No, Tawaif & Kotha Didn’t Belong To Elite Culture: An Experience Of Z. A. Bukhari

Tawaif and kotha were looked down upon in the Indian society and any man visiting them could face social boycott as well. A case study of Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari's experience in early 20th century Delhi.

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In recent decades scholars of Indian Muslim culture have argued that Tawaif belonged to respectable echelons of the society during the late 19th & early 20th century India. The support to this claim is provided through Urdu poetries and royal patronage provided to them. I do not know if they will extend the argument with everyone getting patronage of political dispensation in present times as ‘respectable’.

 The experiences of Urdu speaking ‘elite’ ‘shurfa’ of north India is vastly different from how the present scholars look at the respect of tawaifs and go on to add that the elite of Delhi and Lucknow would send their sons to kothas to learn etiquettes. 

To study in context one should read into the account of Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari’s first visit to kotha in 1936-37. Z. A. Bukhari, himself a well-known Urdu author and radio presenter, was the younger brother of Ahmad Shah Bukhari (better known as Patras Bukhari), one of the most popular satirists in the Urdu language. The elder one was a professor at Lahore, friends with famous poet Muhammad Iqbal and a teacher of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Bukhari belonged to what we can call the upper strata of Urdu culture in the early 20th century. 

Z. A. Bukhari & Patras Bukhari

In 1935, just before the War broke out in Europe, Lionel Fielden was sent to India to set up a radio broadcasting service, which eventually came to be known as All India Radio. Z. A. Bukhari was the first Indian recruited by Fielden and helped in setting up the radio station in Delhi. 

The first challenge was to start music programs on the radio. It was unimaginable in India because singers were tawaifs. What people thought of these twaifs should be read in the words of Fielden, the first head of All India Radio, “But the worst hurdle was the performers. Music and mummers were matters held in low repute, rather as Quakers might have regarded them a century before. When I got to India they were almost entirely (the ballet was an exception) in the hands of prostitutes and pimps.

No man or woman of the upper or middle classes of India would stoop to the practice of music or acting. This posed a serious problem. There was I, supposed to produce an entertainment service for India, and there were my most likely clients, holding up their hands in horror at the very idea. Moreover, the notion – rapidly spread and embroidered – that I was going to pay colossal sums to all performers, naturally made matters much worse. I was encouraging prostitution, that was what it came to: and it followed, of course, that the favours of all prostitutes were mine at will. It was Zulfaqar who, with great tact and ability, induced a campaign to show that ‘prostitutes’ was a misleading word.”

Z. A. Bukhari & Lionel Fielden

This was in fact the campaign by Zulfiqar Bukhari to put in the minds of the public that tawaifs are not prostitutes and are respectable. But, was it really true? His own experience was much different.

In his autobiography, Sarguzisht, Zulfiqar Bukhari recalled that when it was decided that there would be music performances on the radio to get performers was a difficult task. Initially, he believed that once the word of opening up a radio station and the requirement for singers would spread male and female singers would line up in front of his office. But, that did not happen and twaifs said that Bukhari was nobody to test their skills and if he wanted to listen he should come to kotha like a customer.

Zulfiqar recalled that his friend and colleague, Niazi, told him that they had to visit kotha at Chawri Bazar. Zulfiqar was afraid and said, “agar kisi ne dekh liya to” (if someone saw us). Niazi replied, “raat ko chhup kar jayenge” (we will visit in the dark of the night). The apprehension itself tells us how lowly people considered it to visit tawaifs.

Indian Mutiny, Zinatunnissa Mosque, and the Noble Women of Delhi

The next night, Zulfiqar, Niazi and another friend Muzaffar went to Chawri Bazar. He narrated how frightened he was while approaching Chawri. He was profusely sweating with anxiety.

Niazi took Zulfiqar to a kotha and told his friends that this belonged to Akhtari Bai Agrewali. She was supposedly the best singer in Delhi.

