The impressive tawa’if

Holly Black in theFword:

Manorma-Joisi-dances-at-the-launch-of-AMCs-Tawaif-exhibition-3Hidden away from the Royal Geographical Society’s main gallery site, a modest exhibition depicting the fascinating history of India’s tawa’if is prefaced by gorgeous sound recordings made by Fred Gaisberg, one of the first North Americans to travel to India in the early 20th century and document its diverse musical cultures. As talented vocalists, dancers and usually multi-instrumentalists, tawa’ifs enjoyed unsurpassable fame, socio-economic standing and political leverage as members of a cultural elite reserved for the entertainment of the royal courts. Such a position allowed these women to elude normal patriarchal dominance, but fell victim to new moral constraints imposed by colonial rule which considered such practices to have dangerous, sexually charged motivations. Nowadays, the term tawa’if is more likely to be considered synonymous with prostitution.

The Royal Geographical Society seeks to present the rise and fall of these women over the course of 300 years, from the Mughal period to present day, which is an incredible ask for even the most comprehensive exhibition programme. This display is small, featuring a number of informative texts that attempt to present anecdote alongside complex explanations of various artistic styles and their provenance and evolution over several centuries. Although the content itself is fascinating, there appears to be no clear narrative overview, resulting in a frustrating and slightly incomprehensible patchwork that often leaves you darting from one wall text to another in the hope of unravelling this complex web of information.

More here.