Thursday 4 June 2015

A Salon Guest: The Fall of the Tawaif

Today it's my pleasure to welcome the wonderful Mariana Gabrielle, author and all round good egg, who is here to tell us of the fall of the Tawaif.


In La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess, Mayuri Falodiya, brothel-keeper and trainer of Indian mistresses to be placed with noblemen, tells the heroine, Kali Matai, “Dancing in a kotha in India, you would command the influence of the most powerful rajahs [1] and nabobs [2] and firangis. [3]”

Indeed, the history of the Indian tawaif, a female caste of courtesans to the nobility, is much more exalted than the life Kali leads in Regency London, even as the renowned dancer and courtesan, La Déesse Noire. Had she been born under slightly different circumstances, and had she remained in India, she might have graced the rooms of a rajah or maharajah [4].

A Salon Guest: The Fall of the Tawaif

Prior to the military invasion of India, a tawaif was a respected member of Mughal society, albeit one who might be found in the beds of the highest of the nobility, the most important political leaders, and the wealthiest of the elite. With a lengthy tradition of sacred mythology involving courtesans, including a firm place in the panoply, it is not surprising that such women were glorified and exalted, given a prominent place in the harems of India’s royalty and nobility.

Much like the Japanese geisha, tawaifs were known for their contributions to the cultural traditions of music, dance, theatre, and literature, as well as for their knowledge of and emphasis on the finer points of etiquette and protocol. In fact, young nobles—nawabs—were often trained in etiquette by tawaifs, at the same time learning an appreciation of their civilization’s literature, art, and music.

The traditional Indian kotha, then, was not the equivalent of a brothel (as it is when fictionally set in the middle of Regency London), but rather a mansion—it might even be referred to as a palace—where tawaifs resided under their own control without the oversight of any male member of society, which was not common practice among most women of the time and place.

In La Déesse Noire, the Masala Rajah Gentleman’s Retreat housed a one-room kotha of sorts (rather than the kotha housing the residents). In this case, it was only part of the bordello, an area where relatively chaste entertainments might be indulged either before, after, or by contrast to, more salacious back rooms where the bulk of Mayuri’s profits were made. In London, Indian women were not exalted, and even a former royal courtesan like Mayuri Falodiya must still make ends meet.

A Salon Guest: The Fall of the Tawaif

As the British gained power in India, a systematic campaign was waged to denigrate the local and regional power structure. The nobility was portrayed as corrupt and dissolute—the men effeminate and debauched; the women immoral and licentious. Since tawaifs were an integral part of the cultural and political elite, and so part of the trouble being caused for the British Empire, propaganda equated kothas with brothels and tawaifs with prostitutes.

After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British military took possession of most of the kothas, and the land on which they stood, which had been owned by tawaifs. Subsequently, the British impressed many of the women into service as prostitutes for their garrisons. This effectively separated the sexual components of their lives from the historical and cultural significance of their caste. Slowly, their well-deserved reputation as educated, gifted singers, dancers, and poets was denigrated to the standing of mere prostitutes. Thus, they lost influence, status, power—and the respect due their contributions to the culture of the Mughal Empire.

[1] Kings
[2] From Mayuri’s perspective, Indian governors or officials, not a European returned from India with a fortune (because she left India before the majority of such officials were British).
[3] Foreigners (the aforementioned Europeans)
[4] Emperor


Courtney, David. The Tawaif, the Anti-Nautch Movement, and the Development of North Indian Classical Music. Music of India. 13 April 2014. Web. 14 Nov 2014 <>
Haynes, Douglas and Gyan Prakash (eds.). Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1991.
Jaishankar, K. and Debarati Haldar. “Prostitution in India: Issues and Trends.” ERCES Online Quarterly Review, 3.2 (2006). Web. 14 Nov 2014. <>
Vajpeyi, Yogesh. “Fall of a culture.” Tribune India 20 September 2009. Web. 14 Nov 2014 <>

Meet Kali and read her story in La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess, to be released June 10, available for pre-order now.

Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai has been destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful noblemen—though she hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn. Finding herself under the control of ruthless men, who will not be moved by her legendary allure, she has no choice but to use her beauty toward their malicious and clandestine ends.

When those she holds most dear are placed in peril by backroom political dealings, she enlists some of the most formidable lords in England to thwart her enemies. But even with the help of the prominent gentlemen she has captivated, securing Kali’s freedom, her family, and the man she loves, will require her protectors stop at nothing to fulfill her desires.

Pre-order now for June 10 delivery:

About the Author

Mariana Gabrielle is a pseudonym of Mari Christie, a professional writer, editor, and designer with almost twenty-five years’ experience. Published in dozens of nonfiction and poetry periodicals since 1989, she began writing mainstream historical fiction in 2009 and Regency romance in 2013. She is a member of the Bluestocking Belles, the Writing Wenches, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Her first Regency romance, Royal Regard, was released in November 2014.

To connect with Mariana Gabrielle:

Written content of this post copyright © Mari Christie, 2015. Graphics collected and digitized by Steve Browne and John Verkleir.


Anonymous said...

This looks so pretty!!! Thank you for hosting me. It was so lovely to go a little bit deeper than one can in a Facebook post.

bevieann 61 said...

Looks very good!

Catherine Curzon said...

My pleasure!

Catherine Curzon said...

I'm looking forward to it!

Unknown said...

Very very interesting book !!!

Catherine Curzon said...

I think so too!

caroline Wrarfield said...

Interesting historical and cultural background, Mari. Thanks for the explanations. (and I just want to say, Catherine is a good egg, too!)

Catherine Curzon said...

That's very decent of you!

Unknown said...

Great historical information and so sad who knows all of the contributions that have been lost to the arts due to this :(

Catherine Curzon said...

It really is; it's a subject I knew nothing about, so Mari has certainly taught me a few things!

Unknown said...

Can you tell me who made those paintings and what was the time when they were made?