Kombai S Anwar

Published in The Hindu, dated January 05, 2018installation of Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan copy

It wasn’t just another royal wedding, when Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan, the last Nawab of Carnatic, took Jahangir Baksh as his second wife. Unlike his first wife, who hailed from a Hyderabadi noble family and chosen by the elders, Jahangir Baksh with whom the Nawab had madly fallen in love, was a dancing girl, a courtesan otherwise known as the Tawaif or Kanchen. On November 24, 1848, he married the dancing girl Jahangir Baksh and awarded her the title Azamunnisa Begum. The tawaifs were female entertainers who excelled in the arts of poetry, music, dancing, singing, and were considered to be well-versed in etiquette or what was known as ‘Aadaab.’ Highly respected for their politeness and refinement, their entertainment was a fine balance of classical song and dance and romantic enticement.

Though the tawaifs were no strangers to the Tamil country, in Madras they were mostly known as ‘Kanchen.’ “The elite among the tawaifs in the Mughal court were usually referred to as Kanchen” says Saba Dewan, an independent documentary film maker, who had made a film on the tawaifs of Varanasi and is currently writing a book on the same theme. In the 1760s when Nawab Muhammad Ali Walajah moved his durbar from Arcot to Madras, it was only natural that the court musicians and dancers, well-versed in Hindustani, followed him to the city.

According to Sawanihat-I-Mumtaz, which chronicles the history of the Nawabs of Carnatic, “Latifa, Tanu and Sajni, known as Sona, were the dancing girls” and “Aminud Din Khan and Ram Singh Bayragi” were the musicians often invited by Nawab Umdat ul Umra to perform at the palace of his senior sister, Sultan Unnisa Begum. Umdat ul Umra, who also wrote poetry under the pen name Mumtaz, occasionally asked the musicians to set his verses to Hindustani tunes and even chose the dancing girl to sing and dance the verse. An occasion like his father Walajah’s birthday was celebrated with Sona singing and dancing the verses of Umdat ul Umrah set to tune by Aminuddin Khan and Ram Singh.


Over a period of time, Madras became home to a number of Kanchen looking for patronage and a locality sprang up in the heart of Madras, right next to Amir Mahal at Royapettah.

Mir Bakshi Ali Street, Mohammed Hussain Street and Jani Jahan Khan Road, where interestingly the Anglo Indians also lived, became the centre of a thriving Hindustani music and dance tradition in Madras. Perhaps due to the predominant number of dancing girls and musicians at Madras, who originated from Hubli Dharwad, the two streets and the road came to be known as Kanchenwada, as wada in Marathi means a locality or a traditional complex with several mansions for different members of a family or a community.

A century after Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan passed away the tradition was still alive in Madras. Old timers recall that as the night wore on, the ‘Kanchenwada’ came alive to the rhythms of the tabla, harmonium, dholak, sitar and sarangi, competing with the ghungroo of the dancing girls, who sang sensuous thumris from Urdu ghazals and popular Hindi film song.

For the elite North Indian in Madras, it was at the Kanchenwada, at the mehfil, that some of the finest ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, Kaifi Azmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Shahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badauni (UP) and many other poets could be heard. One could also listen to the likes of Ustad Bismillah Khan, ‘who at the invitation of Nayab Jan Bai played Shehnai at her house’ says Saleem, who learnt the Sitar from Ustad Ahmad Hussain. Just like their patrons, among the Kanchen there were both Hindus and Muslims.

Kamala Bai, Gulzar Bai, Radha Bai, Haseena, Mumtaz, Nazeeraa Banu, Nayab Jan Bai and Baby Bai were some of the names that the old timers remember with fondness. The Kanchen were held in such high esteem that ‘the rich used to send their children to the tawaifs to learn etiquette,’ says Rauf, a senior photographer, who spent his childhood in the Kanchenwada.

