India in the 18th and 19th century was witness to a glamorous culture that formed much of the foundation of Indian classical music in the social structure and also helped to spread awareness among people. Mughal rule had given to India a new culture of ‘darbar’ or court music that transformed to a form of amusement for the elite class even after the decline of the empire. Kolkata became the seat of the courtesans, ‘nautch girls’ or b
aijis as they were called, who were talented singers. With the end of the Mughal empire, many sought a different form of livelihood, taking shelter in Kolkata where the zamindars, ‘baboos’ and British gentry would patronise them.
These socially ostracised women were no less powerful, talented and creative as any top singer in the present time. Their training was primarily from the court musicians, specially the sarenga players, who were usually the gurus who had a lot of experience and knowledge in classical music as they often accompanied singers of different gharanas. Therefore, most of the courtesans were deft in different gharanas of music.
Nawab Wajed Ali Shah’s exile from Lucknow after his defeat brought him to Kolkata in 1857. He settled in Metiabruz and had brought with him his harem, a train of servants, singers and dancers, all belonging to the north Indian gharanas. He set up court in Metiabruz that later became a seat of cultural enlightenment that seeped into Bengal. Perhaps since then, Kolkata became the cultural capital of India. The mid-19th century was a golden era of music in Bengal. Classical music, specially thumri, easily mixed into the culture of the city, enlightening the Bengalis as well. The Lucknow, Benaras and Agra gharanas found appreciation and patronage in Bengal.
The Baijis from Metiabruz quickly fell into the notice of the Bengali Rajas and Baboos. Some of the well-known patrons of the time were Radharaman Roy, Nilmoni Mullick, Rupchand Roy, Gopimohan Deb, Raja Rajkrishna Deb, Raja Nabakrishna Deb and others. The famous courtesans of the time were Nikki Bai, Hindun
Bai, Begum Jaan, Sapun Bai, Husna Bai and others. Later, several non-Bengali courtesans arrived and settled in Kolkata and made a name for themselves. They were Bari Malka Jaan, Gauhar Jaan, Malka Jaan Agrawali, Janki Bai and others. Bari Malka Jaan was also a poet and had even published a compilation of her works. Many Bengali courtesans also became famous singers at the darbars. They were Harimoti, Jadumoni, Manadasundari, Krishnabhamini, Ascharyamoyi, Pannamoyi, Angurbala and Indubala.
Although society treated them as outcaste, their contribution to Indian classical music and also to Kolkata’s cultural enlightenment is undoubtable. Bowbazar became the seat of these cultural storehouses where talented women would organise daily musical soirees for their valuable patrons. Many were multi-talented women like Gauhar Jaan who could sing in 10 different Indian languages. But along with talent, fame and power came competition. Organising ‘mujra’ in adjacent ‘kothas’ of Bowbazar provided a lot of choice for the patrons, but also brought jealously and enmity among the women.
In later years, many singers of Kolkata trained in classical music from these courtesans. Ram Kumar Chattopadhyay had written in his autobiography that his initiation into singing was by Angurbala. Musicologist Raja Sourindra Mohan Tagore of Pathuriaghata had encouraged and sponsored the education of Jadumoni, who was the daughter of a servant of his palace. She was a talented singer and could also play the esraj. She later became the principal of Bengal Academy of Music.
The courtesan culture waned after the Independence. The Baboos and zamindars lost property and power and soon the courtesans were left high and dry. However, their upholding this rich culture of Indian classical music and dance, specially thumri and kathak, is commendable.