The Last Mehfil

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From Benares to Mirzapur, mujrawaalis of today live on song and nostalgia, mourning the passing of their culture. As they prepare for the final farewell, we go in search of their last performances
She had been condemned to a life of pleasure. But pleasure is no more, nor is there any promise of anything else. In the autumn of her life, Naseema laments her fate. The life of a tawaif is often a dedication to the gratification of others—carnal or otherwise. It is a life spent in hope, an eternal wait for a lover who would take her. Yet, to marry would be to leave what she inherited, a dismissal of her identity.

The body doesn’t last forever. The firmness of the breasts, the curves of the hips, none of it is permanent. At some point, the wrinkles began to distort the face, and the juice of the betel leaves she chewed began to overflow and run down the cracks in her skin. Her face must have been beautiful at one time.

In those days, she used to sing this song.

Saiyan rooth gaye, main manaati rahi … shyam jaane lage, main bulaati rahi… (My beloved is upset, and I go on urging him. Shyam is leaving, and I keep calling.)

Singing was an exercise in the melancholy of unrequited love. Conformist love, she says. There was the pleasure of being wanted, though, and of being denied the place of the spouse.

In this village of tawaifs, she is one of the older ones, her career long done. Those who could, went away to a respectable life. But not her. She missed her chance. She had lovers, and they abandoned her.

She is old, and wizened. All day, she sits in a chair outside her house wondering about her fate. Why was she unable to find a patron after years of singing and dancing? There were those that found men who would keep them, provide for them, and free them of worries in the autumn of their lives. Like Nazneen, her grandfather’s sister who was the beloved of the Nawab of Puraniya.

“Now, the nawabs are no more and nor are tawaifs,” she says.

Basuka in Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh is full of such women. It is a village of tawaifs. In its two segregated sections—Bada Para and Chota Para—there are women who can sing and dance, and revel in the glory of the past where they were treated as artistes and not as sex workers. But they also bear witness to a shift in attitudes and perceptions. There was once a nawab, who came and stayed, and then took a woman under his aegis. They still smile when they speak about that story of love.

“I think our ancestors came from Fatehpur, and were settled here around 400 years ago,” she says. “Our mothers and grandmothers did it. We know no other way [of life]. We cherish it because we were destined to be tawaifs.”

Naseema inherited the life of a courtesan. It wasn’t by choice. When she was very young, she was forced to learn singing and dancing under an ustad, and when she was ready, she would be sent on performance tours. She would travel with other village women to perform at weddings, and concerts. Sometimes, men came to their village, and they would gather musicians, and dance.

“Do you think what we do is bad?” she asks.

The tawaifs keep to their colonies. A narrow street divides the village into two parts. A young boy offers to guide me, but looks at his father for approval, which he gets. We cross the street, and enter the lanes of Bada Para.

“That is the mohalla of tawaifs,” he says. “We don’t go there.”

Mehrunissa sits by the side of the path. Her wavy hair framing her face, palms dipped in henna, and her short blouse just covering her breasts, she sits in the afternoon sun chewing paan, the red of which flows out of her mouth, streaking her wrinkles red. She too would have been a beautiful woman once. Even now, one can see traces of it in those eyes that must have enticed the many who came to listen to her songs.

Sab khatam ho gaya,” (everything has ended) she says, and turns away. “What do we speak of? Our descent into something despicable.”

They didn’t even get time to prepare for the final farewells. Their patrons vanished. Those who came, wanted other things. There were girls from other places who were ready to go all the way. Nobody was interested in the thumri, khayal and tappa.

Not many understand the songs they sang anyway. The ragas, and the sensual caress of the voice, and the movements of the eyes, and the waist, and the fingers. They didn’t want to linger, and be tempted by longing, and love, and eventual consummation. They wanted the instant gratification of flesh.

Naseema’s elder daughter is visiting her for Bakra Eid. She doesn’t offer her name. She is married now, and has given up the life that could have been hers. Naseema didn’t want her daughters to continue.

It was honourable once, the life of a tawaif. It meant fulfilling a social need. Men were polygamous, and needed other women. They were the ‘other’. They knew their lovers came to them for pleasures their wives couldn’t give. Their calling was to fulfill those desires of soul, and melancholy. The best of them were artistes, aware of worldly things, with all the graces and subtlety of poetry to offer men who valued it.

Now, most of the young women are elsewhere—Gaya, Mumbai, Kolkata, and other cities. They dance in concerts, and live in the red-light areas of these cities trying to compete with sex workers. But art is lost on those who come for only carnal pleasure. With art, there is only poverty.

There are those who are trying to keep up the old tradition.

