COURTESANS CONTRIBUTED to music and literary scene of an era when most women were in purdah. 'The Other Song' is a film that examines how we stigmatised these performers resulting in annihilation of their profession which could not meet the new moral standards of independent India We talk to the film maker Saba Dewan on what she went through while projecting such a difficult subject on screen
Q. 'The Other Song' examines a difficult subject through search of a lost song which was changed to suit new standards of morality. What was the trigger for you to make this film?
Most of my work has been around gender and sexuality. I had done a film called ‘Sita’s family’, which is about women in my family, who are of course so-called respectable, middle class women. I was looking at the history of middle class women including educational and social reforms connected to them. While doing this research, I came across certain references about tawaifs or courtesans which got my attention. I realised, for instance, that tawaifs were highly educated women while the women of my class were in purdah till the late 19th Century. It also intrigued me that apart from these stray references, there was very little material on these women who actually contributed so much to music, reading and writing.
I realised that tawaifs were highly educated women while the women of my class were in purdah till the late 19th Century. It also intrigued me that apart from these stray references, there was very little material on these women who actually contributed so much to music, reading and writing.
That’s when I decided that I would like to do a film on tawaifs and started researching on the subject in 2002. I started researching on their lifestyles, the art practices, and the reason why today they are so stigmatised and their tradition is over. It was much later when I was looking for a way to tell my story that I stumbled upon this thumri which had got lost. Then I also realised that actually there are so many other songs that have either got lost or their words had been changed to adjust to new moral standards. In a way, that’s also the story of tawaifs who had to change themselves to become socially acceptable.
Q. It seems like the story is unfolding while you are filming but the narration tells that you already knew a lot about the subject. What research you had done before starting filming?
I had an idea that this is the format I would like to go by. This film took a long time in the making because it required intensive research as is probably evident. So a lot of time I was shooting even while I was researching. At some point, I decided that this song is the vehicle for me to tell the story of the tawaif and once that was clear, I shot it in a way which was about this search for the forgotten song which leads to many other questions.
Q. The film deals with many issues: Gender, Communalism, Morality. Which one of these you feel worked most against the courtesans?
All of them. Gender was of course one of the main reasons. Women have always been the ones at the receiving end of patriarchal diktats. In this case, their practice, their lifestyle, their whole existence was termed immoral both by the British colonialists and also ironically by the nationalists who themselves were English educated and probably inspired by Colonial ideas. So, their art was termed as obscene. Their gender, sexuality was always against them and the kind of moral cleansing that was taking place in all spheres of life at that time, added to the fire. It was not only the tawaif, but a whole lot of other art practices which had come under the scanner.
Q. The film mainly talks about how Banaras has changed and how the tawaifs now need to go out of the city to perform. So do you think the city is main focal point on how communalism has affected this tradition?
Not really. This process of cleansing against tawaifs happened everywhere. For instance, the anti-nautch movement, which started in south India against the performance of devdasis in temples and respectable homes, spread to north India. Virtually, all the major centres, all the areas were affected by similar forces of morality, nationalism and communalism. Banaras being a very major centre not only of art and culture, but also of Hindu religion had its own ramifications. The film is on Banaras but my intention was not to say that this took place only here.
The women talking in the film are of present generation who have retired. When they talk about going out of Banaras, they mean that since their families are there, they don’t want to be identified as tawaifs. Secondly, the avenue of that kind of performance is not there anymore in the city. So they would increasingly go out to the rural areas, especially in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where they are still invited to perform on weddings.
The whole existence of tawaifs was termed immoral both by the British colonialists and also ironically by the nationalists who themselves were English educated and probably inspired by Colonial ideas.
Q. Most of the people of our generation and class have been introduced to tawaifs through Indian films and many big names have portrayed such roles. Do you think that helped the tradition in a way?
I don’t think so because the tradition was dying anyway. And the portrayal of tawaifs in most films is so far removed from their actual lifestyle and art practice. Mostly, they have been portrayed as languishing victims waiting for the hero to come and rescue them. Their redemption lies in sacrificing all for love and their only desperation is to become respectable women. In all the films, with exception of ‘Umrao Jaan’, a kotha (saloon) itself becomes a site of sin from which the heroine needs to be rescued. So, films have actually contributed to negative impression about tawaif’s lifestyle and saloon.
In all the films, with exception of 'Umrao Jaan', a kotha (saloon) itself becomes a site of sin from which the heroine needs to be rescued. So, films have actually contributed to negative impression about tawaif’s lifestyle and saloon.
Q. 'The Other Song' is final of the trilogy of films on women performers. How did the previous two films, which are about contemporary performers, informed this one which tracks a lost tradition?
The other two films, ‘Delhi, Mumbai, Delhi’, is about bar dancers, while ‘Naach’ is about these girls who dance in nautankis, which is now restricted mostly to rural Bihar. These two films came out from research on tawaifs. They were made before ’The Other Song’ because this one took the longest to make being a very challenging film. The previous two are shorter as well. They were on related issues so they did off course bring clarity to certain parts but I think it worked both ways. They are organically related but yet separate films.
Q. The narration is in style of a conversation the filmmaker had with an unknown person and within that there are references to past events where courtesans threw their instruments in Ganga or a girl was not allowed to get education because the way to school went past quarters of courtesans. Though engaging, lack of any evidence leaves a viewer wondering whether it's a fact or fiction. Did you realise the pitfalls of adopting this method of narration?
How does that matter? I feel this difference between fact and fiction is overhyped. This form of narration in the second person came about because I knew it has to be my voice. I am a character in this film as a representative of the middle class women, who were being encouraged to step out in to the public space and get education at the same time when tawaifs were being stigmatised.
So, it came to me that this can be a series of conversations. Through the long eight years that it took me to make this film, I had conversations with a whole lot of people, including musicians, academics, archivists and tawaifs. So there was a huge world of conversations which got fused into the film through this style of narration.
I am a character in this film as a representative of the middle class women, who were being encouraged to step out in to the public space and get education at the same time when tawaifs were being stigmatised.
It’s fictionalised in the sense that you don’t know who that person is, but to my mind it’s not so important. It’s so open, lot of people have interpreted it in their own way. Many people have presumed that I am having an interaction with a tawaif, which also works and is quite valid.
The screening of 'The Other Song' was organised by the Chandigarh Creative Cinema Circle