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Hailing from the Aara district of Bihar, Shyama counts herself as one of the last tawaifs or courtesans who were supported and admired by the Rais or the landed gentry. Tawaifs  were entertainers performing music, dance (mujra), theatre, and bearers of Urdu literary traditions. They catered to Indian court culture particularly during the Mughal era in north India from the sixteenth century onwards. They were also considered paragons of etiquette. 

Their legacy continues in performances and modern Indian cinema to this day. Shyama’s daughter, Julie, continues the singing dancing tradition, even though the status of the profession and the shape of the practice have changed irrevocably. 

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Sill from interview with Shyama Devi

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Shyama sees herself as part of the Gandharva caste - the same name as celestial performers in Hindu myths - who have been socially marginalised since the demise of court culture from the colonial period onwards. Now in her 70s, she laments the diminished respect and dignity given to contemporary performers. 


Shyama’s work challenges the objectification and sexualisation of female performers by consciously defying the male gaze. Her ruminations also unravel the exploitative nature of Brahamanical patriarchy. She also strongly resists any suggestion that she is a victim of either her personal circumstances or              oppressive traditions. 


As she sings a Chaiti tune in a semi-classical style, we hear decades of experience having lived and performed in Agra, Gwalior and Delhi. The song asks plaintively: ‘Lover, why have you come back so late?’

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Interview with Shyama Devi

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