It was the mid-17th century and the of the great Mughal empire with lavish lifestyle and sumptuously rich mannerisms. I was born in these invading times in an impoverished family with 3 sisters and 3 brothers. My parents were daily wages laborers but they plucked up the courage to name me Shehzadi(princess). I must have hit puberty when they sold me away to agents in Faizabad, who took me to many kothas mushroomed in the bazaar to demand the best bargain. Don’t know what happened to my other sisters and my parents after I was given off. I never met them again!!
At the brothel, I met a new me, a different one that I was unaware of! It was taken care of, plump and graciously. I was put under training from Ustads, there were long hours of practice for singing and dancing, poetry and erotic arts. I was rechristened with a screen name “Husnabai” for added attraction and complying by the courtesan tradition. Also duly trained in Kathak, Ghazals, thumri, dadra and Hindustani classical music. I started enjoying the perseverance and the arts and cultural getaway became my solace. I started forgetting my grievances and pain. I was fed on nutritious sumptuous meals, taught on Urdu and Persian poetry (shayari) and entertained well with my other courtesan girls. Being an avid and quick learner, I picked the nuances pretty quickly and then there was no looking back. I was amongst the top 2 meritorious in the lot and being trained to become a high profile tawaif for serving the rich and noble nawabs of Awadh. Hesitantly, Sex education I gathered was from my peers and this sounded dubious to me initially, but slowly I started enjoying the attention and attraction it provoked. The revelry, money and favors in this trade were enticing.
I would start my day late with dance practice and music riyaaz; ghungroos became my new muse and I would deck up in anarkali’s and anga-rakhas to dance away my way to fortune. Girls would boast about their special invitees from last evening and dress up eloquently to impress their huzoor’s. This street of chawdi bazaar was famous as “bazaar -e- raunak “which would spritz up by evening, as tawaifs would brandish their glam in full austerity and the aromas of ittr would mesmerize the mehfil.
It didn’t take me long to learn the tricks of the trade, since I was caught young and agile. I had started turning into this youthful bud waiting to burst into a force, a beauteous women with captivating adab and tehzeeb. The politeness and refinement that would drive the elite men crazy, through Urdu couplets and witticism. it was an art that I grabbed a prophecy in, the art of elusiveness and conversations with my male clientele. My attraction and repartee were spreading their word in the neighborhood. Husnabai started becoming the rage of the street “bazaar-e- raunak”. When I would give a surprise visit at the balcony, many of my admirers waiting in anticipation, would heave a sigh and wanted to gate crash. But I was now a thing of luxury, sophistication, and comfort. Being associated with me was nothing short of a status symbol and of course wealth. My mehfils would be jam packed by The Who’s who of the nawab clan. With peaking music and performance, the elite guests would swoon entranced over my charm, grace, and elegance. My heavily embroidered dresses, beautifully ornamented jewelry with precious stones, marked my panache. Good manners, courtesy, and the knack for coquettish bonded a swirl of fascinating attraction. My well etched bosom, a slippery dupatta and blandishments were enough to keep the crowd pleased and entertained. But I wasn’t a bad woman, thing of decadence or a thing of pity, I was rather an echelon of power, prestige and agency. Money wasn’t a necessity anymore, it was a luxury, and I was on top of things, a class apart from prostitutes, nautch girls or debauchery. I was the highest rated tawaif of Faizabad who would choose her clientele as per her comfort and any sexual relationship if preferred was completely consensual. But I chose to remain a virgin…. a virgin enchantress waiting for her nawab – e- Awadh.
My untainted aura was an authority, I demanded on my noble clientele replete with etiquettes, charm and grace. My mehfils would ooze with my authentic Urdu shayari and singing melodies. Those would be nights of recognition and tantalizations. but somewhere in the chirpy heart a quiet painful corner buzzed with pain. “why few days I remembered my parents?”
“had they been concerned; they would have tried to find me or they sold me off willingly?”
I would question my identity. “what is this place I’m in? Is there any escape from this labyrinth of glamour and enticement”?
“Though I’m trying to be the undisputed queen of this Kotha, but is this really what I want? Is true love a thing?” I have been trying to practice my vows of chastity in these notoriously vile chambers of sex, seductions and decadence. But for how long and for whom?”
My heart would be wrenched in pain and agony of this snare and I would finally succumb to sleep on a wet pillow. The next morning, again I would happily indulge in riyaaz and gear up for the evening mujra with much fascination. The contemplations and dissonance would be preserved for the aloof nights. My peer and troupe member Pyaari bai would be my constant accompaniment and contemporary in these mehfils. She was a khan Dani tawaif with her ancestors practicing the profession since early ages. Once we would be free from practicing and engage in discussing inter Kotha rivalry, she would serve me paan and supsari, we would laugh and boast about our last night visitors or upcoming elite nawabs expected at the mujra tonight. She bragged with a swaggering tone” today, nawab Daulat khan is expected to reach for the sham/ e- mehfil. Today deck yourself appropriately! The fire of your guileless husn would burn him Husnabai” I was oblivious to Nawab saheb’s popularity but the air was abuzz with his royal status and wealth. His masculinity was gathering reviews from peers and seniors alike and I was excited to lure him superficially.
