People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 38

September 23, 2007

Making The ‘Margin’ Visible:

Courtesans And The Rebellion Of 1857



Lata Singh


HISTORY has emerged as an important site of contestation, especially for those in the margins. Thus, attempts have been made to bring the voice of the common people, invisibilised for a long time, to the forefront of history. Perhaps, the past needs to be also excavated to recover the voices of women. This negotiation becomes especially necessary when it comes to women performers who were associated with the 1857 Rebellion. They were considered to be ‘coarse’, ‘vulgar’, ‘loud’, ‘morally degraded’ and ‘sexually promiscuous’. These women had greater access to the public sphere and were relatively independent. Thus, they were outside rigid formations and not so clearly contained by the established order of caste, class and gender, or a demarcated space. As a result, they were considered ‘subversive’ and posed a threat to the established order. In fact, locating these women as subjects of history ‘unsettles’ the ‘respectable’ order of the middle class. It is perhaps this reason that accounts for the invisibility of women performers from the history of the 1857 Rebellion. Nationalist writings have negated or erased their creative aspect by excluding them from the framework of the respectable ‘nation’. After all, the representation of women as public entertainers and the locus of male desire did not serve the interests of the English-educated elite. The latter preferred the ‘sugrihini’ or the ‘good housewife’ as a counter-model to the female performers, who were stigmatised/stereotyped as ‘prostitutes’.


This article brings to the forefront one such performing community –– the courtesans, who were associated with singing and dancing. Tawaif, the term used for a courtesan, has accumulated moralistic, value-loaded connotations in popular imagination over time. Being equated to a ‘whore’ forced these women performers into silence. When they did speak, they had to reinvent themselves through polite myths to reinforce their self-esteem which had consistently been battered by references to them as ‘fallen’ and ‘dangerous’ women. Unfortunately little remains of the writings of these women, considered to be the most educated women of their times. Compounding the silence of these women has been the silence of scholars and historians. This has meant the erasure of a profession, with which many public women were involved, from history. Ironically, these women have remained invisible even in the writings of feminist scholars.




By looking at the role of courtesan in the 1857 Rebellion, an attempt has been made in this article to relocate these ‘loose’ subjects of colonial history and situate them and their role in the anti-colonial struggle. This would undoubtedly add a significant dimension to the historiography of the Rebellion, which suffers from the limitation of making these women invisible. The study on the ‘ordinary rebels’ of the Rebellion remains focused on the participation of men. Barring exceptions such as Rani Laxmibai, most discussions of the Rebellion hardly throw any light on the participation of ordinary women. Consequently, a study of the courtesans becomes very significant from a historical point of view, especially since there is historical evidence that shows that some of them played a significant role in politics, even though mainstream history-writing makes their political voice invisible.


This article looks at the role of one such courtesan, Azizun, in Kanpur during the 1857 Rebellion. Kanpur had been one of the important storm centres of the Rebellion. The rebels had attacked the cantonment at Kanpur, followed by its seizure. On June 27, 1857, the rebels had publicly slaughtered over 300 British men, women and children at the Satichaura Ghat. On July 15, a group of women and children who had survived were killed at the Bibighar. One of the constraints has been the availability of source materials. The sources available on the Rebellion in Kanpur are primarily colonial accounts. These are contemporary accounts of British survivors, diaries of British loyalists and depositions as part of the official reports prepared by the British. One has to read these colonial accounts ‘against the grain’. While going through these sources what has been intriguing is that despite the attempts made in mainstream history-writing to invisibilise such women, Azizun’s name figures in most colonial accounts. She also figures in the nationalist writings of V D Savarkar, and even in the work of nationalist historians like S B Chaudhury. In these writings she is praised for her role in the Rebellion, especially for her fight for the ‘freedom of the country’. Most accounts mention Azizun joining the Rebellion and riding on horseback in male attire, decorated with medals and armed with a brace of pistols. In fact, she seems to have joined in procession the day the flag was raised in Kanpur to celebrate the initial victory of Nana Sahib. In Kanpur Azizun’s name is alive in people’s memory. Recently a newspaper report mentioned how the people in Kanpur have demanded that one of the roads be named after Azizun.


