The tawaif who helped Gandhi fight British Raj, was raped, abused, died in…

The tawaif who helped Gandhi fight British Raj, was raped, abused, died in…

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi is fictional but one of its plots borrows elements from a true story involving Mahatma Gandhi

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi has been trending on Netflix ever since its released earlier this month. The show, a fictionalised take on Lahore’s famous mohalla of courtesans (tawaifs), has been both praised and criticised. And while the story of Heeramandi, the show, is largely fictional, the real Heera Mandi very much exists. And so does the tale of one courtesan who dared rise against the British Empire, just like in the show.

How Heeramandi marries tawaifs’ performances with freedom struggle

Bhansali’s Heeramandi stars Aditi Rao Hydari as one of the six principal characters. Her Bibbojaan is a tawaif from Mallikajaan’s kotha but she secretly aids the revolutionaries working against the British during the Quit India movement. The show depicts how Bibbojaan monetarily helps the freedom fighters in their war against the British and the eventual price she pays for it.

The real story of the tawaif who fought the British

The real incident from which Heeramandi seemingly borrows this episode did not take place in Lahore, nor was it from anytime around the Quit India movement. This incident was from Benares in the 1920s, when the most famous courtesan of the region was Gauhar Jaan. During that time, Mahatma Gandhi, who had recently returned from South Africa, began the Swaraj fund to fight the Britsh Raj. He met Gauhar Jaan, who was a crorepati and considered one of the wealthiest Indians then. In 1920, Gandhi earned Gauhar Jaan to raise funds for the Swaraj Movement. Gauhar Jaan agreed for a fundraising performance but laid down a condition that Gandhi would have to attend.

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The real Gauhar Jaan

In the end, Gandhi did not attend the performance himself but Maulana Shankat Ali as his representative. Gauhar Jaan’s performance raised Rs 24,000 – a princely sum at that time. However, seeing that Gandhi himself did not come for the performance, Gauhar Jaan only handed over Rs 12,000 to the Maulana. “Mahatma couldn’t keep his word given to a mere tawaif while he speaks of honesty and sincerity. Since he has only kept half of his promise, I too shall be giving only half of the original amount I intended to donate,” she reportedly said, as quoted in the book My Name Is Gauhar Jaan by Vikram Sampath

Gauhar Jaan’s life and times

Gauhar Jaan is widely regarded as India’s first crorepati singer, who had her own personal train. However, her rise to the top was not a glorious one. Daughter of a courtesan, she grew up in a kotha and was sexually abused as a pre-teen. Reports suggest that she was raped at 13. However, Gauhar Jaan was able to put that trauma behind her and become arguably the first singing superstar of India. She died in 1930 at the age of 56.

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