Zulfiqar wrote, “Niazi aur Muzaffar ke piche piche main Akhtari Bai Agrewali ke kothe ki sidhiyon par chadha, yun jaise koi sooli par chadha raha ho” (Following Niazi and Muzaffar, I climbed the stairs of the kotha of Akhtari Bai Agrewali as if I am walking to the gallows). He told how each step felt as heavy as tons.

Zulfiqar described the kotha as a place full of lighting yet gloomy. A sadness had engulfed the whole environment. Akhtari Bai and other musicians in the room, Zulfiqar wrote, “sabke chehre par ek khinchao, ek karb, ek tanav, ek nakaam sham ki udasi” (every face was tense, sad, gloomy and full of melancholy). Too many descriptions for Heeramandi like the glamorization of kothas and tawaifs. 

One of the most famous tawaif of Delhi was described by Zulfiqar, “Dhaan paan patli dubli madqooq si ladki, badil nakhwast uthi aur apne hontho par wo muskurahat bikher di jiski tah mai gham-e-rozgar ke aansu chhalak rahe the” (a slim, weak and malnourished looking girl got up dutifully. Her lips smiled which could not hide the tears of grief and helplessness).

Akhtari Bai sang, “Raah par unko laga laaye to hain baato main, Aur khul jayenge do char mulaqato main”. She was selected and Zulfiqar talked about payments for singing on the radio. Then she herself took them to Durga Bai, another famous tawaif of Delhi. 

Zulfiqar was surprised when Akhtari told her musicians that he is not shareef (literally respectable) only to know that in a tawaifs terminology, “humare yaha shareef unko kehte hain jo dil behlane ke liye gana sunne aaye. Aap to karobari admi hain”. (We call those people ‘respectable’ who come for entertainment only. You are here for business.)

One might believe that it was Zulfiqar who felt that visiting a kotha was not for good and elite people. But, what happened after this tells us about the attitude of the public in general.

Zulfiqar submitted a bill of Rs. 12 to the office for reimbursement. Rs. 10 were paid at Akhtari Bai and Rs. 2 at Durga Bai. Eyebrows raised and the news became a gossip. The next day it was all over in the press.

 Allah Hafiz or Khuda Hafiz, which is older?

Khwaja Hasan Nizami, one of the most reputed scholars of Delhi at the time, called him chupa rustam, Akbar Hydari said that at a young age, people could engage in such things, Sardar Diwan Singh Maftoon, the editor of Riyasat, wrote, “girey bhi to kaha jaa kar” and it became an issue for the media. Radio was accused of promoting prostitution. 

At the time, the wife of Zulfiqar was living in Shimla. He was posted in Shimla before joining the radio and was still searching for accommodation in Delhi. She read the news in newspapers. Angry wife wrote him a letter to tell him that she was going to Peshawar, where Zulfiqar’s father lived, with their two kids.

Fielden was confused why this hue and cry. Zulfiqar took leave and left for Peshawar. On the way, he stopped at Lahore where Patras Bukhari lived. His sister-in-law said that Patras was very angry and that if he did not want to get physically beaten by his older brother he should first console his wife, who was in Peshawar. 

In Peshawar, he took the help of his sister and sister-in-law to first make his wife understand that he did not go to tawaif to enjoy but for his work. They talked to his father and made him understand. 

How big an issue a visit to a tawaif for a respectable man was, can be judged by his first encounter with his father after the incident. The sister, wife and sister-in-law had already made him understand everything. Zulfiqar recalled that he was reading the Quran when he sat in front of him. After that, “Quran Pak rehal samet meri taraf badha diya aur farmaya padho. Mera dil bhar aaya. Main padhta gaya aur rota gaya. Akhir walid ne uthkar siine se lagaya. Na unhone is shikayat ke muatalliq kuch kaha jo un tak pahunchi thi aur na mujhe iska zikr karne ki jurrat hui” (He gave me the Quran and said read. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I kept reading and tears rolled down my eyes. Father stood up and embraced me. Neither he spoke about the incident nor I dared to talk about it).

The incident tells how elite Indians in general, and Muslims in particular, looked at tawaifs and kothas during the early 20th century. It could become a public issue, families could boycott a man for visiting a tawaif and respectable people were afraid to be seen near a kotha.


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