Tawaifnama, by documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan, is an intricately woven web of stories about tawaifs (courtesans), the elite professional performers and entertainers who were custodians of Hindustani classical music and dance. An influential cultural force until the middle of the 20th century, tawaifs enjoyed considerable stature, wealth, and property, as well as the support of wealthy patrons. Trained in music, dance, languages, and the erotic arts, tawaifs were also the lovers of their patrons. The unusual sexual lives of tawaifs made them outliers who were placed firmly on the margins of “respectable” society. While tawaifs often bore the children of their wealthy patrons, thereby becoming an extension of their families, they were denied the legitimacy and social standing that the wives and their children enjoyed. On the other hand, the tawaif was an influential figure in the life...

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