It’s a strange coincidence that I’m writing this piece on Jaddanbai on the same day when I got into a fiery discussion with a stranger on Instagram over the connotations of the word ‘tawaif’ — a word that finds an English equivalent in the word ‘courtesan’ — and how the tawaif, as a historico-cultural figure, was different from the prostitute. Lack, or rather a manipulation, of historical education is partly responsible for this failed understanding of the key differences between the figures. Many radical Indologists have highlighted that the culture of tawaifs goes way back to ancient times and that these women were mostly considered patrons of art, sophistication, and high culture. These women were traditionally trained as singers and performers and — as part of the nobility — exerted political influence. Because of the latter-most aspect, during the British annexation of India, tawaifs were naturally deemed equal threats in the British’s attempts to occupy the nation and thus were systematically maligned and equated with prostitutes by the British to rob them of the very authority they exhibited. Subsequently, some tawaifs resorted to prostitution — making prostitution a modern epiphenomenon in India — while a majority of them, however, retained their cultural legacies by performing on the stage and giving private shows.
The introduction of cinema in 1913 opened another door for them to communicate their lost legacy, and so Bombay cinema witnessed an influx of women like Kajjanbai, Zohrabai Ambalewali, and Naseem Banu, who attempted to recover the social gaps from where they emerged. Sadly, post-independence in ’47, the culture of tawaifs further declined by the rise of the institution of prostitution; this resulted in the blurring of lines between the tawaif and the prostitute, and I’d say that although Early Bombay Cinema has largely tried to address this issue, it has only complicated these concerns, forget resolved. Tawaif-like characters from films like Devdas (1935) and Singaar (1949) don’t exert that personality, and what happens is a delineation of their saintlike functions. Even in a film like Pakeezah (1972), where the central character is a tawaif, its representations are patriarchal and are subjected to the ideology that a tawaif’s road to happiness is via the home. A tawaif needs to get married, and settle in.
Though Pakeezah trepidates the paradigm of ‘respectable society’ by illustrating the marriage of a tawaif, it struggles to allow the tawaif that sense of liberty the community has exercised for almost centuries, and that’s where the narrative falters. The idea, then, becomes part empowering and part encumbering. The tawaif culture has almost reached its total dilapidation in the 21st century, and there are various accounts that record the broken history of an era like Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation (2017) and Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama (2019), and it’s worth exploring this untraversed territory of Indian history. Nevertheless, I know I digressed quite dangerously, but this backdrop is necessary to appreciate better the figure this FaceoftheMonth strives to celebrate.
In the history of Indian cinema, there have been some strong female personalities who have exerted an influence almost identical to their male counterparts, and it’s an accomplishment worth lauding more because these women belonged to a social milieu that was conservative and essentialist, a slippage in history which eclipsed female creativity. Many of these women were pioneers in some respects, especially in the business industry, one of them being Jaddanbai. Born to a tawaif mother, Jaddanbai soon followed in the footprints of the community she represented and received rigorous training in classical music from Shrimant Ganpat Rao, Ustad Moinuddin Khan, and Ustad Barkat Ali Khan before she began her acting career in the film industry with the release of Raja Gopichand (1933). She had already become a successful singer by the time she entered the industry, and her ghazals and songs were popular across India. She is known to have performed before the ruling nobility of many princely states, so one could imagine that Jaddanbai’s influence was far-reaching. It’s possibly because of this extravagant influence/authority she exercised that several personalities from the Bombay film industry were often quoted as being ‘scared’ of her. Now, that’s a topic for a brilliant biopic I’m rooting for, though I understand that because of the unavailability of historical records — or even any anecdotes of her close ones — a biopic on Jaddanbai might not hit the floor at all. However, I still think the story of Jaddanbai is an interesting riot of dramas and empowerment, and would make an excellent inspiration for a biopic. On a similar tangent, biopics on women like Fatma Begum (who is often deemed the first female director/producer of Indian cinema) and Ruby Myers/Sulochana (the first-ever female superstar) can be equally imagined, undoubtedly, but I think Jaddanbai’s story would fancy more diverse audiences . . . notably due to her association with her star-daughter, Nargis. I think, regardless, what’s important is that we recognise Jaddanbai’s contributions to the filmic landscape in Bombay and how her directorial visions have influenced/shaped the works of a new generation of progressive filmmakers in the 40s.
The 1930s marked the establishment of several film companies owned by women, one of them being Jaddanbai’s Sangeet Movietone. Her film company was known primarily for its reformatory content, which was reflected in films like Madam Fashion (1936) and Hriday Manthan (1936). Though the thematic concerns of Jaddanbai’s films often overlapped with the progressive ideology of the ruling Bombay Talkies, they should be read for their female points of view and perhaps then critiqued or compared against the socials made by the male directors of her time. Unfortunately, her film business could not thrive in the face of fierce competition. She ultimately began preparing Nargis for her film career, becoming her manager/accountant. It was common practice for mothers/grandmothers to handle the careers of young female stars, and Jaddanbai was part of that tradition. Meanwhile, she kept reinvigorating her career in music, thus becoming one of the first female music composers across Indian cinema alongside Saraswati Devi. Via a career spanning two decades, the name of Jaddanbai quickly transformed into a trailblazer who echoed the horrors of a wasted aesthetic, celebrated the laughter of a neomodern Draupadi, and comforted the anxieties of the self.
It’s a shame not much has been written about her — though I hope this changes and the interests of connoisseurs of history or cinema are remapped and re-evaluated. However, till that happens, it’s worth imagining Jaddanbai as the tawaif who wrote back, inspiring many to voice out their agonies. It’s no surprise, thus, that many of the songs in Bombay cinema featuring tawaifs are expressions of anti-patriarchy and are symbolic constructs implying the castration of men. Can we say that the source of these songs was the stories of women like Jaddanbai or Kajjanbai?
Well, nobody can tell, but again . . . it’s worth imagining.