They were perhaps the least talked about women in colonial India. Yet, they were the standard bearers of a unique and exquisitely refined culture rooted in the fabled city of the Nawabs, Lucknow. Universally known as the loveliest entertainers in Asia, the Lucknow courtesans of the highest kind, known as the deradwar tuwaif, were as different from the other prostitutes of the old city as emeralds from mud. The nobles of the Nawabs’ court hired these women to teach their sons courtly etiquette, poetry and music. The women were trained for years, learning multiple languages, musical composition, poetic composition and the art of dance.
The greatest of the courtesans lived on the grounds of the Nawabs palaces, often given a pension for life.
The grandees of Lucknow vied with each other in building the most beautiful (or fantastic) structures possible.
William Howard Russell of The Times, the widely traveled war correspondent, described Lucknow while covering the 1857 Uprising: “Not Rome, not Athens, not Constantinople, not any city I have ever seen appears to me so striking and beautiful as this; and the more I gaze the more its beauties seem to grow upon me.”
The walled gardens, the golden minarets and oddly shaped buildings cast a spell on many who ventured there. Artists of all kinds from all over Asia and Europe flocked to Lucknow to tap the apparently limitless wealth of the Nawabs.
The Nawabs ( a word meaning “governor”) were Shias from Persia. They were fabulously wealthy, free spending patrons of all the arts. Architecture, music, dance and poetry all reached a high point of cultivation in Lucknow.
Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that the dredwar tuwaif, who were the most accomplished of all the city’s entertainers also became opponents of the British occupation. They were powerful people whose power was often hidden, and as an occupying force, the British did not like this.
Recently, the beauty of the Nawabi civilization resurfaced in an epoch making exhibition entitled: India’s fabled city: The Art of Courtly Lucknow. Held in both Paris and Los Angeles, this exhibition put on view many treasures created for the Nawabs.
To learn more about the unique courtesans of Lucknow and the splendours of the city and court.
With the renewed interest there have been a major exhibit launched both in North American and Europe in 2011. Everything old is new again.