Cinema and the Kanchen

“The kanchen also sang popular songs from Hindi films such as ‘Pakeezah,’ ‘Kohinoor,’ ‘Taj Mahal,’ ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and ‘Umrao Jaan’,” says Laiq Ahmed, who himself wrote poems for the Kanchen. Though the arrival of cinema meant new entertainment avenues for the masses, and possibly declining patronage, many Kanchen took to the medium. “Nasreen Banu had danced in Gemini studio’s Hindi film ‘Paigham’,” says Ilavenil, a Tamil writer who also happened to be her neighbour on Jani Jahan Khan Road. Baby Bai, the most popular of the Madrasi Kanchen of the 1950s made a guest appearance in ‘Gharana’ as a nurse, says Laiq Ahmed. She also made a film, which of course bombed, recollected Abdur Razaaq, who met Baby first as a patron and ended up marrying her in 1960.

Like the dancing girls, the Hindustani musicians too found place in the Tamil film industry. Ustad Ahmad Hussain Khan from ‘Achpal Gharana’ in Pune, moved to Madras at the young age of 14. He subsequently became the Choudhry (caretaker) of the Kanchenwada at Royapettah. “He played Sitar for Tamil film Music composers, mostly for K.V. Mahadevan,” says Saleem, his disciple.

“The close-up shot of the fingers playing the sitar in the famous song, ‘Sonnathu Neethaana’ of Nenjil Oru Aalayam are not Devika’s but that of the Ustad Ahmad Hussain” reveals Makbhool Hussain, who used to accompany the Ustad for recording to various studios in Madras. Incidentally, the Ustad also taught music at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The Hindustani musicians found patronage in some of the city’s prominent hotels, while the Kanchen were invited to perform at weddings.

Most of the Kanchen had rich patrons. “Every Kanchen who lived on Jani Jahan Khan Road used to entertain at least five customers. There was a plate kept in front of the musicians. The dancer used to drop the money collected from the evening into the plate. After the performance it was split between the musicians and the dancers,’ says Makbhool Hussain, who played the tabla for many of them. There were occasions when a happy patron would shower more than just money. Ilavenil, the Tamil journalist, remembers the instance of a patron throwing a house document at Nazeera Banu (obviously he had registered it in her name), a Kanchen who had migrated post- Partition from a riot torn Delhi to the relative safety of Madras.

Though the Kanchen were entertainers and inhabited a world that bordered on the ‘sinful,’ they were also religious. Rauf, a senior photographer who lived in Mir Bakshi Ali Street observes, “They would not perform during the month of Ramzan or during Muharram. They also celebrated all festivals including Diwali,” he says.

Horse Racing

“Interestingly, the tawaifs from other cities, including Benares, Lucknow, Bombay, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Hubli and Khanpur, descended on the city when horse racing was on,’ says Makbhool Hussain. They probably followed their wealthy clientele, rented houses and camped in the city till the races were over.

However, cinema and the changing social mores were having an impact on the Kanchenwada and trouble was brewing. The anti-Nautch movement that brought a traumatic end to the Devadasi system, was having its impact on the tawaifs too. Cases were filed to stop their practice and Kamala Bai, a Kanchen, engaged M.A. Ghatala, a High Court lawyer, to fight the case. Around 1958, the Madras High court ruled in the Kanchens’ favour. “The kanchen celebrated the win with a big party for my father, at a house near the Music Academy and the Tamil film actor and great comedian Chandrababu was one among the guests,” recollects Javed Ghatala.

However, the times were changing. What the judiciary rightfully refused to stop was brought to an end by a marriage. Abdur Razaq married Baby in 1960 and moved with her to the upcoming T. Nagar in 1962. With Baby Bai, the star performer moving out to lead a family life, the Kanchenwada lost its lustre and many other Kanchen followed in Baby’s footsteps, seeking a future for themselves in the institution of marriage. By the 1970s, a little more than a 250-year old tradition in Madras came to an end, leaving almost no trace of its splendorous past. As Nazeer Akbarabadi, the people’s poet of 18th century laments:

Kya tamashe inqelab-e-charkh ke kahiye Nazeer

Dum mein wo raunaq thi aur ek dum mein yeh be-raunaqi

(What to say of the lustre of revolving time, O Nazeer. In an instant there was such splendour and in another, this dullness)