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On a walk, discover the lost histories of the courtesans of Chawri Bazaar

A walk in the walled city takes you back to the era of nautch girls and their patrons

art and culture Updated: Oct 29, 2016 09:35 IST
Danish Raza
Danish Raza
Hindustan Times
Jama Masjid,Shahjahanabad,Ghalib ki haveli
The facade of what was once a kotha in Chawri Bazaar. Seen in the picture is the atariya (balcony) where the courtesans stood. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Among the stories that are passed on through generations of Purani Dilliwallahs are those of Chawri Bazaar’s tawaifs or courtesans. The market around Jama Masjid, popular for its designer wedding cards and hardware goods, was once the stylish promenade for the Shahjahanabad elite. It is said that almost every staircase on the street would lead to a bordello.

‘Tawaifs of Chawri Bazaar, From Bordello to Brothel,’ an experiential walk by a local organisation, GointheCity. Don’t go for the walk with the hope of actually seeing any bordellos. Barring a couple of examples, it is hard to find any surviving structures of that era. But the walk is an opportunity to find out the history of the courtesans, how they settled in the Walled City, the way they were perceived by their patrons and why they had to leave Chawri Bazaar.

Read:In the company of the tawaif: Recreating the magic with darbari kathak

Take, for example, their contribution to the culture of Shahjahanabad. “These women were repositories of etiquette and refinement. Their patrons used to send their sons to them to learn the art of speech. You can compare them to the grooming classes people run today,” said Gaurav Sharma, explorer, GointheCity.

Gaurav Sharma, who will be conducting a walk on the tawaifs of Chawri Bazaar, says that the courtesans were among the most sophisticated women of their times. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Or the fact that Pathan and Negroid women—many of them trained in martial arts--used to guard the bordellos. “The randis as they were known owned several mansions and were as rich as the landed aristocracy of the day. Firdaus jaan was so beautiful that noblemen had to take prior appointments to meet her,” noted RV Smith in his book The Delhi That No One Knows.

Read:Delhi's GB Road struggles to keep a dying history alive

You might know of Ghalib ki haveli in neighbouring Ballimaran —the mansion in which the poet once lived as a tenant. But not many people know that Ghalib was extremely fond of a dusky dancing girl in Chawri Bazaar.

The walk is also an opportunity to clear misconceptions about nautch girls. In his book Nautch Girls of the Raj, former civil servant and historian Pran Nevile has tried to recreate the phase when visiting a courtesan was considered to be a status symbol. “The Ramlila and other religious processions used to pass through Chawri Bazaar. Many young men would join the procession so that they could get a glimpse of courtesans standing in the atariya (balcony). Once the procession had gone past the street, these men would disperse. Such was their charm!” said Sharma, referring to Nevile’s book.

The fall of the nautch girls started after 1857 when puritanical Englishmen and social reformers of India such as Bipin Chandra Sen launched a tirade against them.

Read:The Akhara and the kotha

In the early 1990s, they were branded as fallen women and were relocated to Garstin Bastion road, near Ajmeri Gate which was then considered the outskirts of the city. It was there that gradually the difference between nautch girls and prostitutes started fading.

(The walk ‘Tawaifs of Chawri Bazaar: From Bordello to Brothel’, will take place on October 31, and November 3 - 5 in Chawri Bazaar. For bookings: Charges: Rs 500 per person)

First Published: Oct 28, 2016 19:44 IST