Azizun lived in the Lurkee Mahil, in Oomrao Begum’s house in Kanpur. Her mother was a courtesan in Lucknow. It is said that she was born in 1832, left motherless when very young, and brought up in the house of a courtesan at Satrangi mahal, Lucknow. Perhaps, Azizun had left the city of Lucknow, a centre of culture, where the courtesans enjoyed patronage and came to Kanpur. It is not clear why she shifted to Kanpur, a city housing the ‘bazars’ and the military cantonment. Due to the paucity of sources one can draw some inferences from other literary writings. One such literary writing is Umrao Jaan by Ruswa where Umrao Jaan, a courtesan, shares her experience after shifting to Kanpur from Lucknow. Umrao mentions how she was busy performing in Kanpur and earned a lot of money. Although Umrao mentions that she did not like the ways and the manner of speech of the people of Kanpur and had nostalgic memories of Lucknow. Nevertheless, she enjoyed being her own mistress in Kanpur, which would not have been possible in Lucknow, where she would have been under a Khanum, a courtesan who was higher in the hierarchy. Consequently, one of the probable reasons for Azizun to shift to Kanpur may have been her strong passion for independence. Perhaps she did not want to be under someone’s patronage, being the kind of person she was, which is reflected in her role in the 1857 Rebellion.




Azizun was very close to the sepoys of the 2nd cavalry, many of whom visited her house. She was particularly close to Shamsuddin Khan, the sepoy of the 2nd cavalry who played an active role in the Rebellion. Meetings of the rebels took place at his house. Shamsuddin used to visit Azizun frequently. In most accounts it is mentioned that two days before the Rebellion began in Kanpur, Shamsuddin had gone to Azizun’s house and told her that Nana Sahib would be the Chief in a day or two and after that her house would be filled with gold mohurs. Azizun’s house was also the meeting point of sepoys. She had formed a group of women who went around fearlessly cheering the men in arms, attended to their wounds and distributed arms and ammunition. Azizun made one of the gun batteries her headquarters. This was the battery located to the north of Wheeler’s entrenchment, between the racket court and the chapel of Ease. It fired shots and shells into the entrenchment almost from the first day of the siege. During the entire period of the siege of Wheeler’s entrenchment, she was amidst soldiers. One of the eyewitnesses mentions that it was always possible to see her armed with pistols – in spite of the heavy firing – amongst her friends, who were the cavalrymen of the 2nd regiment.


Nana Sahib and Azimullah Khan both seemed to have known Azizun. She may have been aware of the planning of the Rebellion and may have been one of the key ‘conspirators’ of the Rebellion. It is speculated that she had a role in the ‘conspiracy’ to kill British women and children at Bibighar. But the role of another courtesan Hossaini, figures in most accounts related to the Bibighar massacre. Hossaini is suspected to have ordered the massacre of women and children at this place.


There are bound to be hundreds of stories about the role of women like Azizun in the Rebellion, but most of these seem to have gone unrecorded. In Lucknow, their role is documented as ‘covert’ and ‘generous financiers’ of the Rebellion. The British officials were aware that their kothas were meeting points where the Rebellion was planned. Consequently, the kothas were looked upon with suspicion as sites of political conspiracy. In fact, the role of the courtesans in the Rebellion of 1857 can be best judged from the ferocity of the British retribution that was directed against some of these women. It included large scale appropriation of their property. In Lucknow, the centre of courtesans, their names were on the lists of people whose property was confiscated by British officials for their proven involvement in the Rebellion of 1857. Ruswa’s Urmaro Jaan refers to how Umrao, who lived through the Rebellion, was forced to leave Lucknow, and how her establishment was looted.




