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Tawaif – Presented By Pt. Vijay Kichlu

Supriya Newar

The recent flyover collapse has had collateral damage across the city. One such damage was that the performing artist for the evening, Smt. Rageshri Das got inordinately delayed and her rendition was truncated to a brief one.

It was the second half of the show however, that was the stealer. Titled, ‘tawaif’ it saw Padmashri Pt. Vijay Kichlu take the audience through rare, vintage recordings of Zohrabai (Agrewali), Shashad Begum, Chanda bai, Janki bai and others. Each one a tawaif – a highly acclaimed courtesan of her time.

Seated on a chair with the entire stage to himself, other than a blown-up, life-size image of Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi from Devdas for company, Pt. Kichlu the raconteur narrated the journey and highlights of some of the key tawaifs that India has seen in the 20th century. Copiously researched, and interspersed with voices from yore coming alive, his narration was like an informal guft-a-gu sans power points and other gadgetry making it personal and endearing.

He illustrated how these tawaifs who moved around in the most elite circles of society wielded a great deal of influence and power. It was Gauhar Jaan who was known to move around on Red Road in Calcutta in a buggy drawn by 6 horses, a privilege reserved for the Governor General only. When charged for her act and asked to pay Rs. 1000 as penalty, she declared that she would continue to move in the same fashion and was ready to dole out Rs. 1000 as penalty every day!

On a particular evening when a certain Nawab took the stairs to hear Husna bai perform, he was informed that she was not in the mood for a performance. His efforts to double the already handsome fee yielded no results. It was later that the truth came out. Husna bai had felt that the Nawab had taken the stairs quite clumsily making a noise that was rather inelegant for a Nawab and had therefore denied him a performance!

Pt. Kichlu shared several such golden nuggets, all along emphasizing on the mastery and calibre of these artists who were known as tawaifs, a term often misused and misinterpreted.

This kind of a lecture demonstration was a departure for Sangeet Ashram, which is a platform for Indian classical music and stages several programs every year. A departure, which going by the response of the audience, was greatly welcomed and enjoyed.