That day preening and decking up was unnecessarily long and flamboyant. I wore garish Anarkali in crimsoned hues with humongous jewelry and euphonic ghungroos. I adorned myself in the mirror with a dupatta under the flickering lamp lights and waited for the mushaira to begin. The guests, started arriving in palki, the nawabs of main and sundry, dressed in their austere best. As nawab Daulat khan arrived carrying a dona of kebabs and garlands of jasmine as gifts , I sat in the main brothel hall, decked in silk brocade for my votaries. That evening, I performed for him, his glare fixed on me and my dupatta misbehaving blatantly. I gave the impression, that I was indifferent to his attention, but I wasn’t. It pierced through my fantasies and vulnerabilities. I was liking the admiration. It was pulling me in the voracious tempt, of lust, of a witticism to attract and lure. I wanted to brag about my youthfulness tonight, my sensualities soaked me for the very first time. That night Jaddanbai, the brothelkeeper lady, let nawab Saheb stay in my special chamber, meant for special elite patrons.
An aura of seduction and love grabbed us both the whole night. We couldn’t talk, just grappled with heavy breaths, mesmerizing emotions and drenched allure. Didn’t realize when morning came in closer proximity and he had to leave in the wandering by lanes of the chowk. The early morning dew ness also couldn’t break my decadent dream. I continued thinking about him the next day too. Pyaribai teased me in her colloquial pun wYs and I couldn’t muster the courage to deny her jubiliance or deny my dalliance with nawab Daulat khan. Now this became a ritual, while Pyaaribai would make opium laden pans and the troupe no crew would play rustic beats, I would recite the most eloquent of shayari’s in front of my royal patronage. Nawab saheb had bought the exclusive rights of my mushaira so now nobody else was allowed in the mehfil . He didn’t want to share me with anyone, his intoxication was pervading over me, night beyond nights. I wasn’t a virgin anymore, my innermost core had been diluted by his love or that’s what I thought.
I would spend hours contemplating my muse, savouring the art of couplets writing dipped in love and beholding myself in the wretched mirror. What those guileless eyes asked me? Is finally life happy and motivating or the pleasures are temporary and retreatable. And that day did come, came too son. We had been seeing each other, in those velvety mushy evenings, when I would exclusively perform in delicate raunchiness and exuberance. My pleasures tantalizing my wits and royalties… my exclusive royalties!!
Nawab saheb would leave in the wee hours of morning, leaving me subdued and besotted. Soon the morning sun would set the chowk ablaze, and tea sellers, ear cleaners and pan shops would clutter the chowk as a public space. My mesmerizings would end dissipated before afternoons would strike. A sumptuous lunch and slumbering siesta would gear me up for another decking up session and another day of self indulgence.
But the day of refulgence did end abruptly. Nawab saheb’s gifts and visits started decreasing in frequency. The love affair started evaporating subliminally. The condensed lust wasn’t enough to satiate me in abundance. Maybe he found another bud younger and more guileless to evade and persuade. That’s the ephemeral love, we tawaifs had in destiny always. My virgin escapade did shatter me, my celibacy was invaded but I refused to acknowledge my heartbreak. I learnt the lessons of brothel business… it can be intimate but it can’t be true….erotic and dissolute is the way. My intellect and attraction deepened with the insincere love nights and started proceeding towards debauchery and rakishness. My clientele was now available to rich and sundry, available for the famous and the infamous.
As I was gaining excellence in my brothel romps, the show business was starting to show signs of disintegration and decay. Mughal empire in Awadh was struggling to keep a strong feet and nawabs or royal kings were loosing their grit and glamour. British East India company was expanding its presence explicitly and waves of resentment against slavery and colonization was beginning to show hues. Kothas were still running the usual business but the patronage wasn’t as impressive as before. The kebab and flower shops which thrives on our brothel business weren’t able to keep up with the recession and many of them shut down at the chowk. The waves of revolution and awakening were showing the ripple effects in the society. That night for the sham-e- ghazal, a British officer came in the uniform. Probably, he wanted to command or show superiority on the meek crowd. Pyaaribai did give him special attention by serving opium laden pans and hookas on priority. The pleasures and performances under crystal glass hanging chandeliers did entice him, I know this because he kept returning every alternate night for the galas. This didn’t stop here, he would stay back for consensual sexual entertainments, but I wasn’t involved in those corruptions with him. Others in my clan, who didn’t mind, would indulge in the dissipation.
But a fire was ignited in me. A feeling of pain and revolt. I couldn’t find solace in this oblivion. Just being a thing of decadence wasn’t my intention, I wanted to serve a bigger purpose in life. I caught on the feelings of the uprisings across the land. I started contacting sepoys of British Indian army and increasing my intimacy with them. I tried being a messenger, informer, a conspirator in the rebellion. Now my nights would sometimes be on the camps of the army, trying to infatuate men from second cavalry and getting into the habit of riding with soldiers on horsebacks.
I was working behind the scenes trying to be an unsung hero, against the British rule in India. A learned to brace the pistol, ride horses, be messengers for the fighters and even use the brothel as center for hidings and planning revolutionary marches. I even took part in a confrontation as shots whizzed around in the rebellion war. I might be marginalized in history and receive a disproportionate fame in the pages of Faizabad’s freedom struggle. I might be vandalized and be made notorious as a nautch girl or whore, but I can confidently say, I wasn’t a bad woman!! I was a woman of substance and art.
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