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London pays tribute to Tawa’if

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Guests at the launch of AMC's Tawa'if exhibition

London saw the unveiling of Tawa’if, a unique exhibition exploring the life and art of the last courtesans of India, organised by the Asian Music Circuit…reports Asian Lite News

Bringing the Mughal period to life in an animated evening filled with live music and electrifying dance performances, the photographic exhibition opened its doors to eager crowds, with legendary guitarist Jimmy Page in attendance. Increasing awareness of the cultural connections between Britain and India, Tawa’if offers a unique insight into India’s rich history.

Once celebrated by the Mughals for their intellect, talent and beauty, the tawa’if were considered authorities on art, etiquette and culture, yet today, ‘tawa’if’ is the common word in Hindi for prostitute. Caught in the tide of a fast changing India at the dawn of the 20th century, the tawa’if were scorned by the Victorians as debauchers and driven out of the halls of high society. However, even as their numbers dwindled and many found themselves forced into sex work, the tawa’if fought for to save their rich cultural traditions. Some became household names, the equivalent of modern A-list celebrities, they were the first recording artists and film stars, paving the way for the heroines of Bollywood. Yet today the tawa’if, who were once held in such high esteem, have been forgotten by history, remembered only as prostitutes.

Understanding the relationship between these female artists, the East India Company and British personnel living in India during the second half of the 19th century is pivotal in understanding what happened to the artists of this period and their music during the early history Indian recording artists. This fall from grace was explored in the exhibition through early paintings, photography, sound recordings and the life stories of these forgotten female artists.

 The three-day exhibition was supported by fascinating lectures and debates that delved into the history and development of the tawa’if tradition, women in entertainment, and the history of the first Indian recording artists. Held by leading researchers Dr Anna Morcom (Royal Holloway), Dr Richard Williams (Oxford University) and celebrated sarod player and music scholar, Anindya Banerjee. The lectures also examined the dying vocal art of thumri – a musical style that has also been fundamental in the evolution of Bollywood film music and contemporary Indian music.

Viram Jasani, from the AMC, the producer of the Lost Traditions season, said: “Mughal India is one of the most interesting periods in history because it is immersed in so much culture and opulence. It’s fascinating to think about how the courtesans slowly became outcasts in society as a result of the impact of the English presence in India and Indian conservative society. Not many people are aware of their noble beginnings. It has been such a pleasure organising the Lost Traditions season of events and seeing it come to fruition. I am so pleased to have had so many fantastic, knowledgeable contributors on board to help enlighten people about this interesting aspect of India’s history.”

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