A tawaif (Urdu: طوائف, Hindi: तवायफ़) was a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia, particularly during the era of the Mughal Empire. The tawaifs contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.
The patronage of the Mughal court before and after the Mughal Dynasty in the Doab region and the artistic atmosphere of 16th century Lucknow made arts-related careers a viable prospect. As well as the demand for (mostly) male music and dance teachers, many girls were taken at a young age and trained in both performing arts (such as Kathak and Hindustani classical music) as well as literature (ghazal, thumri) to high standards.
Once they had matured and possessed a sufficient command over dancing and singing, they became a tawaif, high-class courtesans who served the moneyed and the nobility. It is also believed that young nawabs to be were sent to these "tawaifs" to learn "tameez" and "tehzeeb" which includes the ability to differentiate and appreciate good music and literature, perhaps even practice it, especially the art of ghazal writing.
These courtesans would dance, sing (especially ghazals), recite poetry (shairi) and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often incidental, it was not assured contractually. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors.
The image of the tawaif has had an enduring appeal, immortalized even in Bollywood movies.
Films with a tawaif as a central character include Pakeezah (1972), Amar Prem (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981), Tawaif (film) (1985), Devdas (2002), and Umrao Jaan (2006).
Other films depict a tawaif in a supporting role, often in situations where a man goes to them in loveless marriage or life.
Today, the term in Urdu has undergone semantic pejoration and is now synonymous with a prostitute. [wikipedia]