisher that Gavin Morris is the person behind the cover art. One hopes that the artist will be duly credited in subsequent editions not only because attractive covers drive book sales but also because artists need to be recognized.

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