Five (Often Unfortunate) Facts about Tawaifs
The heroine of La Déesse Noire: the Black Goddess, Kali Matai, is an Indian tawaif transplanted to London. Tawaifs were members of a female caste of courtesans to the highest nobility in the Mughal Empire.
- Much like the Japanese geisha, as well as serving as noble paramours, tawaifs were highly educated, gifted singers, dancers, musicians, and poets, who heavily influenced the cultural and artistic history of India.
- Before the advent of the Raj, tawaifs were among the most wealthy and powerful women in India, by virtue of intimate access to the most powerful men, and it was not unusual for them to use their entrée to influence issues of governance.
- Tawaifs were known for their knowledge of and emphasis on the finer points of etiquette and protocol. Young nobles—nawabs—were often trained in etiquette by tawaifs, at the same time learning an appreciation of their civilization’s literature, art, and music.
- As the British gained power in India, a systematic campaign was waged to denigrate the local and regional power structure. The nobility was portrayed as corrupt and dissolute, and tawaifs were offered up as examples of immorality.
- After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British military took possession of most of their property and impressed many of the tawaifs into service as prostitutes for their garrisons, which was the beginning of the end of their illustrious traditions.
Mariana Gabrielle is a pseudonym of Mari Christie, a professional writer, editor, and designer with almost twenty-five years’ experience. Published in dozens of nonfiction and poetry periodicals since 1989, she began writing mainstream historical fiction in 2009 and Regency romance in 2013. In all genres, she creates deeply scarred characters in uncommon circumstances who overcome self-imposed barriers to reach their full potential. She is a member of the Bluestocking Belles, the Writing Wenches, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Her first Regency romance, Royal Regard, was released in November 2014.
Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai has been destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful noblemen—though she hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn. Finding herself under the control of ruthless men, who will not be moved by her legendary allure, she has no choice but to use her beauty toward their malicious and clandestine ends.
When those she holds most dear are placed in peril by backroom political dealings, she enlists some of the most formidable lords in England to thwart her enemies. But even with the help of the prominent gentlemen she has captivated, securing Kali’s freedom, her family, and the man she loves, will require her protectors stop at nothing to fulfill her desires.
Kali Matai’s head bowed under the candlelight of dozen of chandeliers and the mirrored footlights at the edge of the stage. The silence of the scene, the quiet of the spirit of the dancer before them caused a hush across the theatre. La Déesse Noire would perform only once the men settled themselves to give their full attention.
The shapely form was held in perfect abeyance, clothed this night in gold-shot emerald green, which might as easily have matched any jewel tone: deep sapphire, royal amethyst, garnet red. The flickering lights from all sides reflected the rhythmic bass note of the tabla drums, shaking in the jeweled bangles of her gold chain girdle. The bells began to shake along the edges of her sari as her lithe shape trembled under the sheerest silk in England. The audience could not see the secrets of her body, but would swear they might with the next movement, shake, twist, turn.
The fabric was like water flowing down her collarbone, curling around her shoulder, drifting across her bosom and around her trim waist. With a twist of ankle, the jeweled rings on her toes sent flashes of light tripping across the assemblage, sure to blind a few men, leaving them, for a few moments, with only the thought of their last vision of her. The bracelets shaking at her wrists added a sharp note to music already carrying her body through the steps of the mujra dance.
The sound wafting off the sarangi strings seemed to stroke along her inner thighs, her legs twisting to the melody underneath the full silk skirts, caressing her hips and buttocks, the length of her sari slipping on and off her shoulder, covering and revealing her face, rubbing across any part of her body to which she wished to call attention.
Her hips began to shake like they might atop a man lying prone, side to side, fore to aft, hands tracing her legs, a rhythm known only to her, which might take her blissfully into la petite mort, if a man could but imitate it.
The steps took her to her knees, her body writhing like a snake might, wrapping its coils around the legs of any man in the audience who could visualize it, her eyes in the candlelight glowing, face flushed, as though by sitting with her knees parted at a man’s feet, rubbing against his calves, her face against his groin, she might achieve her own, private ecstasy.
With an unhurried stroke of her arm against her cheekbone, Kali finally loosened the first strand of her tightly bound hair. One gold-and-diamond pin at a time, she continued as the music worked back into a crescendo, until her skirts were like waves crashing against a sea wall, her black tresses whipping around her face like ash and smoke left by the fires of a vengeful goddess.
Slowing her limbs to a near-stop, she draped herself backward, one hand and the top of her head not an inch from the floor, the silk of her sari now loosely covering, outlining, the treasures between her legs. Turning on her heel, the view shifted from the crease of her thighs to the furrow between her bountiful breasts, set off by her slack lips, reddened like they might appear after rough use. Before the gentlemen looked their fill, slowly, letting the silk caress her fingers, body loose and limber, Kali rose languidly from the contortion as gracefully as a raven might stretch its wing.
As the music once more gained speed and volume, her body followed, beginning to turn, spin, to keep the rhythm with wrists, hips, and toes, heels keeping time with the pounding drum. The faster she spun, the more the skirt rose to show her ankles, her knees, covered in diaphanous muslin, another layer of translucence keeping her all but nude for her audience’s pleasure.
One quick twist of her gemstone-covered fingers released a gold chain strung with beads from the girdle about her waist, letting it fall among the lengths of her skirts to shimmer among the shot threads of silver and gold, Her hip set the chain swinging in unison with her turns, and she loosened one bell-strung chain after another, until the half-dozen that had circled her waist now draped her hips, tinkling more raucously in their freedom.
When the turns had entirely mesmerized the men, all eyes following her curves in unison, she collected her movements once more, her feet almost motionless, the rest of her body undulating in every direction at once, letting each man in the room believe he was the one for whom La Déesse Noire might be reaching.
Her body had been trained for a lifetime to exhibit and elicit the sexual hunger of the most passionate bed: the depths of her dark eyes, the tangling of her heavy, black-satin locks, the negligence of her smile, and the outline of her quivering body undulating under silk, all brought to mind nothing so much as the way she might look being stroked to completion under a man’s hand.
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