How does one explain the participation of the courtesans in the Rebellion of 1857? One of the factors would have been their close association with nawabs, who were their chief patrons. The nawabs who were against the British since colonial rule had eroded their power. But their participation cannot be seen merely because of their close association with the nawabs. Such an argument would deny any agency or political voice to these women. After all, it was not necessary for the courtesans to participate in the Rebellion, even if they were under the nawabs. Azizun could have remained uninvolved, since participation involved severe risks. Moreover, one does not find any compulsion or pressure on her to participate in the 1857 Rebellion. In fact, Azizun was not even under anybody’s protection. She stayed in Kanpur city and ran her own kotha. To understand the reasons for the participation of courtesans in 1857, one needs to look at the historical context.


The courtesans formed an influential (female) elite at Hindu and Muslim courts in the kingdoms that made up the subcontinent before the British began to displace the rulers. They were recognized as preservers and performers of ‘high’ court culture, who actively shaped the developments in Hindustani music and Kathak dance. They were valued patrons of poets, scholars, holy men and, most importantly, talented musicians and dancers. They commanded great respect both in the courts and in society, and association with them bestowed prestige on those who were invited to their salons for cultural soirees.


However the advent of British power marked the erosion of the cultural power of the courtesan. British rule had marked the loss of the protection and patronage of the royal courts, which were their main patrons. The British government overlooked their artistic and creative element by equating their kothas with brothels. Further, the cultural identity of the courtesans was adversely undermined during the colonial period. They were subjected to medical laws (like Britain’s Contagious Disease Act of 1864) and bracketed with the prostitutes, in order to ‘control’ venereal disease afflicting the European soldiers. This meant that they were subjected to regulation, inspection and controls that were introduced.


The collective impact of the loss of court patronage, these regulations, and, subsequently, the material penalties extracted from them for their role in the 1857 Rebellion were a severe blow to the courtesans. It signalled the gradual debasement of an esteemed cultural institution and transformed it into common prostitution. The colonial government resumed control over much of the estates given to them by the nawabs, and discredited the nobility that was associated with them as ‘dissolute’ and ‘immoral’. Yet, when it came to matters such as using these women as prostitutes for the European garrison, or collecting income tax, the eminently pragmatic British set aside their high moral dudgeon, and decreed rules to make this possible. In fact, it became a part of official policy to select the ‘healthy’ and ‘beautiful specimens’ from among the kotha women, and arbitrarily relocate them in the cantonments for the convenience of the European soldiers. This not only dehumanised the profession, stripping it of its cultural function, but also made it easily accessible for men, while exposing the women to venereal infection from the soldiers. Stripped of the privileges, the courtesans fought against the assault on their persons, their property, and their ‘immorality’. In other words, from then on down the present-day they have struggled to retain their validity and some of the tangible benefits of a professional group.


However, the anger of the courtesans against British rule should not be exaggerated while explaining their participation in the Rebellion of 1857 since this would overlook their political role. What needs to be instead highlighted is that the courtesans felt the same way about the British, as many other who had joined the 1857 Rebellion. In fact, due to their position as educated and talented people they were aware of contemporary politics, the law and had connections with the local power elite. Besides, they were also well informed about the history of the urban locales where they lived. This made the courtesans politically conscious. For example, as the courtesans saw it, the British had deliberately twisted the truth about their kothas in order to denigrate nawabi culture with a desire to justify the annexation of Awadh in 1856.


An attempt has been made in this article to explore the public/political role of the courtesan. This has been achieved by weaving in the figure of the courtesan centrally into the political space, which has been hitherto denied and invisibilised in nationalist writings, given its search for ‘respectability’. The lives of women such as Azizun, who is neither the ‘respectable mother’ nor ‘wife’ – the quintessential inspirational figures of the nationalist historians – threatens to rupture the dominant bourgeois nationalist position on the 1857 Rebellion. It disrupts the trope of ‘mother India’ that has dominated anti-colonial (middle class) nationalist thought.