Like Kajal, who is sitting with her ustad Badre Alam, who is 60 years old, and hails from Azamgarh. For years, he has lived in Basuka, teaching women the lost arts. She is 20 years old, and lives in Gaya in Bihar where she performs as a mujra dancer in the red light district. She says she has found a patron, a man who would take her in, and she is happy.

Her mother sits next to her, and watches her daughter’s hands on which the leaves and flowers drawn in henna run parallel to the veins.

Mohammad Jeelani, 64, is one of the many who have tried to change with the times. He has taken on Bhojpuri songs, and other Bollywood songs, and tries to tell women that for their survival as performers, the classic mujra of art and finesse needs to be corrupted.

“In those days, people were connoisseurs of arts, and now, only a few remain who come and ask for those songs. That makes me happy. But the rest, they want popular songs,” he says.

But in Basuka, they haven’t let of go of everything. Not yet. They refuse to play recorded music, he says. “When they come to see a mujra, we take out our instruments and play,” he says.

There are old houses, and new ones. The old ones belong to those who resisted change, and the new to those who learnt to adapt and move on.

Zuleikha, his aunt, comes and sits next to him. She had grown up watching her aunts do the mujra, and was sent to an ustad to learn the art. She liked to dance, and she had the delicate beauty of her mother, she says. She spent a few years in the kothas of Dal Mandi in Benaras and then returned to Basuka. She married a man from the village, and now her daughters are mujrawaalis but live in different cities. “If they are beautiful, and they want to do it, what’s wrong?” she says.

There are men who wander the village lanes, looking lost. They were born in these houses that belonged to courtesans, and are trying to get out and find new lives elsewhere. Some stay. Over time, many hope, Basuka will have erased its scars of being the village of tawaifs. Like Izhar, who is Naseema’s son, a daily wage labourer.

The women of Basuka always had sad lives, he says. They never had the luxury of choice. Or the glory of being courtesans. But change is at hand. Only a few houses remain that have had to send their daughters to other cities to fend for themselves as mujraawalis.

The ones who stayed back are the withered ones.

Once in a while, a man would ask for the old women to sing along with the young ones. That’s when Zuleikha shines.

That’s when she is herself. At other times, she walks along the dirt tracks like a woman who doesn’t belong anywhere. Like a woman with no identity left.

But this is the world of India’s mujrawaalis. It is like everyone forgot them. But they are still around.

In the 1970s, the kothas where mujras were performed were brought under the purview of the Immoral Trafficking Act. Prior to that, the British, in order to expose the debauchery of Indian princes, had taken to maligning the kothas as dens of vice. Dal Mandi, which used to house such kothas, has suffered for it.

An old social activist in Benares says that at one point in the 1960s, All India Radio declared that all Baijis must be rechristened as Devijis to be able to sing on radio, and those who could get married and get the dignity of ‘Devi’ did so, while the voices of others got lost. Nobody tells you who they were, or where they are. It is a pact of trust.

There is an old story in the family about a man, who grew up in Benares. He fell in love with a mujrawaali named Rajkumari, and had her reside in a separate house. They don’t speak about this, and there are faded memories of the man and his mistress. She was an acclaimed dancer and danced on batashas, and he had a few children with her. All they could tell you is that she was beautiful, and that he loved her. But they don’t tell the whole story. It is a stigma.

These women were self-made. Artistes. It all started to change in the 1970s when the Trafficking Act came into force, and even musicians had to apply for licences. Tawaifs were arrested, and it resulted in the closure of many kothas in cities like Bombay, Delhi, Nagpur, Banaras, and Lucknow.

“Everything was lost except the primal desire of men, which was for flesh, and that prospered,” says the social activist. “Other brothels came up on the periphery of the cities, and these were where the sex workers lived. The mujrawaalis were lost. There was a chastity crisis. They were forced to either leave, or take up sex work in these new brothels.”

“You know in mehfils in those days, there was art. Now, it is just about flesh trade,” he says.

To find those who haven’t given up, he says, you must travel beyond the cities, or go into inner katras. There will be memories, and from those will emerge a few names, and a few addresses. But be careful, he says.

Aag bahut khoobsurat cheez hai basharte aap usse khelen nahin,” he says. Fire has beauty but you mustn’t play with it. “If you find them, ask them about the the glorious days of the thumri and the mujra and the kothas. Ask them why they are losing themselves.”

The kite-seller asks me to turn into the next katra, and find the fourth house in Dal Mandi, which has turned into a general goods markets. “There you shall find him. But he won’t sing for you.”

