Most of you out there must have heard about the tragic tale of Devdas, brought to life on the silver screen multiple times, played across time right from Dilip Kumar to Shah Rukh Khan. In the last version, too, the ‘tawaif’ Chandramukhi was immortalized by the lovely Madhuri Dixit, mesmerising us all with her graceful dances. Wondering why we are discussing a Bollywood flick on this page? Because Devdas, too, was one of the many movies that failed to acknowledge the difference between a ‘tawaif’ and a prostitute. Yup, there’s a big difference.
Etymologically, the term “tawaif” can be seen as the plural form of the Arabic “Taifa”, and as such meant “group”. The tawaifs were female entertainers who excelled in the arts of poetry, music, dancing, singing, and were often considered to be the authority on etiquette. In many ways they may be compared with the Japanese ‘geishas’.
By the 18th century they had become a central element in polite, refined north Indian culture. In fact, it was not uncommon for the noble gentry to send their children to famous tawaifs for training in the arts. In time some of these women were able to accumulate immense wealth and yielded much power in their circles.
Unfortunately, the term slowly become synonymous with a prostitute, and is now not at all a reflection of this once noble institution. For, their sphere of entertainment also included the more erotic variety, and that contributed to their downfall.
Perhaps none other than Begum Samru can personify what the tawaif tradition in reality was. What is remarkable about her story is that she is not remembered only for her beauty but also her exemplary leadership qualities that transformed her from a nautch girl to the ruler of Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh.
Born as Zeb-un-nissa, Begum Samru was also known as Farzana by the locals in the streets of Chawri Bazaar and was one of the most admired Nautch girls in the brothel area of Old Delhi due to her flawless complexion and petite stature. Though her real identity remains controversial, several theories are prevalent. Some believe she was born in 1753 to a courtesan and Asad Khan who was of a Muslim Arab descent, settled in Meerut and later shifted to Delhi in 1760 after his death. Some argue she was the daughter of Latif Ali Khan who was a nobleman of Arab descent. Still others believe that she was born to a decent Mughal Kashmiri family but was later sold to a European.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is known for certain that in 1767, the beauty of 14-year old Farzana charmed a 45-year old European mercenary soldier named Walter Reinhardt Sombre from Luxemburg who was stationed in Delhi. She then started living with him as his lover. And it was from Sombre that ‘Samru’ was derived and became locally popular.
Since the times were turbulent, there were various battles in which Farzana, too, would participate. Dressed up like a man, she would ride out with her troops to fight the enemies and soon became well known for her skills on the battlefield.
On Walter Sombre’s death, she took over his seat in Meerut and led the trained mercenary troops consisting mainly of Europeans and Indians. In 1803, after the British rule settled in North India, she retained the position of an independent ruler of Sardhana. Though she converted to Christianity and took over a new name as Joanna, she was still popular as Begum Samru in the area.
In 1806, when Emperor Akbar Shah ascended the Mughal Throne, he gifted Begum Sombre a beautiful and grand Palace in Chandni Chowk. This white palatial mansion was extravagantly decorated with high ceilings, large spacious rooms supported by strong columns and a huge garden surrounding the Palace spreading over half of Chandni Chowk. Owing to the past life of Begum Sombre, the palace was also known as the ‘Chudiwali Haveli’ and described by many as a virtual paradise adorned with fully blossomed fragrant flowers and fringed with cypress trees.
This place has now converted into one of North India’s largest market for electrical goods and is known as the Bhagirath. Not surprisingly, it is difficult for a visitor to imagine this sadly ruined building in its original grandeur.
Nevertheless, do make it a point to check out this place, yet another gem in the Pandora’s Box that our beloved Chandni Chowk is.
(With research and contributions from Sanchita Srivastava, history student at DU and avid writer)