Umrao Jaan ‘Ada’

If you came here looking for a review of Aishwarya Rai starrer 2006 movie Umrao Jaan, it is here. This post is about the novel by Mirza Hadi Ruswa.

This was one of the novels I had read at home, before convocation. It’s in Urdu, but understandable for most part. Especially because some of the particularly tough terms were explained.

The book was quite an eye-opener regarding the lives and social role of the tawayafs (tawayaf = prostitute). This is written in an auto-biographical fashion. The preface given by the author says that he has actually noted down a narrative told by a real tawayaf of her life.

Of course, many of you know this character “Umrao Jaan” from the memorable Rekha starer movie of the same name. I had seen it long back – so can not comment on the nuances of how well the movie reflects the book, but from whatever I remember of plot and characters, it was pretty much the same story.

Again, I do not remember if this was so clear in the movie, but what really made me interested in the narrative of the book is the description of how the tawayafs lived and what their role was in the society. The most known aspect is probably the musical talent of these women. Most of them were trained in classical music (singing as well as dancing) since their childhood and a rigorous training it used to be. Of course, the natural talent would create the difference in the quality and this was well recognized and respected. So, there were those who were more skilled and famous than others. Also they were well learned, with their education being arranged from the very beginning and another thing they would have a good training on was Urdu poetry (Ghazals and Nazms). Some of them, including Umrao Jaan, even composed on their own. Again the talent for appreciating poetry was recognized and respected, and those who could do it better, would deserve a higher level of appreciation.

There was also a class division. Lucknow kee tawayaf was not to be treated in the same manner as a paturia from countryside (Lucknow kee tawayaf = prostitute from Lucknow, paturiya also means prostitute, but while tawayaf is the refined Urdu word, paturiya is more a part of folk language and signifies a prostitute of lower class). Those from lower classes would not have equally good training and would not be as refined. They living standards would also be lower. The standards of upper class tawayafs were different and they would not adopt cheap means of earning money, like going and waiting on the doors of some raees (rich), which was a custom with the paturias of “lower genesis”!! Even when they served their clients, the formal fee (to be taken by the elderly woman, who would run the brothel) and the informal perks (all the gifts that came to the tawayaf) would be much higher. Further, the relationship was not transactional. As in it wasn’t that anyone could come, pay money and ask for a night with a particular tawayaf. For most of the good ones, the relationship with their client would be like a job and would continue for a long time. Not that it would not break, but that has to happen before she would move to entertain some other client. Of course, getting emotionally involved with a client would not be considered prudent and professional, no matter for how long the relationship has conitnued. But you can not deny the emotions of those young girls, can you? Sometimes, horror stories resulted from these emotional involvement. But I was talking of the standard of the tawayafs. If they would visit any of their client’s place, the arrangements had to be up to the mark. And as they grew famous and financially stronger, they would have a choice of not entertaining the clients sexually and earn their living only from mujras (a particular type of singing and dancing). This is what the protagonist of the novel, Umrao Jaan, did in her later days. And unlike what we often think, its not that the role of these tawayafs is the society was restricted to entertaining rich males sexually or musically. Their presence for doing mujra in the various functions of royalty and other elites was a very accepted, even essential ritual. And it need not be commanded and enjoyed by the male members of the family only. There were instances in the novel, which showed that the female members of such households also invited them to the functions. Also there did not appear to be any taboo associated with mixing up of these females from elite families with the tawayafs. Of course, all the mannerism and social distance had to be maintained, but tawayafs were not looked as someone to be kept away from, to be out-casted, as we would generally assume.

In short, the novel was a good description of an individual’s life (which is pretty well covered in the movie too), but what it also excels at is providing a rich and natural description of a section of society, about which we may not be that well-informed.

Where exactly can we place these “upper class” prostitutes in our mind map? Were they like any other artists patronized by the royalty? Probably yes. But then this form of art was certainly not what someone from outside would willingly adopt to. In fact, it is often said that a certain section of society had associated classical music with tawayfs so much, that it was considered a prohibited thing for well-bred people to learn. Even Umrao Jaan was not a “khaandaani tawayaf“. She was kidnapped by a rogue neighbour while still a child and was sold to the brothel. All her training happened from there. But for someone growing up in that environment it came naturally, like the daughters of the owner of the brothel. Later, even Umrao Jaan (this wasn’t even her real name) adopts to it and finds the things there quite natural. The expressions like “She did not have the skills of a tawayaf at all” come out very naturally of her. We can’t talk of skills of a tawayaf without some contempt, can we? But then the way there are skills of a good wife, there were skills of a good tawayaf. And they used to learn it even more diligently than many girls would learn the skills of a good wife.