The doors are open, and up the narrow flight of stairs, a young woman points to a room where Sharafat Ali Khan is finishing his food. It is an old house. The sort where the walls are of stone, and painted a shade of green, discoloured, and dismembered in parts. Here lives a man who once played the harmonium as the dancers in Benares’ Dal Mandi entertained their patrons. But years have gone by, and they all left one by one. Dal Mandi no longer has mujras and mogras. In its cramped alleys, they haggle over prices of spices, and other things. Rasoolan Bai’s house exists, but nobody sings there. They say Nirmala Devi, the famous thumri singer, also lived here. There were others, but after the crackdown, they left for elsewhere. They weren’t sex workers but had been clubbed with them. Like the geishas of Japan, their job entailed singing and entertaining their patrons, and elite households would send their sons to learn of literature, poetry and culture from courtesans. Even daughters of families would learn social graces, and the art of seduction from them.

Sharafat Ali Khan, 85, is a lost man. For years, he tried to continue in his ways, and taught young girls of the neighbourhood and elsewhere how to sing, but he gave up. Fourteen years ago, he gave his harmonium to his son-in-law, and never turned back. During Muharram, he sings Marsia, an elegiac poem about the death of Hussain ibn Ali in the battle of Karbala.

Kahaaniyan toh bahut saari hain,” he says. There are many tales. “But to tell them all, it requires a lot of courage. Those times have ended. That era is lost.”

He mourns its passing with vacant eyes, and his wife looks at him with a baffled expression. For more than a decade, the only times she has heard him sing is during Muharram, and she has seen him break down often as he sings nohas of Hussain’s ride to the battlefield.

He comes from a family of musicians. His father trained Rasoolan Bai, who came from Mirzapur, and belonged to the Benares Gharana of Hindustani classical music, and went on to become a famous thumri singer. He remembers. Although he says he left it all behind. In Islam, he says, such things were prohibited. But that’s the dichotomy of it all. Music was part of him. But that was then. The mujras now meant gyrating to Bollywood music. Moves that were once sensual were becoming vulgar.

“My father Shammu Khan was well-regarded,” he says.

He doesn’t remember much, he says, but then bit by bit he gathers the pieces and weaves a narrative. The women were like fireflies, and the Dal Mandi area was bustling with patrons who understood the genres the women sang. They came to indulge in more than just lust. But when the women started to see themselves descend into something the world deemed despicable, they started to get married to patrons who would have them as wives. “Even Rasoolan married a salesman when she was 44 and lived in one of the lanes of the city,” he says. Rasoolan’s mother Adalat Bai was also a famous courtesan.

“Here, there were the houses of tawaifs. In the evenings, the rich would come, sit in mehfils where they played six different genres of music,” he says. “Those who didn’t come would call them to their homes for private mehfils.”

Then, the rich stopped coming. The abolition of the zamindari system shook up the lifestyles they were used to. Estates were taken away. And the courtesans had no more courts to go to. For some time, they survived by performing at concerts, and weddings, and then they started to look out for other alternatives. Not many would admit they belonged to a family of courtesans.

“Everything was in front of these eyes, and now these eyes don’t see anymore. When I left teaching, I knew if the art needed to survive, it had to be done properly. Here, once you have reached a certain stage, then money comes. But without patrons, it was difficult to carry on.” “Gham ka vaqyaa sunenge toh aasoon toh bahenge,” he says. If you hear a sad story, then tears will flow.

And then his wife asks him to sing a noha. He refuses, but then he begins to sing. There’s a slight moment when his face comes to life. The tears begin to flow.

Aasma lives in Mirzapur’s Pasarhatta Bazaar, where mujrawaalis reside in a handful of houses. An old crumbling house has a steep staircase that leads to the unswept, uncared- for chambers of these women who say they don’t know which way to turn. For more than four decades, they have occupied this floor. Its red walls are sooty, and they haven’t had a coat of paint in years. There is an old mattress against the wall, and a small balcony from which light filters into the room. An old woman sits against the wall.

Another wall that seems blue has a collage of old studio shots with flower vases, and women with flowers in their hair, and painted lips. So, it was not always like this. Not always so dark, so decrepit, so gloomy.

Aasma has hazel coloured eyes and brown hair, and a fair complexion. She spent years as a bar dancer in Bombay but had to return to the kotha after the city cracked down on dance bars.

These women come from Chilbila village in Allahabad district.

Aasma says she is among the last mujrawaalis. She sent her daughter away, and got her married.

Hardly anyone comes upstairs to listen to their songs. They have begun dancing to Bhojpuri songs. During the famous Kajri Jagran in Mirzapur, they have invitations to sing and dance. Other times are lean.

“There are temptations but I won’t do wrong things. I know others do it. But as long as I can hold myself together, I will do it,” says Aasma.

Mangla Devi, the old woman, speaks about a sister who danced on shards of broken glass. These were art forms that were taught by the ustads, and special glass was made for such events.

