More than a century ago, India was engulfed by a unifying force that helped her break away from the chains of colonisation. It was the year of the First War of Independence, 1857, echoes of which reverberated through the decades, eventually making freedom a reality for us.
But, this is a story you and I have read, heard, and been told over and over again, in history textbooks and movies. We know all about the movement, the discontent that spread through the sepoys, pushing them to take a stand for their country and the national awakening that followed. Yet we know little about the people who made it possible.
Battles such as this are not won by the few leading figures standing on a pedestal, but by the scores who decide to put the cause above their well-being. Their stories are usually lost or hidden between the wrinkled pages of history.
For some, they are even erased.
The brave ‘Tawaifs’ or courtesans of India are among those fighters, whose stories of self-sacrifice have had a few listeners and even little physical record.
And yet, the story of Azeezunbai’s bravery continues to inspire, even though only in hushed tones.
The Cawnpore siege
The tension was on the rise as Indian soldiers all across the country were rising against the British officials. One such incident was in June 1857, when the Indian soldiers surrounded the East India Company’s British soldiers while they were laying siege to Cawnpore (now known as Kanpur). At the time, a courtesan was said to be with the soldiers, fighting alongside the Indian soldiers.
This courtesan was Azeezunbai, who was spotted on horseback in male attire, adorned with medals and armed with a brace of pistols.
An intriguing story as this has no mention in textbooks, although parts of it live in local legends, archives, historical reports and niche research papers. A case in point is the paper by Lata Singh, associate professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“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’. 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,” Singh writes
A spy, messenger, and fighter, Azeezubai was born in Lucknow to another courtesan. She later moved to the Lurkee Mahil in Oomrao Begum’s house in Kanpur.
Singh suggests that her migration from the cultural centre of Lucknow to the military cantonment of Kanpur could have been because of her passion for independence. In the paper, Azeezunbai is said to have been very close to the sepoys of the British Indian Army, particularly Shamsuddin Khan from the 2nd cavalry, who played a prominent role in the war of independence.
“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,” adds Singh.
She was among the many courtesans who bravely fought for India’s independence, some behind the veil, some without!
The forgotten sheores
In addition to Azeezunbai, Singh points out another name, Hossaini, as one of the key conspirators of the infamous Bibighar massacre which saw the death of over 100 captive British women and children.
Another such individual was the celebrated courtesan, Gauhar Jaan, who actively contributed to the Swaraj Fund to support the freedom movement. On Gandhi’s request, she had organised a fund-raising concert on the condition that he would attend the event. Although Gandhi failed to meet the condition, she sent half of the earnings to the movement, as mentioned in Vikram Sampath’s My Name is Gauhar Jaan.
But apart from these two, Singh writes, “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.”
She refers to the accounts of women coming out into the streets to battle against the British soldiers. Behind the veil, many worked as informers or financiers as well. Begum Hazrat Mahal, wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, was one such individual.
According to several accounts, she was a courtesan before marriage, and during the rebellion, she stepped up to fill the shoes of her exiled husband and led the Indian soldiers to seize control over Lucknow, although briefly.
Owing to their active involvement, the Tawaifs had to bear the consequences. By the 1900s, their social and financial status had lost its initial lustrous glory.
But, that still didn’t stop them.
Accounts of their contribution show their unflinching support to the nationalist cause.
Even during the non-cooperation movement, from 1920-1922, a group of courtesans from Varanasi extended their support to the independence struggle by forming a Tawaif Sabha. Singh writes that Husna Bai chaired the said sabha, encouraging the members to boycott foreign goods and wear iron shackles instead of ornaments in solidarity.
And despite all this, the world chose to forget them and their role towards freeing India.
“We never thought that tawaifs were important enough to document. But [the stories] are very well known in the oral narrative,” says Manjari Chaturvedi, whose initiative, The Courtesan Project, is trying to bring their stories to the forefront.
They have many names—tawaifs in the North, devadasis in the South, naikins in Goa, baijis in Bengal, and nautch girls for the Britishers—and yet, all of them, today, are used to incite a sense of obscenity. These were strong and independent women with the agency of life as well as sexuality. Their intellectual and cultural contribution, which was at its peak, slowly faded into a distorted image likened to prostitution since the late 19th century, feeding to their social ostracisation and exclusion from the glorious pages of history.
Eventually, a lack of the knowledge of such inspiring stories clouded in false judgement, is indeed our loss.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)