There is also a situation described in the novel of when Umrao Jaan, accidently, lands in her native place and finds her mother. Both were overwhelmed with emotion. Her younger brother was not at home while this happened. But later when he comes to know that she had come to the home, he gets really angry, comes to her lodging, reproaches her for what she was into and wonders as to why hadn’t she killed herself. And of course, asks her to go away and never to come back. What an irony! The family members do not want to see you, but all the rich and royal people are out there, treating you with a lot of respect (certainly more than what you would get as a daughter of some government servant – that’s what her father was) and even awe.

Its quite confusing actually. I can not think of a parallel situation in the present. So, it’s quite difficult for me to imagine the dynamics of these social roles and relations. Today, at least in India, we take a rather unidimensional view of lives of prostitutes. Even when one talks of legitimizing the profession, it is from a very different perspective. And even if there is a sympathy for such a demand, it does not come out of a normal sociocultural framework, but from an intellectual and economic view-point.

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About Jaya

Jaya Jha is an entrepreneur, a techie, a writer and a poet. She was born and brought up in various towns of Bihar and Jharkhand. A graduate of IIT Kanpur and IIM Lucknow, she realized early on that the corporate world was not her cup of tea. In 2008, she started, one of the first print-on-demand publishing platform in India. She currently lives in Bangalore and divides her time between writing and working on her company's latest product InstaScribe ( with a vision to make it the best e-book creation tool. Blog: Twitter: @jayajha Facebook:

21 thoughts on “Umrao Jaan ‘Ada’

  1. Very interesting. Do you know in which period of the history was this predominant in the society? and in which places?

  2. In this particular story, there is a mention of turmoil created in their lives by the 1857 revolution. So, that should the period till when these social dynamics could still be seen. Again this description was of Lucknow (the chowk area πŸ™‚ yeah – you have seen it). There would be a culture associated with other places (like Banaras) too, but I have an inkling that the refinement of the kind "Lucknow culture" would exhibit would be limited to very few places. In the same novel, Umrao Jaan spends some time outside Lucknow and comes across poets who use the titles like "Lucknowee" (belonging to Lucknow) to gain credentials from themselves in places like Kanpur (did not appear as connected to Lucknow then, as it does now). There were some stories she narrated of people using it even in places like Hyderabad. Well, as it happened, these poets mostly plagiarized poetries of famous poets of Lucknow and presented them as their own to the people of other places (how disconnected the world was then!!). One such person, when he got to know that Umrao Jaan, who was staying in his city, was actually from Lucknow, came to her and to impress her narrated a poetry citing it as his own and claiming that she must have heard his name. Although, she did not outrightly embarrass him, she knew very well that the original author was someone else!! I am writing little incoherently, I suppose – almost extending the post here πŸ™‚ Looks like UPA government and its reservation has taken a toll on me!!

  3. Thanks for the description of the book. Actually, ‘Umrao Jaan Ada’ was made into a film in Pakistan around a decade before Muzaffar Ali made it in India. You can find some info on the Pakistani film here. And I think it was made a couple of more times in Pakistan after this one.

  4. This reminds me of “A Suitable Boy” – Vikram Seth.
    A very graphic picture of tawayaf tradition in lukhnow,
    awadh setting, however, in an early post independence era.

    Talking of parallels in present, the bargirls come to the mind.
    I have heard many a first hand accounts. The “Maximum City” – Suketu Mehta, has one story entirely on a bargirl, a kinda Lukhnow ki Tawayaf in status. There is emotinally charged meeting with the estranged father, as well.

    More it changes, more it remains the same:)

  5. Pingback: Umrao Jaan (2006) « Miles to go…

  6. Could anybody please tell or give some hints whether, umrao jaan was a fictious character of the urdu poet ruswa or did she really existed? If she really existed, is there any proofs or some clues existing presently……?

  7. I mean i need the original one, i do not know if the novel was remaked , thanks Jaya for the discription of the book

  8. i like romance and umaro jane ada is the first modern urdu novel.if any person thought about love and any thing who help in love plz contact my no and my eamail my cell no is 03324782235

  9. Its actually not very correct to equate a tawaif and a prostitute. Tawaif’s had a culture that was always seen with awe. But ofcourse they were distant from the rest of the society. Its even said that… at certain times many family people wanted their daughters to learn etiquette from the tawaifs.

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