There is a photo of her sister in a white salwar kameez on the wall. “That’s her,” she says. Once upon a time, she had been a sought after mujrawaali. There’s a coarseness in her voice that she says is the result of bitterness. Her daughter Sunita sits next to her, and looks at her mother. Her little son and daughter roam around in the house.

Lovers came, and left. Nobody owned them, nobody claimed them.

“What do we have except a few songs, and a few memories?” she says. “A tawaif doesn’t marry. If she marries, she can’t return to the kothas.” But they are not shy of giving themselves to men who promise love.

“Because nobody can live this life alone. To be lonely is a curse,” she says. “You are meant to love. We are meant to not expect loyalty. But love comes, and maybe it doesn’t stay. It doesn’t have to. Our songs are testimony to this bereavement… these are songs of union, and sensuality, and teasing, and longing for the beloved. But there are no listeners now.”

And there are daughters who are born out of such love. They make sure they don’t live this life. “Mirzapur will not have us for too long. We are the last ones in our generation,” she says.

Sunita is a thin dark woman with large vacant eyes and a deep voice. She had wanted to study, and be like other women. But she was born into a gharana of mujrawaalis and followed into her mother’s footsteps. “I wanted to get married, but who would have looked after my mother? So, I stayed back,” she says.

The shopkeepers downstairs in the Pasarhatta Bazaar speak of their voices, and feel sad for the few who remain in this lane.

Across the street lives Rani Singh, whose fame as a folk singer is alive and well in these parts. The walls of her dilapidated house are lined with her certificates. She says she isn’t a mujrawaali . Her mother used to sing, and she too trained in Benares under Pandit Lok Nath Mishra and other ustads. She has also acted in a few Bhojpuri films, and says she never got married because singing demands rigour and a dedication that doesn’t leave room for other things.

It is a small room, decorated with posters of gods and goddesses. Eight years ago, she took up bhajan singing, and most evenings she is at a nearby temple singing with other women. They know her in these lanes.

But she has gone far and beyond her past. She says there must have been a mistake. But her teacher Lok Nath Mishra remembers her. He is 90 now, and has trained many mujrawaalis. They would come to his house for tutorials. He tells me of the women who came and are now lost. You will find one of them in Pasarhatta Bazaar, he says. “Tell her I sent you. She will remember.”

But Rani Singh dismisses the tag.

Aasma says not all women acknowledge their lineage. They want to break free of it.

“The woman across the street is one of us,” she says. “She can deny it, but we know. We also understand who don’t want to be us.”

In an old mud house, the old woman once sang songs of a summer gone by, urging the lover to move into the shade. A song of submission to love.

In what they called the usara (corridor) of their ancestral home in Bhabhua, Bihar, her grandmother would never sing the full song. She would ask her why she sang, and she would tell her she was a courtesan. She wipes a tear. “Afsos toh yeh ki dukaan saji hui hai lekin koi khariddaar nahin hai,” she says. The shop is all decked up but there are no customers.

At the end of a narrow lane in Hukulganj, Benares, hers is the last house. Upstairs, in a large room with green stained glass windows, she is sitting on a bed. She answers mostly everything with verse of a ghazal. She sings in a voice that sends tremors through you because there’s so much in it. There’s nostalgia, and memory, and there is loss, and pain. There is broken pride, and there’s the mourning of what could have been.

At 58, she feels she has not done enough. In other places, they call her Dolly. Her name is Saira Begum.

Raat bhi, neend bhi, kahani bhi... hai kya cheez hai jawani bhi,” she sings. The night, the sleep, the story… what is this thing called youth? A pause, and she says it is the story of a young woman wanting to sing, and losing everything in that quest. She married a man who wanted her to sing to him every night, and after he died, she felt abandoned. Her mother, who didn’t take up singing, had discouraged her. But her grandmother’s songs haunted her.

She performed in many places except her own city, which was Benares after her marriage. Her husband would later ask if she saw the lust in the eyes of men who’d sit listening to her. She would say she thought they were here for her voice, not the heaving of her chest.

Saira Begum lives with her son, who is mentally unstable. He has two children, and she has to provide for all of them.

It has been a difficult life. “My daughters would cry listening to me sing,” she says. “Whoever wants to find the art, they manage. Only, it makes them loners.”

Saira Begum is one of the few remaining mujra singers in Benares now. In fact, the only one who doesn’t deny it. “I own it. I claim it, and I know it is a dying culture,” she says. “We are the ghosts.” And then she sings an old ghazal. This, she says, will tell you everything. And her voice rises.

Rafta rafta, woh mere asthi ka samaan ho gaye… (Subtly and gradually, he became part of me...)

And then she asks. “What is a sur (musical note)? It is only pain that you can feel. This is the only way I can express myself.”